Know your market. It is the first lesson in the school of business success and Mitras have taken it to heart. Jane Gray talks to David Montague at Mitras to gain a little more insight into how this thoughtfully innovative manufacturer is approaching competition in volatile times.
Cheshire-based composites manufacturer Mitras Automotive has been in business since the 1970s. Its forte has always been the manufacture of ‘A’ class body panels for Automotive Cars, commercial vehicles and off highway industries using SMC (Sheet Moulding Compound). However a facility with available technologies, an inquisitive and exploratory culture and, more recently, the pressure of recession, have brought diversification to the company’s markets and production output.
A down to earth company with a pragmatic focus on quality, Mitras is not among those organisations prone to issuing mantras and mission statements about its operational goals. When asked to describe the driving values of the organisation David Montague, director of sales at Mitras stated: “Our driver is to be the market leader in providing body panels and structural components to our markets.” Nothing more, nothing less.
This simplicity of vision should not however, be taken to reflect a lack of ambition. Rather, it shows a clear sighted dedication to delivering specified quality on time, in full. Perhaps this standard expectation of efficiency and effectiveness in service was fostered during the company’s time as part of a different European group [Mitras is now part of the Senata gmbh Group of Companies, see the Mitras at a glance inset for more details] with a high proportion of German Automotive Car business. As montague recalls: “The 90s saw us doing a lot of Germanled business with Mercedes. We have benefitted a lot from that experience with technologies coming into the UK factory that weren’t there before. Being able to offer that technology brought us UK contracts with Renault, Ford and Aston Martin.”
Mitras UK – at a glance
Location: Winsford, Cheshire
Key markets: Automotive cars, off-highway vehicles, general industrial
Key products: SMC and DCPD body panels and structural components including bonnets, floors, heat shields etc.
Points of interest: Mitras is part of the Senata Group which has eight group companies based in Germany, Spain and UK
What exactly do these contracts involve? Montague explains: “Our business runs across three major sectors: automotive cars, off-highway vehicles and general industrial. For the first two sectors we produce ‘A’ class body panels and structural components. Structural components being any kind of hidden panel within a vehicle, like heat shields or an inner wing. For off-highway we also make bonnets, floors and a broad range of other components. We also do assembly work for this sector so that a bonnet might also include assembly with a frame, grill, lock, sound insulation and so on. So we are not just supplying panels but modules and sub-assemblies which are delivered straight to track-side and fitted directly to the vehicle.”
“Our third sector, general industrial, is the newest addition to the business and it is very broad. It includes any opening I can see in the market place where composites would be useful. It includes the building sector and the solar energy sector, where I have done business before, and there are a couple of recent developments that I can’t talk about just yet!”
The opportunities here seems endless. Montague says: “It is just a matter of uncovering the opportunities and targeting them very specifically. It is a small side of the business as far as sales are concerned but the work is more off-the-wall and there is lots of room for innovation.”
Of course with every piece of diversification more variety is added to production. But Mitras seems to take this in its stride. Nonchalantly, Montague brushes the challenge aside: “Everyone has their own specifications and requirements and every product we make is custom designed for a specific application and customer. As far as the manufacturing process is concerned the basic process is the same. The same presses are used for all orders, the same paint plant, and the same employees. The differentiation in terms of the time it takes us to complete certain order depends largely on individual customer quality specifications, and these rely on the market application and the cost they are looking for.”
And what about differentiation from others in the market? Montague is confident here: “We are unique in the UK. We use two materials in production. SMC [sheet moulding compound] and, more recently DCPD [dicyclopentadiene]. We have invested in DCPD over the last four years to create a second manufacturing site for that process.” It is not these materials themselves which make Mitras unique but rather the company’s ability to process both and the range of offering which run alongside them as Montague explains: “Using SMC and DCPD and offering our paint shop as well as design capabilities and so on really sets us apart. There is no one else in the UK that offers all that we do as part of one business and there are only a handful of companies in Europe. This offers customers the opportunity, not only to come and see which material is best for them in terms of performance and cost [DCPD IS slightly more flexible and the tooling costs are slightly lower] but also gives them the opportunity of combining the different materials within one module and getting it delivered – ready to use – as part of one order.”
The company is also exceptional in the UK in terms the capabilities of its equipment. No other competitor has the same range and size of presses for compression moulding, and a new press for DCPD has just been purchased which will increase the company’s capacity for DCPD moulding by around 25%.
Montague comments on this new introduction to the factory: “This represents several hundred thousand pounds of investment in our DCPD capabilities and there will be further investment to follow in terms of supporting facilities and reworking the factory layout. There is a lot of work going on and there are some significant changes being made to the plant. We have brought an ex-employee back in on a contract basis to manage the redesign, and he has been pouring in a lot of manufacturing expertise, alongside our incumbent manufacturing team, to make sure we optimise the layout for efficiency and the company’s plan for growth in coming years.” Growth has not been a consistent over the recent past however, as many readers may well imagine.
The recession necessitated more than a 25% reduction in staff and, although Montague was not with the oraganisation at the time he says: “It was a difficult recession for Mitras, but we benefitted from being part of a group and from the diversity of our markets.
We have come through well and the way the group managed the difficulties during recession has made a good impression on customers.” The tipping point for recovery came in the second quarter of 2010 when demand took a sharp upturn. Looking back, Montague is pleased with the regulated way in which the company managed its mini renaissance: “Luckily we have quite good visibility from our customers on the schedules – about three to six months – so we were able to bring staff back on in a controlled manner and train them in the roles that they were going to be doing.
The increases in staff have almost exclusively been on the shop floor, we simply needed more feet on the ground in order to be able to supply the number of parts being demanded.” More than 20 new staff have been taken on in 2011.
And now that the company is back up to speed and prospering its ambitions are turning further afield than its traditional domestic market. Exports are growing all the time and the company now sends its products to France, Sweden and Poland is soon to join the list. “The proportion of our business taken up by exports as opposed to domestic orders is set to change a lot going forward,” says Montague. This is in response to significant business won over the last 18 months, mainly in the off-highway sector, and Montague is aware that this makes the business a prime example of the kind of enterprise now being advocated by government.
Awareness of the macro political environment is also impacting on the 145 company’s desire to re-engage with apprenticeships, which used to be a route for recruitment. “I used to be an apprentice myself,” say Montague “and I am a big believer in the process. We have has some discussions about restarting our apprenticeship programme.
However, we need to think carefully about it. There is a lot of management around providing apprenticeships. With the lay-offs we have had to make in the past we simply didn’t have the people to provide the training and mentoring that an apprentice needs, or the job for them when they qualified. Apprentices are not supposed to be short term cheap labour. They are an investment and you should deliver them properly or not a tall. Now that we are returning to stability we would like to start again.”
Properly or not at all. This seems to sum up Mitras’ approach across its business and it is why it is now succeeding in winning new business in the select areas where it has diversified as well as its more traditional sectors. However first and foremost for Montague the focus is on delivering a reliable service to those whose trust the company already holds. After all, as Montague himself puts it, repeat business is the greatest accolade.