Celebrating the life of a gas measurement industry icon
Mar 15 2023
Loved and adored by his family and friends, much liked and admired by his peers, John Clements was a hugely popular man, and will be sadly missed by those that were lucky enough to have known him.
John died after a short illness on 28th January 2023 at the age of 72, and will be remembered by the readers of IET as one of the UK’s leading entrepreneurs in gas measurement, having built the company now known as Signal Group, which is one of the very few manufacturers of gas analysers in the UK.
John’s success can be attributed to many of his personal characteristics, not least of which is his great sense of humour. He worked extremely hard, but he enjoyed life and always had a (usually mischievous) smile on his face. Behind the warmth and good humour of John’s character lay an incredibly inquisitive mind, and he was well known for assiduously researching any issues that he did not initially understand. This curiosity, combined with gritty determination, served him well over the years and inspired confidence in both customers and colleagues.
One of the industry’s greats
John was a regular at STA (Source Testing Association) meetings, although Marcus Pattison recalls: “John would always rock up late (in a Jag) and then expect everyone to wait while he was brought up to date with what we had already discussed. If it had been anyone else, there would have been a riot, but John would waltz in with his smile and somehow nobody seemed to mind!”
As MD of Quantitech, Keith Golding was a direct competitor, in that both companies sold portable FIDs. One might suppose therefore that they would be enemies, but nothing could be further from the truth. They could often be seen at industry events laughing and joking with each other, and Keith was one of the first to post on John’s memorial webpage. Keith said: “John was one of the industry’s great characters, and will be sadly missed. Although we competed in several markets, we were sailing in the same sea, so it was always useful to exchange views on the current state of the market.”
Doug Kurn had a similar relationship with John; working as a competitor at one point, and then being interviewed for a job at Signal on another. He is now a professional photographer so he has managed to escape the joys of instrumentation sales, but you can see the affection in John’s face when he sticks his tongue out at as Doug tries to take a ‘serious’ photo at a Bretby event.
Now that John has passed, it is safe to mention MCERTS. If anyone dared mention the term in John’s presence over the last 20 years or so, they would have been treated to a monologue on the shortcomings of the system. Personally, I have inadvertently experienced this lecture on about twelve occasions – it never seemed to bother John that the audience was the same; I suspect that recounting his views on MCERTS was a partially cathartic experience. However, you have to have some sympathy for John’s view on MCERTS. Yes you do… or you’ll get the lecture again. That’s because one of the purposes of the scheme is to provide performance verification for instruments, and John had been developing and manufacturing accurate reference method analysers for decades, so why should he pay a fortune to have that fact spelled out on a certificate? There, John, I said it – happy now?
Born in Hastings to Len and Emma, John then moved with his family to Greenford where he would spend his childhood. From the start, John was always looking for a new adventure and found himself in, often hilarious, scrapes from which his dad and sister Mary would have to rescue him.
His first job after leaving school was as an apprentice electrician, spending time in Jersey which he always remembered fondly. Following this he joined the army as a Royal Signal (hmm…) spending three years at various bases including Canada and Cyprus. The Royal Signals are trained to become experts in engineering and operating systems, and John often said that he had a ball. During this time, his reward for winning the title of best recruit was to choose his own posting, and it was John all over that he selected Tangmere; thinking it sounded exotic, only to discover he was going to West Sussex.
Deciding to then leave the army for civilian life, he settled in Greenford, where he made many firm friendships for life. The inventor Trevor Bayliss and John would spend many happy days having parties and motor boating on the River Thames around Trevor’s house on Eel Pie Island. It was during these times that he met his wife, Jonny. They first met when he gate-crashed one of her parties, after which he charmed her with a late-night date to a snack van.
One too many speeding tickets while working as a sales rep led to John moving to Canada to work for Endress & Hauser. Jonny following soon after. Looking back she says: “I found John attractive because he made me laugh; he was so much fun and so full of life that his happiness was infectious… and it didn’t hurt that he was so handsome.”
After a characteristically unromantic proposal, the couple married in 1975 in Canada, but soon returned to England, where John started work with Analysis Automation (which he later bought from Rotork in 1998!). The couple also had two children, Susannah and James, but more about them later.
It wasn’t long before John pursued his dream of starting a business, Signal Instruments, which must have annoyed his former employers because John started to compete with them; establishing the Signal Instrument Company Ltd in 1978 with Nigel Collier, and working from a garage making heated sampling components for systems integrators, before expanding the product line to include heated lines and FIDs. Signal’s first gas divider was built for the Ford Motor Company in 1979, and that design forms the basis of the device that is still hugely popular to this day.
John’s drive and ambition saw Signal grow from a humble garage to a company with facilities in three locations, employing over 70 people, and supplying customers including the CEGB, Warren Spring Laboratory, NASA and Rolls Royce. A factory and head office were initially established in Frimley Road, Camberley, before moving to Standards House in Doman Road in 1984.
There have been many important milestones in John’s career. These include the development, in 1980, of an analyser containing two FIDs, to enable the measurement of non-methane hydrocarbons as well as methane and total hydrocarbons. Signal’s first ever dual FID was developed following a specific request from Warren Spring Laboratory, a UK government environmental science research centre. Several versions were created before the requisite performance levels were achieved, so it was immensely gratifying when the cheque for final payment fell through the letterbox on the same day as the birth of John’s son! Fitting too, that his son would eventually resolve the performance challenges of dual FIDs, with the release of an enhanced version in 2015.
Other milestones include important acquisitions such as the purchase of NOx measurement technologies from BOC, which led to the launch of Luminox and Noxgen. The company Sieger was acquired to expand the product portfolio with NDIR and UV detectors, and ADC was acquired to provide InfraRed analysers with a better spec for the automotive market.
Many well-known professionals in the instrumentation sector have worked for Signal over the years, but no article on John and Signal’s history would be complete without mentioning Roy Kinslow. John first approached Roy in 1980, following a recommendation, and so began Roy’s long career at Signal. Today, Roy is still at Signal, managing the Service Department, after almost 43 years, man and boy. If you speak to Signal’s customers, Roy is one of the reasons they hold the company in such high regard. Roy says (with a smile): “John was my mentor for a very long time and taught me many of life's do's and don'ts - quite often in a very non-PC way, by modern standards.”
The company has always been a family business with Jonny managing the finances from the beginning. Susannah has a degree in Physics from the University of Sheffield and worked for Signal in both sales and marketing roles for over 14 years, before leaving to become a Director of a large service business in the education sector.
Following the completion of an engineering degree at the University of Bath, John’s son James started work as a development engineer at Signal in 2002. Since then he has progressed through the ranks and became Managing Director when John retired in 2018. Happily, James’s wife Lucy was a Chartered Global Management Accountant, so John and Jonny were able to retire at the same time; leaving the company in the capable hands of James and Lucy; to ensure a smooth transition and to build on John’s legacy.
With over 40 years of experience, even after his retirement, John remained a significant contributor to Signal’s business; regularly participating in strategy and marketing meetings. His involvement in these meetings was as enthusiastic and humorous as ever, so it is all the more poignant that his remarkable life was cut short at a time when he had the time and the energy to be with his family; latterly including much-loved grandchildren.
It is common practice, in this internet age, to list the Tags that apply to an article, so for an article on John Clements, they would be: Husband, Father, Grandfather, Happy, Laughter, Funny, Successful, Intelligent, Entrepreneur, Honourable, Curious, Characterful, Storyteller, Signal, Gas, Instrumentation, British! (and whatever the opposite of MCERTS is).
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