Pamela Petty, managing director of Ebac, discusses the company's recent appearance on BBC2's The New Troubleshooter, which saw Lord Digby Jones assist the North East manufacturer's expansion plans.
How did Ebac’s participation in The New Troubleshooter programme come about?
I think Digby [Jones] came up with the idea for the show before picking out some suitable businesses. It was actually through acquaintances of acquaintances that got us on the shortlist. We then had conversations with the BBC and discussed what they wanted to achieve with the programme. For me, the rationale was my passion for British manufacturing, and any opportunity to showcase it and get the public to rally behind it was a major motivation for doing the show. There was also an opportunity to get the expertise not just of Digby but also his contacts. To be blunt, having someone of his background coming into our business and identifying weaknesses is something we would never have thought of or be able to afford. So it was an amazing opportunity to get access to this kind of help. I think the show was a real warts and all portrayal too. There was no point taking part just to make ourselves look good; what you saw was the real us.
The show illustrated the risks taken in acquiring chest freezer maker Norfrost and expanding at such a fast rate. Looking back, did you anticipate the sheer magnitude of the task?
Being totally honest – no. We know how aggressive the white goods market is and didn’t underestimate the task in front of us in terms of carving out a niche for ourselves in that market place. We don’t want to and can’t dominate it. We’ve got no plans to be the next Hotpoint or Bosch – we’re going to be Ebac in the white goods market place. That said, we’re not in the business of setting up manufacturing plants just yet. But this could change over the next 20 years if we move further into white goods. Previously as a family-owned business, we’d just attack things with gusto and have a ‘just get stuck in’ mentality. Half way through the film we put some new methodologies in such as project and time management training. Formulating a plan resulted in two production delays, but we’re now on course with a new production start date for June.
The conclusion of the documentary showed signs of progress after overcoming numerous obstacles. What would you do differently if a similar opportunity for expansion comes about in future?
I think we knew enough about the production and market to make the right decisions, but I feel we then should have gone into a more detailed project management phase, rather than working our way through it. Freezers weren’t initially on the agenda, despite the fact we were developing a washing machine and planning to enter the white goods market. But then the Norfrost opportunity came along and changed that. Acquiring it gave us a foot through the door, and there was certainly a lot of synergy between us and them. I think both businesses reached a cross roads when cheaper imports came in; Ebac went one route and Norfrost took the other. Then they had factors such a change in ownership and one of their key retailers Comet going bust and owing them a considerable amount of money. It left them with the choice of struggling on or cutting their losses and liquidating. Getting this opportunity – I still very much believe it is just that – offered a better route into refrigeration than starting from scratch.
A major positive of acquiring Norfrost is the plan to create 200 new jobs in the North East. What areas of the workforce will be recruited for?
The biggest proportion of people we’ll be recruiting are production operators. We put our effort into deskilling processes, and we can have new employees adding value in our factory within a matter of hours. I think businesses need to get used to the type of skills that we need. The businesses need to become as adaptable as the employees have to be, rather just folding their arms and sulking about the lack of skills. There’s loads of examples where businesses are tackling this, and I feel it is ultimately up to them rather than the government to tackle this. Times have changed. In Britain we can be innovative, and this should apply to everything we do: not just in product development, but in every way we run our businesses.
The third episode of The New Troubleshooter series is available for viewing on BBC iPlayer until Thursday.