Agrimech's sales of automated machinery to the UK farming sector have rocketed. So, how is this family business coping with growth, now it is also selling into distant export markets?
Steven Barr talked with finance director Belinda Smith about why it was celebrated as a Progressive SME of 2018 at The Manufacturer Manufacturing Excellence (MX) Awards 2018.
Agrimech’s Wisbech HQ is not easy to find – but ask anyone in the area and they know of this small company with a great family spirit.
I had the pleasure of visiting just after it won its first The Manufacturer MX Award, for ‘Manufacturing Services’, in 2017. Its tight-knit team of 14 was keeping its customers very happy with its strong focus on doing the right thing, no matter what the cost.
Since then it has tripled output to 60 units per year! How has it delivered such strong growth with just a modest increase in the workforce? Surely, it’s had to compromise on the quality of machinery and after-sales service their customers were used to?
Belinda Smith, FD and co-owner with husband Darren, explains how customer service is not the potential victim but actually the foundation for its success.
“We’ve always put customer service before sales. The best marketing by far is done by our customers, who get exactly what they need even if we have to sort out teething troubles. That investment in customer care is clearly part of the culture of Agrimech, not just a reaction to rare problems.
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Automation and data analysis
One of the challenges of growth has been in keeping up with the operational demands of a service-led operation. “Farmers know they can call us and we will help them out. We bear the cost of sending out field service engineers and we need to make sure this does not get out of hand as we grow,” says Belinda.
Control automation has been a differentiator with Agrimech machines since the company started. Now it has strengthened systems support with ‘Remote Engineer’, a data link providing 24/7 connection between the machine on site and the engineering team back at the factory.
Belinda sees the benefits all round: “Now we can sort out most operating problems remotely, without the customer having to wait for us to get out to them. They save time, and we can keep costs down.”
Increased automation does not mean that customers have to talk to the computer rather than to the experts. The personal touch is important for a high quality of service. MD Darren Smith is leading efforts to grow the export market, meeting customers in the US and Canada.
Facilities, production and products for customer service
The number of products has increased, and Agrimech is also offering machines as a production line from bag placing to weighing to sealing and palletising.
To deal with the expansion in product diversity and in sales volume it’s had to build new facilities on the Wisbech site in Cambridgeshire, but again there’s a customer benefit.
“Our new assembly building means we can separate machine testing from making, and have a dedicated team working on the setup before they go on site,” adds Belinda.
Another change over the past two years is in the way Agrimech staff keep themselves up to date, as Belinda illustrates. “With more people on site we can’t rely on word of mouth. So we have regular Monday morning meetings to talk about what’s new, and to share issues and ideas.”
Developing people for customer service
Integrating new people into the business has probably been the biggest challenge of all, admits Belinda.
“We’re still a family in the way we do things. We’ve employed people first and foremost from the local area. And just like we did with the first generation, we are working closely with newcomers to help them gain the skills we need them to have on the technical side and most importantly in how to do the right thing for customers.”
I was especially pleased to hear that the whole team still gathers for ‘Fish and Chip Fridays’, to celebrate their successes and talk about family business.
Strategies for success
Belinda offers three practical tips from her experience of growing a successful manufacturing business in tough economic times and in a low-margin market:
- Never give up! It is hard building up a customer base. Believe in the quality of your products and services. Remember why you are doing it.
- Make sure your foundations are based on a good team and a sound way of doing things. Be prepared to say “no” to things you’d like to do, but that would risk core business toppling over.
- Share your future with your team. This is what makes you resilient, able to keep growing.
Belinda does not hold back in recommending The Manufacturer MX Awards: “All the team is very proud of the national recognition of winning. The process of applying and being judged was also a great boost for teamwork and helping people value their own contribution to our success as a business.”
With these attitudes and putting the customer first in every aspect from technology to facilities to people, Agrimech will carry on growing its business for British-made products. So long as it still makes time for ‘Fish and Chip Fridays’ like the best families do. I’m going to time my next visit accordingly!
Dr Steven Barr is a chartered engineer and expert in manufacturing business transformation through technologies, people and partners.
He is the managing director of EDGE Digital Manufacturing, The Manufacturer’s advisory services partner, helping SMEs to leverage digital technologies to maximise their competitive edge.
He also leads the not-for-profit community interest company DRL-Tool.org with UK industry-wide support to maintain and improve the standards-setting Digital Readiness Level Tool.