DARLINGTON is experiencing a building makeover.

Glance up as you leave the main train station and you'll see the funky cuboid Business Central building which opened last month. Beside it sits the new CPI National Biologics centre, and towards the town centre in front of the revamped Council Offices is the swanky Feethams leisure development that starts trading in the new year.

On the other side of town off a dog-leg bend on Dodsworth Street is engineer Henry Williams Limited. If you came here in search of funky or swanky you would be disappointed. Gritty and sweaty more like. There are no chill-out zones or cappuccino machines at the business which has been in the town since the year of George V’s coronation.

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When managing director Andrew Nelson greets me in the company's reception area he is wearing a navy, company-issue sweatshirt, chinos and dust-covered work boots. He embodies Henry Williams' no nonsense principles.

But what you will find in this back street bastion of northern engineering is a surprising amount of innovation and a willingness to adapt quickly to the market.

Famed as a supplier to the railways for more than a century the latest addition to Henry Williams is a mechanical testing laboratory built in a converted side building. Here, experienced technicians carry out a wide range of processes such as impact, hardness and corrosion testing. As he takes me on a whistle stop tour of the smart £250,000 facility, Mr Nelson explains: “The test house was a gap in the market we identified. We were subcontracting the mechanical testing side of things and we made the decision to bring it in house but also set it up so that we could offer it to other local businesses.”

They have secured much-prized UKAS accreditation for the test house and are now keen to offer its services to local firms.

Alongside the foundry business - imagine your school metalwork lab on a much louder, grander scale - Henry Williams is now able to give customers a one stop shop where products can be designed to their particular specifications, made in the forging works, and put through rigorous testing in the new lab.

It is this kind of joined-up thinking that has helped the company to survive when rival firms have joined the list of engineering casualties.

“If we had sat on our hands and waited for work to roll in from the usual sources then we would have gone to the wall ages ago,” says Mr Nelson. He has helped to oversee a renaissance at the business following the downturn.

Part of the firm’s bread and butter work, the supply of signalling technology for the rail industry, has dried up as Network Rail dithers (my word not Mr Nelson’s) over its new five year spending priorities. The Darlington firm could typically expect to scoop up about £2m a year in signalling work but this year it has done hardly any.

What has helped to fill the gap is continued development of the firm’s patented Safebox range, which in simple terms provides clients such as the Highways Agency and Network Rail with a safe and secure electrical distribution box. It has proved to be a major success.

"If I had the signalling work on top I could employ another 20 people," says Mr Nelson, who has a workforce of about 110 people, including three apprentices.

Finding staff with the right skills can be problem, he explains, so he is training his own. The firm is about to recruit a turning apprentice.

Mr Nelson explains: "You cannot find young people trained in manual machining. I have three guys doing that for me now – one is 73, the other two are in their fifties. We need new blood coming through."

When I visited in summer 2014 Henry Williams had just bought a rival in Hull. That business was subsequently shut down, with the loss of about 30 jobs in the East Yorkshire town. Its contracts and five jobs moved to the Darlington site. A lot of time and money has been invested in re-engineering tooling to carry out the Hull work.

In addition, three new forging hammers have arrived at Darlington to increase capacity and capability. The firm spent £1.1m last year, which Mr Nelson describes as "a frightening amount" for a firm expected to record a £14m turnover this year. It follows about £2m spent since 2008, in additional to the almost £250,000 invested in the new testing house.

"The great thing about being an SME is that you can make decisions on spending or recruitment fast. The larger national and international groups have agreed headcounts and must jump over all sorts of hurdles whereas we can turn it on straight away," the MD adds.

Henry Williams is a perfect example of the kind of medium-sized firm upon which the future of British industry depends. Mr Nelson believes they can only thrive, however, if bigger businesses and the Government create an environment where British taxpayers’ money is used to source products and services from British SMEs.

He explains: "We are very bad in this country at spending our money with foreign companies instead of making sure we are spending it on UK-owned-and-run business."

He accepts that investment from large overseas businesses, such as Hitachi, Gestamp Tallent and Nissan, is crucial to the regional economy, but he adds: "What we are looking for as an SME isn't favouritism but for the Government to support small firms, which are in the main UK-owned entities, to get into the public spending supply chain.

"The problem I find is they (the Government and public agencies) award massive tenders worth say £30m a year with hundreds of products lines to one big national business. As an SME in Darlington we are not in any way shape or form going to be in a position to deliver the full contract, but we are very capable and competitive on about 10 of those product lines.

"The risk is if you award it all to a big entity they farm some of it out but they say: 'we’ll take a bit from Poland or Spain or China'. I look at the price they pay these foreign suppliers and think – I could have done that for you. What the government needs to do is to gear their procurement strategy to support British SMEs.

He adds: "One thing the Government have got right is paying suppliers within 30 days. I like that. They have delivered on that promise and it has made a big difference. Let’s now do the same with SME contracts.

"If we don’t do it the UK's SME base, which is very often much more innovative, adaptable and resourceful than the bigger groups, won’t unlock its potential. For example, I could put another 30 to 40 people on this site no problem. Us creating work here has a knock-on effect to the local firms we deal with – Bignalls and Sabre Rail in County Durham, we buy steel from Tomrods in Thirsk, etcetera. We try to deal with people within a 40-50 mile radius of us wherever we can because it’s a lot easier than looking farther afield.

"With our customers they can ring us and we are there. They are not stuck waiting for something to clear customs."

A great example of this buy local approach is taking place in the building adjacent to the new test house. A three person team are making hand rails for bridges that Darlington's Cleveland Bridge are supplying to rural parts of Sri Lanka.

Mr Nelson says: "Cleveland Bridge have done well there. They could easily have gone to a bigger business in the West Midlands but they kept it local.

He concludes: "It’s a nice example of UK taxpayers' money being given to UK companies to improve lives – what’s not to like?

"It's better than giving it to the Chinese to make it for us."