Thriving engineering firm reaching into its Doncaster community

The mining industry which helped create Doncaster firm Optima International may have gone.

Tuesday, 10th September 2019, 09:29 am

But the family firm which has been at the heart of one of the borough’s mining communities for more than half a century is still thriving – and has just shown what a big presence it has in the community.

Optima International was set up back in 1961, manufacturing metal screens and panels used in the collieries. The screens protected complicated equipment from debris, working as a filter that allowed water to pass through but kept solid material out.

The products were – and are still – called wedge wire screens because the lengths of wire they were made from of have a wedge-shaped cross section.

Optima International managing directors Tony Mulvey and Adal Yarnell at the firm's base in Toll Bar

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Set up by Clifford Spiller, it was later transferred to his son, Michael, when Clifford died.

Since Michael died in 2017, the firm has remained in the ownership of his family, but is now run by long serving employees Tony Mulvey and Adel Yarnell, who are joint managing directors.

In recent years, the firm has been behind one to the biggest days in the Toll Bar social calendar – the Optima Charity Day.

First set up to mark the company’s 50th anniversary, the latest was held on July 26. It brings fairground rides and activities for youngsters into the village for a day.

Welding work being carried out at Optima International, at Toll Bar, Doncaster

It raised over £5,500 for the Doncaster Cancer Detection Trust’s prostate cancer scanner appeal and was attended by hundreds of local residents.

Ms Yarnell said: “It started when we celebrated our 50th anniversary, and we wanted to do something different to celebrate.

“We do it as a charity event, and it’s always a Doncaster charity. The Spiller family wants to support local charities.

“Toll Bar is a deprived area and we want to create a cheap day out for the local families. There is one admission fee, and then you stay as long as you like.

Charlotte Bacon and Isla Stevenson, two, pictured on the Teacup ride. Picture: Marie Caley NDFP-26-07-19-OptimaFunday-1

“Our staff get the day off to come down to the event, and they help out. But it is not just all down to us. The local community donates raffle prizes too.”

It is the latest community link for a firm which was for many years the main sponsor for Doncaster Belles, who used to train on the business’ grounds.

But the goodwill to the local community is grounded in solid business.

And if the firm was initially largely centred around the mining industry, it is now diverse and international.

Nowadays, around half its products are exported, to markets in every continent. It has licensing agreements for the use of its processes in South America.

And its products have been used in some of the biggest engineering projects and some of the most iconic structures.

They have been used in the Millennium Bridge in London, and recently in refurbishments of both the British Museum and the Smithsonian Museum in America.

The firm currently employs around 40 staff on its Askern Road site, and their are creating products now for a wide range of industries.

Trade which has been lost in the mining industry has been replaced by other industries including work in the food and drink industry, oil and gas, architecture, and more recently green power. There is still demand from overseas mining firms.

The 1990s saw a boom in demand for the screens in construction projects, as stainless steel was popular among architects. Mr Mulvey says demand in such projects has fallen with changing fashions – but other areas have come in.

At present, the Optima are working on a major contract for a malting firm, making filter equipment for them which will be used to produce malt for the food and brewing industries.

And recent years have seen demand emerge for hydro electric power schemes. Their wire screens are used to ensure only clean water passes through the power turbines in projects which in some cases are on a scale large enough to power a small town.

“We’re the only manufacturer in the UK that uses our process,” said Mr Mulvey. “It’s used in our joint ventures in Chile and Brazil, largely for water wells. We do a good product that’s used in lots of different industries.

“The last eight years have seen us doing a lot in hydro power. We were doing a lot of that in the UK, but it fell back a bit after they scrapped the feed in tariff, which used to see the producer paid for power that was fed into the national grid. But there are other countries that are still doing that. It has been popular anywhere with hills.”

Like many engineering firms in Doncaster, Optima have struggled to recruit in recent years, with most of their workforce either in their 50s or under 30.

The take on a number of apprentices each year to train their own staff, often taking them from Doncaster College.