Obituary - Bill Lees

The Society for Adhesion & Adhesives
31 Aug 2005

Bill sadly departed this world on 30 July at the age of 72 following a short struggle with cancer. Even in January this year [2005], he was still lecturing on the merits of bonded assembly.

In the early days one of Bill’s colleagues used to refer to him as ‘the guru of glue’, a fitting warm and friendly title entirely in keeping with the character of this well known Technical Director of an international adhesives company. In the early 1970s, he had already established himself as a remarkably talented anaerobic chemist, with a vision to introduce a range of structural adhesives to industry in general. The opportunity was created by Avdel (Aviation Development Limited), who realised the limitations of their rivets and wisely chose Bill to direct the introduction of bonded assembly through the subsidiary Avdel Adhesives. Bill’s magnetic charisma soon established the specialist group, based in Eastleigh, as an international authority in the field of structural bonding.

This reputation naturally attracted much commercial interest, not only in buying the adhesives, but also in buying the adhesive company itself! Unilever successfully acquired the company on the understanding that Bill and his team formed the nucleus of Permabond, a separated division for structural adhesives within their adhesive group, National Starch. Under this banner, Technical Director Bill pioneered an amazing string of successes.

Permabond’s toughened adhesives were born and, after exposure of the new technology on BBC’s Tomorrows World, significant sales success followed, assisted in no small part by a technical article in the Sunday Times, showing Bill dangling from a bonded beam.

A toughened acrylic adhesive, code named F241, was perhaps one of Bill’s greatest commercial successes. Not only did he lead the adoption of the appropriate chemistry, but personally generated the confidence and enthusiasm of the first ten customers for the new technology. This was the measure of the man, who set this challenge for himself when realising that his own sales force were fully occupied in keeping pace with the current technical achievements. Bill’s fatherly hand was always there to steady the ship and assist in every way in understanding the opportunities for extending bonding capabilities.

Permabond adhesive was selected by British Leyland for the first fully bonded test car, the energy conservation vehicle ECV 3. This light weight aluminium vehicle was capable of 133 miles per gallon. Bill carefully persuaded the design experts within Leyland to modify their designs in order to construct both safer and stronger bonded vehicles. His reputation in the automotive industry led to bonded carbon fibre prop shafts, first used by Peugeot in winning the 1985/1986 World Rally Championship. This adhesive capability had been predicted by the computer programme developed by Harwell Technology and the 430 brake horse power transmission requirement paved the way for many design improvements to extend the use of bonding. The brazing process for car heaters was also replaced by toughened adhesives for most of the Leyland and Volvo cars and allowed a change to nylon header tanks instead of the less economic copper forerunner.

Bill’s early naval training provided the insight in replacing welding in the repair of structural cracks for ocean going vessels. The concept was proven in quickly bonding Type21 frigates for service in the Falklands campaign. The navy commissioned a full technical review in order to fully understand how an adhesive could be so much better and cheaper than any other process.

In the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984, Bill’s bicycle frames commissioned for the American pursuit team were given the dubious title in the press of ‘the unfair advantage’, because the American Team won the gold medal despite their low ranking. The best bicycles are now bonded and available to all.

A novel repair system for leaking gas pipes used anaerobic technology to great advantage and saved British Gas millions of pounds.

Although Bill drank beer only in moderation (usually half pints), he was quick to seize the opportunity to develop an adhesive to bond widgets into beer cans. When opening a can of Caffreys or Worthington, the ‘pssst’ pressure release is Bill reminding us that Permabond technology reaches many strange unexpected places.

Richard Branson crossed the Atlantic by power boat and by balloon thanks to Bill, and Richard Noble’s team raised the land speed record to the speed of sound (764 miles per hour). Thrust SSC, the super sonic bonded car, had raised the record by an amazing 130 mph.  

Bill worked on many committees including the British and European Standards and was the authoritative adhesive contributor to Kemp’s Engineers Hand Book. The British Adhesives and Sealants Association (BASA), the Composite Processors Association (CPA) and the Institute of Mechanical Engineers all derived great benefit from Bill’s substantial help. He travelled far and wide throughout the world in pursuit of bonding. Trade was not always easy and, on one occasion, payment for Bill’s support work in the Eastern block was 3 tons of shelled peas. A company of Unilever’s diversity could cope easily with this type of bartering.

Bill developed an ‘expert’ computer program capable of selecting the best adhesives for any assembly and won a National award for the work and the extremely sophisticated approach to the concept.

What a remarkable man and how fitting that Bill should become the fourth recipient of the De Bruyne Medal in 2004. This is a prestigious award to recognise personal contributions of innovation in the field of adhesives and is presented by the Society of Adhesion and Adhesives.

Despite all this work and dedication to the field of bonding, his devotion to his family was always a clear top priority. He was as proud of them as we all were of him.

His son Clive, in a moving eulogy at the funeral on August 8th, spoke of the family man who rose from humble beginnings in Manchester. He was the first of his family to be educated at the Grammar School and went on to achieve a doctorate at the local university. He was a tower of strength within his family and in the local village, Michelmersh, where his crusading spirit solved many tricky problems. His enthusiasm for dinner table conversation usually started ‘have I told you the one about’. The family knew to respond quickly with a resounding ‘yes’ before he could start, but in more charitable mood would sometimes say ‘no, but tell us in thirty seconds!’ Though he had a tendency to prolixity in private, he brought great skill and artistry to his professional writing, which was reflected in his winning two prestigious commercial awards.

Clive recalled that he also had space in his life for those who had been wounded in theirs. Many found temporary refuge at his door, although he was not entirely altruistic in providing this service. The battered and beleaguered, to their surprise, might well be seen digging over the hen run!

Bill enjoyed his role of grandfather four times over, three for his daughter Jacky and one for Clive. Wife, mother and Grandmother Mary will always be able to remind the grandchildren that their grandfather was the sort of man who, when his time came, bid us farewell from a packed church.

Bill will be remembered with both affection and gratitude, particularly by those fortunate enough to share both the enjoyment of his successes and his eternal enthusiasm.   

Further information

Basingstoke Gazette obituary