French Engineering Works reaches 100-year milestone

This year marks a significant anniversary in the history of a company that continues to manufacture and supply a comprehensive range of cutting tools.

Established as a manufacturer of rock drill spares in 1918 the family owned company celebrates being a pioneering enterprise and serving the manufacturing industry, both here in South Africa and internationally. Founded by Leon Robert and Hermann Moser, who came to Southern Africa in 1897 to seek his fortune when in his early 20s, French Engineering Works (FEW) is still owned by the descendants of Hermann Moser, although today the family members leave the running of the company to executive directors David Aldridge and Jenny Thobois. Well qualified for this task, David Aldridge holds both a Mechanical Engineering degree and an MBA and Jenny Thobois has a diploma from the Institute of Marketing Management. They both have over 25 years of service with the company. They have assembled around them a highly skilled management team and an efficient workforce.

Leon Robert left the company in the early 1920s and although there were subsequently other partners in the business, the Moser family took complete control of FEW in 1953.

“This is a significant milestone in the company’s history in that there are not many companies in South Africa that can boast of having been in business for 10 decades and on top of that still being family owned,” said current Managing Director David Aldridge.

“We need to observe the occasion and recognise the achievements of the three generations of the Moser and Gorrell families. The current shareholders – Ollie and Phil Moser and Hank Gorrell – are third generation descendants of Hermann Moser. They attained ownership of FEW only after their parents – brothers Jack and Roger Moser and sister Beatrice Gorrell – three of Hermann Moser’s children – had spent many years at the company and made significant contributions to FEW’s growth and establishment of a recognised brand and first choice for many engineering companies.”

Hermann Moser, one of the original founders of French Engineering Works – FEW

“Ollie Moser’s father – Jack Moser – was the last of the second generation to relinquish control of FEW when he retired in 1991. That is when cousins Ollie and Phil Moser took on the role of Joint Managing Directors. When Phil left FEW in 1994 but remained on as a shareholder Ollie, who is a BCom graduate, took up the position of Managing Director until he handed over this position to myself in 2010 and retired in September 2014. Phil, who is a qualified mechanical engineer and also has an electrical engineering diploma, spent over 20 years with FEW. Today he is a technical consultant and has always advised FEW on any technical issues, since his departure.”

“Hank Gorrell, the third of the third generation shareholders and Beatrice Gorrell’s son, was schooled in Johannesburg before completing his tertiary education at the Universities of Tampa and Miami in Florida, US before returning to South Africa. He spent 10 years at FEW, and helped shape sales and marketing policies in both local and export markets. He and his family returned to Florida in the USA in 1986, where he was involved in the manufacture of special taps for over 20 years. He did briefly have another two-year period with the company between 2013 and 2015 before retiring.”

“Hank’s son Andrew Gorrell did briefly work for FEW in 2008 and 2010 but he has since returned to the US.”

The early years
Founder Hermann Moser was a true pioneer. Not only was he one of the pioneers of industry in Johannesburg, but he also belonged to a special breed of men who opened up Africa north of the Limpopo River, for industrial and commercial expansion.

The Moser family originates from Neuchatel in Switzerland, where they were involved in watch making and in the pioneering days of the combustion engine.

Jack Moser was the last of the second generation to relinquish control of FEW when he retired in 1991

Roger Moser

Hermann Moser started his adventure in Southern Africa when he found a position in Mozambique working on the Beira-Umtali railway line. At the same time he prospected for gold in the then Rhodesia, before deciding to set sail for the Ivory Coast to join a gold rush said to be in progress there.

However, as he was watching his ship dock in Beira, so the family story goes, his money belt was stolen from under his pillow in his hotel room. This changed the course of history for his descendants, as he was obliged to return to Southern Rhodesia where he started from scratch again.

He returned to gold prospecting, and was eventually rewarded when he started his own “small working” south of the Umsweswe River, Zimbabwe in 1904. He named it the What Cheer Mine, and it was in the hands of the Moser family until the mid-1980s. It was believed to be one of the oldest gold mines that was still in operation in Zimbabwe up until its closure in the nineties.

Income from the mine enabled Hermann Moser to buy a half share in a business called The French Garage and Engineering Works in 1918. This gave the What Cheer Mine a critical source of rock drill spares, as this sector was overwhelmed by the gold boom of the time.

They renamed the company The French Engineering Works. Four years later, in 1922, Hermann bought out the remaining portion and continued the change in focus from Automotive to Mining and Engineering tools.

They set up a factory in Anderson Street, Johannesburg, in what is now the financial centre of the city where massive buildings bear the names of the world’s great mining houses, international banks, and trust companies. According to Hermann Moser’s son Jack’s writings of the 1960s, they had as neighbours at that time, horse stables, trading stores, and plenty of wide-open bare veld. Initially the company concentrated on supplying rock drilling tools, which would lead to the company’s interest in manufacturing metal cutting tools.

Ollie Moser

Phil Moser

In a workshop of no more than 2 500 square feet (235m²) the company manufactured a range of products to meet the mining needs of the time, made to the precision Hermann Moser had learned in Switzerland whilst apprenticed at his father’s watch-making works. The company grew fast and soon expanded in areas such as engineers’ small tools and metal cutting tools. Hermann Moser took on additional partners to help run the company, and divided his time between the What Cheer Mine and Johannesburg, until he passed away in 1934.

During the Second World War, the War Supplies Board approached FEW to manufacture taps for use in the manufacture of arms. This was part of a general programme to mobilise industry in South Africa for the war effort. At the time, “The French” as it was then called, offered a wide range of products and services, including spares for the mining industry, chrome plating and dies for the plastics industry.

The 1950s were not easy years, as the company had grown uncomfortably large, and had diversified into areas that made operations unwieldy. The distance between the engineering and mining operations also served to over extend management control. In 1953 the Moser family bought out the other shareholders and restructured the company into more manageable units.

Hermann Moser’s eldest son, Daniel, took over the chrome plating plant and established a separate business with his son Robin and other partners. This is when Hermann Moser’s other children – brothers Jack and Roger, and sister Beatrice Gorrell – set about reshaping the company for the future.

Hank Gorrell with his son Andrew

FEW’s factory in the 1920s

In 1954, they changed the name from The French Engineering Works to French Engineering Works, and reassessed company strategy. These were traumatic times for FEW as it had to lay off staff and invest heavily to keep the factory going.

One message became clear as management considered the future – the company would have to specialise if it was to survive. One possibility was the manufacture of precision thread cutting tools, given the extensive plant the company already had to manufacture these tools.

The technical expertise and experience of Roger Moser, who was educated and trained in Switzerland, together with the administrative and managerial talents of his younger brother Jack, also helped in making this decision. Once the direction was chosen FEW again became a pioneer in its field of endeavour, and grew from strength to strength.

In 1959, FEW built a new factory on a site in Kew, near Sandton, to pursue its goal of becoming a leading name in threading tools. It was felt that the air in Kew was free from the kind of dust caused by the mine dumps of central Johannesburg, which could be detrimental to high precision machine tools.

FEW also decided it would no longer manufacture taps from carbon steel, and would use high speed steel (HSS) instead, to ensure the kind of strength and quality required by a modern industrial manufacturing sector.

The early 1960s were tough years but the company had embarked on a course that was proving to be successful. As sales levels increased, new machine tools were purchased – mainly from Switzerland, the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom.

During this period Jack Moser looked after the general management side of the business and Roger Moser, an engineer, was in charge of manufacturing.

Outside influence
“Although FEW has always been a family business, both my father and Uncle Roger built up excellent teams of management and technical skills in their respective areas,” Ollie Moser said before his retirement.

The development of FEW’s product range has followed market demand, and has been influenced in particular by changes in official standards both locally and overseas. At first FEW made taps to British and American standards. Metrication in the late 1960s led to major changes in the marketplace, requiring considerable investment in tooling and stock. With the major swing towards metric taps, volumes of British Whitworth taps started declining. This partly motivated the decision to open a branch in Sheffield in 1973, to distribute taps throughout the UK, which were still predominantly Whitworth. At the time, the majority of inch size taps were sold in the export markets.

FEW’s original factory was located in Anderson Street, Johannesburg

FEW’s original factory was located in Anderson Street, Johannesburg

ISO standards, introduced in the early 1970s, had a major effect on the product range, requiring another investment in tooling. Although at the time ISO was not successful in the US, Japan or Germany, it allowed the evolution of a more homogeneous market in many other parts of the world. Exporting became more feasible, as orders from foreign countries no longer had to be manufactured and marked according to those countries’ standards.

Due to the industrial and economic power of Germany and Japan, the DIN and JIS standards have increased their importance in Europe and Asia respectively. As FEW taps became better known in these areas, there was an increased demand for DIN and JIS taps.

Success in the export markets has been founded on the same principles as those that made FEW a leading brand in the local market.

“Having a quality tool at a reasonable price is not enough. When a Production Manager has a machine breakdown he cannot wait for the tool to be flown in from some far off factory. To this end, FEW has encouraged its distributors to hold a good range of stock, and because no-one is able to afford the cost of holding the full range in stock, we set up strategically placed FEW depots in international countries that were close to the markets that we served,” explained Ollie Moser.

This philosophy operates successfully in the local market, with additional depots in Cape Town, Durban, and Port Elizabeth servicing all major distributors and industrial regions in South Africa.

“With improvements in modern day distribution channels and increasing concentrations of high volume manufacturing in Asia it no longer makes sense to run our own operations in all world regions. To this end, we have re-engineered our supply lines and are rather using our major agents and distributors to increase their stock levels so there is very little time lag in our international deliveries,” explained David Aldridge.

Change in manufacturing trends
The rise of low cost manufacturing in Asia and the developing world and of outsourcing in the developed countries has led to a change in the demand patterns for cutting tools from FEW.

“FEW have always been well-known for keeping a wide range of the slower moving Category C tools in stock. The demand proportion for these tools has increased steadily over the past decade or two, when compared to the sales of faster moving Category A tools. This has been noticeable in our local market, and even more pronounced in export markets, where many traditional cutting tool manufacturers have shut down. Most of the low cost / high volume tool manufacturers tend to be “make-to-order” and do not make Category C tools in small batches,” says Jenny Thobois, Sales Director.

FEW’s original factory was located in Anderson Street, Johannesburg

The current management team at FEW. Back row from left: Dave Cameron, Jacques Du Plooy, Rudie Odendaal, Victor Hall and Brudy Fortuin. Front row from left: Jenny Thobois, David Aldridge and Louisa Young

“This shift in demand put increasing pressures on our factory, with more and more set-ups being required of a shrinking skills base,” added Dave Aldridge.

“This led to a rethink in the basic nature of our business, and the realisation that we could not make the full product range for all markets. Not even the largest manufacturers in the world keep a stock of all the major norms of ISO, DIN, JIS and T302 in all thread-forms and types of taps.”

This review led to a further evolution in the FEW strategy – a balance in production between specials and standard products as well as on-shore and off-shore manufacturing.

Joint venture in India
This led to FEW forming a joint venture with one of FEW’s longstanding suppliers, Miranda Tools. The two companies formed Miranda FEW Tools Pvt. Ltd and after sourcing equipment in Ireland and Switzerland the company began manufacturing taps in 2005.

The joint venture enabled FEW to be more competitive in the international market, the imperial inch size taps could now be sourced from India, which freed up valuable manufacturing capacity in South Africa and larger batch sizes were able to be manufactured than FEW were are able to achieve in South Africa and therefore it became more cost effective. More importantly, because of the abundance of technical skills in India, the quality and output increased.

New manufacturing strategy
As the joint venture increased its manufacturing capacity it simultaneously released capacity in Johannesburg, which allowed FEW to implement its other half of its strategic evolution.

“This included an upgrade in the types and capabilities of the equipment in the Johannesburg factory, as well as an upgrade in the raw material used. FEW traditionally used HSS and the more advanced HSSE in the past but have now shifted to using exclusively HSSE. Although it is more expensive than HSS, this has simplified production and heat treatment processes and reduced our working capital requirements, whilst further improving FEW’s reputation for manufacturing a quality tool,” explained Dave Aldridge.

Current factory and admin staff

Recent infrastructure alterations have allowed FEW to organise the stores department so that it is now more efficient to execute orders

“Globally, we were one of the first to invest in Anca’s new TapX 5-axis grinder, a multi-operation grinder, spending over R5 million in 2010. This was followed by a further investment of over R4 million in 2012 on a new Chevalier CNC creep feed grinding machine, a Grindmaster universal cylindrical grinding machine and a Hi-Life Swift CNC cylindrical grinder.”

“This equipment joined a cell of five Haas CNC machines – three turning and two milling machines. At the same time we upgraded our conventional grinding and related manufacturing equipment, purchased a new shadow graph and other quality checking equipment as well as investing in a new fully automatic ACI laser marker for traceability.”

Recent years
“Our investment in new equipment and upgrading of existing manufacturing capabilities has enabled us to manufacture short runs of specialised taps, thread rolling dies and other cutting tools with a greater accuracy and consistency than previously possible. It has also assisted in reducing working capital costs and freed up further capacity on our existing machines.”

“While we know investment in capital equipment is an ongoing exercise if we want to remain competitive and ahead of the competition, in recent years we have concentrated on other areas of the company that have realised cost savings and made us more efficient.”

“The implementation of a Syspro ERP software package is a business management system that provides real-time, in-context business insight throughout our manufacturing environment. The software is equipped with features that support both our manufacturing and administration environments. In short it tells us whether we are making money or not.”

FEW has one of the latest ANCA TapX CNC tap grinding machines on the machine shop floor

An aerial view of the FEW’s factory site in Kew near Sandton

“The original factory built in 1959 had its entrance at 74 11th Road, Kew, which included manufacturing, office space and stores. In the late 80s the company purchased the adjoining land and subsequently constructed a new factory and office block. This resulted in the main entrance to the company changing to 73 10th Road, Kew and the old entrance being allocated to collections and deliveries. It did free up space and one of the main beneficiaries was the stores area. This led to this department taking up areas that were previously office space.”

“As a result there was a rabbit warren of where all our stock was kept, making it difficult for warehouse staff to collate and sort orders. We have now addressed this situation with infrastructure alterations and administrative improvements. Well known for our high ‘in stock’ levels, all our stock – this can be many millions in value – is all on one level and easily accessible. The time and costs that we are realising from these simple improvements are very real. Additionally it is linked to our Syspro ERP software system which adds tremendous value to efficiencies and service levels.”

FEW specialises in the manufacture and distribution of threading and cutting tools. The company offers over 13 000 different line items for most applications in the steel engineering sector. This is especially true in threading applications, where the proliferation in exotic metals has expanded the requirements of industry for taps and threading tools with varied geometries.

In brief FEW is an international manufacturer, exporter and importer of standard and premium quality high-speed steel cutting tools. The extensive product range stocked includes taps, dies, drills, cutters, reamers, recoil, toolbits, carbide cutters and drills, allied lines such as gauges, broaches, holders, blades and cutting oils. Special taps and thread rolling dies (flat and circular) are manufactured on request. HSSE application machine taps for through and blind holes in stainless steels, high resistance steels, cast iron and non-ferrous metals are available ex-stock.

The wide range of thread forms readily available include M, MF, UNC, UNF, UNEF, UN, NPS, NPT, BSW, BSF, BA, BSB, BSP G / RP and BSPT RC. DIN 405 and other special thread forms can now be re-produced with meticulous consistency.

“The French Engineering Works survived the Great Depression, World War II, and the many political upheavals that confronted South African manufacturers during the second half of the 20th Century and the early 21st Century. These ongoing projects, together with the support of our customers, staff and suppliers, will help FEW to achieve the balance and stability required to weather the stormy environment confronting global markets today,” concluded David Aldridge.

For further details contact French Engineering Works on Tel: 011 386 5200 or email, or visit the web site at