How innovation unlocks barriers to rapid export growth

Posted on 29 Mar 2019 by The Manufacturer

In an era when terrorist threats are never far from the news, Heald Ltd’s perimeter security products are a reassuring British success story. The business was named as one of the UK's most Progressive SMEs at The Manufacturer MX Awards 2018 in recognition of its export-led growth and the spirit of innovation that underpins it.

Steven Barr talked with managing director Debbie Heald MBE to learn more about how her small team keeps ahead of the competition.

Heald Ltd protects embassies, airports, shopping centres and vulnerable pedestrianised areas around the world - image courtesy of Heald Ltd.
Heald Ltd protects embassies, airports, shopping centres and vulnerable pedestrianised areas around the world – image courtesy of Heald Ltd.

Heald Ltd protects embassies, airports, shopping centres and vulnerable pedestrianised areas around the world. Turnover grew by nearly two-thirds in 2017-18, with 70% of their products being exported.

They recently won one of their largest Middle East orders for the Commander Roadblocker, the world’s only security barrier crash tested to halt a 30-tonne truck travelling at 50mph.

What has unlocked the barriers to growth that many SMEs struggle with?

Embedding innovation

Debbie highlights the key. “Innovation runs through the whole business,” she says. “We continue to innovate to meet the needs of not only installation challenges, but also environmental ones too.

“Just as an example, we’ve launched an electromechanical range of our best-selling products – and because no oil is required to operate them, the amount of energy needed is cut to less than one half.”

Heald Ltd protects its market position with patents on most of its products, keeping the company ahead of the competition and attracting distributors and other potential partners who recognise their leadership in intellectual property.

“More widely,” Debbie continues, “innovation is in our product development and how we respond to market demand in the way we bring our products to market and the way we work with partners in order to sell our products globally”.

That’s a comprehensive view of innovation as a strategy, suggesting it is embedded in the culture of the business. How so? Market focus is essential for any business in times of change, and Heald Ltd has a special challenge, as Debbie explains.

“Listening to our customers and having our ear to the ground in the market is crucial. Our industry needs to create innovative products which take into account the evolving threat of vehicle attacks.”

Being quick to identify and respond to supplier issues has also been important, and Debbie hasn’t been slow to make changes, such as bringing in-house the development of high security electronics requirements.

The Manufacturer MX Awards 2019 Open for Entries

Managing growth

Rapid growth could be unsustainable, especially in new regions, so how has Heald Ltd coped with that? “Working with distribution partners has been crucial to supporting our international growth,” says Debbie.

“We view our distributors as an extension of our business, and we train and support them to work with the end user to identify the right products for their needs and ensure the order and install process runs smoothly”.

Heald at The Manufacturer MX Awards 2018 - image courtesy of The Manufacturer.
Heald Ltd at The Manufacturer MX Awards 2018 – image courtesy of The Manufacturer.

The company has a manufacturing-under-licence agreement in the US, which will further test the partnering model.

Innovation may start with a strong market focus, but it has to be grounded in core business practice. Debbie is keen to highlight the growth in numbers and strengths of the team at their Yorkshire HQ.

“We have been raising our profile through marketing and PR to position ourselves internationally, resulting in a lot of inbound enquiries. This has resulted in us increasing the number of staff to meet this demand, which is great news for our local area”.

Further growth is planned in 2019 in new premises, taking on another 20 people.

The emphasis on training and support is just as strong with Heald Ltd’s workforce as it is with partners. “We have many staff following defined professional development paths, and over the years we have had lots of apprentices who have stayed on with us.

“This continues to be a great way to bring new people into the business and to grow the skills we need to align with our evolving manufacturing needs”.

Debbie is leading the way for others to develop their careers in manufacturing. In 2017, she was awarded an MBE (among other achievements) for promoting and enabling women to apply their talents in STEM.

Debbie was also recognised by The Manufacturer as an Exemplar and Inspiring Leader in its Top 100 awards.

What could SMEs in any market learn from Heald Ltd’s progression in exports?

Here are Debbie’s three lessons from the front line:

  • Be clear about what it is that you are looking to achieve. This will enable you to identify where you need to invest your resources, and the routes you need to take to get there
  • Communicating your unique business offer is vital. A defined marketing strategy will enable you to best understand the approach you need to take to raise awareness of your organisation and enhance its credibility, especially if you are in a crowded marketplace
  • Ultimately – to bring in the results – you must have a great team in place. Make sure they are clear on what you are looking to achieve and empower them to play a key role in that journey.

Debbie Heald and her company are exemplars of leadership in innovation across all dimensions – from customer focus and products, to the aligned development of their people.

This adds up to a progressive culture of innovation that has delivered exceptional export-led growth. Heald Ltd is showing the way for SMEs to knock down barriers to growth in fast-changing industries.

As noted, Debbie Heald was nominated to be a member of The Manufacturer Top 100, our programme for honouring the inspiring individuals who make UK manufacturing great. Nominations for the 2019 programme are open and you can find more information here.

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 with UK industry-wide support to maintain and improve the standards-setting Digital Readiness Level Tool.

This article first appeared in the March issue of The Manufacturer magazine. To subscribe, please click here.