The latest instalment of our series talking to business leaders and the ups and downs they went through to get to where they are today, the Growth Stories conversation goes on with Jason Aldridge, Managing Director at Arrowsmith Engineering. In this edition, we touch on how Jason believes SMEs can boost their chances of success, the early challenges that face a business leader, and future-proofing a business in the face of a global pandemic...
To begin, could you tell us a little about your business? Specifically, its history and how it has changed since you first launched?
Arrowsmith Engineering was formed in 1967 and has been working with Rolls-Royce and the wider aerospace sector since 1970. The business was family-owned until three years ago when it joined Aero Services Global (AS.G), a £43m-strong group focused on supporting a global customer base to consolidate their aero supply chains through innovation, efficiencies and excellent value for money.
Arrowsmith is a specialist in precision turning, milling, thread rolling and grinding, providing components to aerospace tier 1s and primes in titanium, nimonics, stainless steel, exotic metal and engineering plastics.
Over the last three years, the management team doubled turnover to £7.8m and increased export by 996%, the latter leading to the firm being named a Queen’s Award International Trade winner.
Arrowsmith Engineering was recently awarded the SC21 Silver Award for the fourth successive year and holds approvals for companies, such as Rolls-Royce worldwide, ITP Spain, GKN USA, Incora PLC and Meggitt.
Growth is without question one of the most challenging aspects of running a business. What challenges did you face as a business leader, and what strategies did you employ to overcome them?
Arrowsmith has always been a development expert for the aerospace sector, but once that work was successfully completed it was then moved to a production volume supplier. Our other main activity was ‘aliens’ and ‘strangers’ parts, which in layman’s terms are low number, non-repeating parts that are often difficult work.
About six years ago, we made the strategic decision to alter the business model so that instead of just doing the development work, we actually proved the part and then entered into mainstream volume production.
This required investment in new machinery/processes and creation of a dedicated production facility. It was a wise decision, as it helped us grow sales to just under £8m pre- Covid-19.
Going forward, we are about to formalise a joint venture with a specialist Indian manufacturing company to offer ‘low cost prove and move’ production.
To what extent have external factors (like changing trends, the financial landscape) affected your business over time? And what can businesses do to future-proof against these kinds of peripheral shifts?
There was little future-proofing industry could have done to prepare for Covid-19; it came out of the blue and unlike many economic shocks, covered pretty much every sector imaginable.
Then you had to contend with managing your business, whilst introducing unprecedented social distancing measures. This has been a difficult task for many businesses and sectors, but it's even more difficult in manufacturing on the shop floor, where people can sometimes be required to work in pairs, or their machines are located close together.
Despite having 25% of staff self-isolating, the company responded immediately to the nationwide effort for more ventilators by creating a dedicated team to produce prototype and production parts for the Smiths ventilator assembly line.
In total, more than 60,000 ventilator components were delivered, and a further order was secured to manufacture prototype parts for a new type of ventilator.
Arrowsmith Engineering is a firm advocate of tapping into external academic expertise and is continually working with the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), Warwick Manufacturing Group and the Midlands Aerospace Alliance on research projects (DRAMA, NATEP, Innovate UK), and with Coventry University and MTC on intern programmes and apprenticeships.
What I will say is that automation is critical – our new Cobot cell has been a huge success and will continue to be important when volumes increase.
Following on from that, how has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your business operations? What new areas of activity has it spurred within the organisation?
Volumes have dropped about 43%, which, after three years of continuous growth, is quite difficult to manage.
Automation is no longer viable on New Product Introductions and low number orders; even the Cobot has been furloughed.
We have tried to maximise the downtime as much as possible, with improvements made in 5S and TPM (Total Preventative Maintenance), whilst the factory has been cleaned to within an inch of its life.
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Can you identify three lessons you’ve learnt in your time as a business leader? And how have they affected your own role as a manager and owner?
I have four actually! I'd say the most valuable have been:
Healthy business growth often relies on several factors. What facets of business would you say have promoted growth in your organisation the most? And what should SMEs look to improve/develop to maximise their chances of success?
A new management team built up over a number of years has been really important. This includes organic promotions and the introduction of managers of proven quality from customers and competitors in the same sector.
We were also one of the first adopters of the SC21 programme, a world-class supply chain improvement initiative for the aerospace and defence sector. This gives SMEs a great framework to aim for when it comes to achieving world-class quality and delivery performance.
We’ve held Silver for more than four years and it really underpins all of the improvements we make.
What is the one piece of advice you would give you to other business leaders looking to grow their business?
Build a team around you that are very good at what they do, but ensure that the processes governing the business are robust and not individually reliant.A huge thank you to Jason for contributing to the latest instalment of Growth Stories. For more insight and advice for fledgling companies, check out the rest of the series below:
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