Local sourcing is a crucial part of sustainable manufacturing. Yet, large companies are often unaware of local supply options, and getting an audience with OEM buyers is still a struggle for smaller players. An award-winning director has tasked himself with resolving this issue. Jonny Williamson reports.
Adam Bradley is something of an export guru, particularly around specialist metals. For the past decade and a half, he’s been working for and representing the interests of the UK metals industry with a consistent focus on boosting global trade. In 2018, after ten years at two large, well established companies, Adam took a leap of faith and joined the recently founded Corrosion Resistant Materials (CRM) as Commercial Manager.
He became Director 18 months later and was instrumental in CRM receiving its first Queen’s Award for Enterprise in International Trade. Experiencing the sector as both a large and small player revealed two things to Adam. Firstly, large manufacturers often have onerous onboarding processes that make it difficult for SMEs or new market entrants to supply them.
Secondly, too few purchasing managers are aware of the supply capabilities on their doorstep, leading them to source goods from further afield. A firm believer in the power of networking and collaboration, Adam decided to find a way for OEMs and SMEs to engage with each other more easily. The result is the Manufacturing Supply Chain Exhibition, a free event built around buying local and raising the profile of South Yorkshire’s thriving manufacturing sector. Jonny sat down with Adam to learn more.
What are you hoping to achieve with the exhibition, and why launch it now?
AB: My network has grown to the point where I felt that if I was to organise an event, I was confident it would be a success. In terms of a traditional pop-up exhibition, an opportunity to speak with businesses and learn what they do, there isn’t one in South Yorkshire for the metals industry. South Yorkshire is undergoing a real industrial resurgence of late and attracting considerable investment, most recently £1.2bn of private funding off the back of being named the UK’s first Advanced Manufacturing Investment Zone.
Airbus, Boeing, McLaren, Rolls-Royce and numerous other global companies have a strong presence here. It would make such a positive difference if they made more use of local supply chains. When we talk about sustainability and carbon footprints, one of the key aspects is your supply chain.
Where are your suppliers based? How far do goods have to travel? How are they being transported? If there’s an eligible supplier five miles from your factory and you’re not using them, you’ve got to ask why. In my experience, that comes down to simply not knowing they’re there. We emphasise buying local and supporting local businesses for what we eat and drink.
Use your local butchers, greengrocers and breweries, visit farmer markets and prioritise local produce. That approach is missing somewhat in manufacturing. Too many companies overlook all those options and drive straight to the supermarket, as it were. We are looking to break that mindset through the Manufacturing Supply Chain Exhibition.
People see supermarkets as being cheaper, more convenient and stocking a broader range. Are these factors likely to be front of mind for purchasing managers?
Yes, but sourcing from small suppliers doesn’t necessarily mean less convenience or limited choice. It’s often the reverse because SMEs will go the extra mile for customers. For example, CRM consolidates various supply chain elements to provide a one-stop shop. We aren’t just a specialist metals supplier. We coordinate with machine shops for pre-machining and heat treaters for heat treatment.
We supply forgings and can validate materials through a range of destructive and non destructive testing techniques. All our suppliers are local to us, which is beneficial for transport costs and our carbon footprint. But it’s also about time savings. If you want to reduce lead time, using suppliers on your doorstep is a great way of doing that. It offers an immediacy that can’t be achieved when materials are coming from the other side of the world.
CRM supplies a broad range of bars, sheet and plates, tubes and pipes, forgings, flanges, fittings and valves
‘Cheaper’ is also a relative term. For now, the cost of something is measured purely monetarily. We’ll soon have to account for the carbon cost. Decisions that might save you a nominal amount financially might cost you a substantial amount environmentally.
With exports being such a large part of your turnover, are you concerned that a global shift towards buying local will be to your detriment?
There is potential for this, and some countries are adopting a ‘make local, buy local’ policy. Though in certain places, that’s always been the case – America and Brazil, for example. In the UK, we hear a lot about increased reshoring and nearshoring, but that’s not unique to us. It’s happening all around the world.
That said, there will always be markets unable to source locally or choose not to. So, exports will continue to be a key growth area for us. At the same time, we’re concentrating on opportunities closer to home.
Winning a Queen’s Award is a strong validation that CRM is moving in the right direction. What did the process involve?
CRM had already won a Business Growth Award from Barnsley & Rotherham Chamber of Commerce and was starting to become more well-known. The year before we applied, only one South Yorkshire company had won a Queen’s Award so there was a drive to raise awareness and entries.
The criteria for International Trade are straightforward. You need to submit three years’ worth of exporting accounts and have a turnover in year one over £100,000. Our turnover had been growing year-on year from £110,000 to £700,000 to £1.4m, which is phenomenal for an engineering start-up.
Our customer base had similarly grown from ten to 80 and our export markets from ten to 35 plus. The application process itself is very detailed and time consuming. It took me about two months to gather all the information. The submission deadline is early September, the shortlist is revealed in December and the winners are announced in April. I didn’t appreciate quite how significant a Queen’s Awards was. The exposure it’s given us has been tremendous.
CRM has been profiled in so many news interviews, magazine articles and podcasts, and it’s boosted our exports more than we ever imagined. In the year immediately following the award, our exports doubled because more people had heard about us. Inbound enquiries shot up, which made a nice change from having to do all the legwork. The application process can be painful and you need someone who deeply understands your business, but I highly recommend applying. The worldwide recognition it provides takes you to the next level.
As an SME, has exporting become easier?
No, it’s harder. Largely because of Brexit. When looking to export, your first market should be your nearest. We used to be able to trade with Germany as easily as we could with Sheffield. There were no issues, paperwork or delays. Now, it’s far more complicated. The extra time it takes to ship something to Europe makes it more difficult to compete with their local businesses. Before Brexit, we could get an order from Germany on Monday, gate it on Tuesday and it’d be in Germany by Friday. We’ve now gone from one working week to two or three. That’s opened the door for competitors. It’s not impossible by any stretch. My advice is to start small.
CRM strives to be at the forefront of the technical metals industry
Don’t try to take over a whole country and have a warehouse and a sales team based there. Identify one key customer first and see how it lands. Ask for a referral, find a business similar to your first export customer and build it up gradually. Those new to exporting can get caught up in penetrating a market and trying to win significant market share overnight. You’re not going to achieve that straight away, it takes time.
Is Europe still a key export market for you?
Not anymore. Our biggest markets are now the Middle East and, funnily enough, Norway. We used to do significantly more business in the EU but when we dropped out, we had to backfill with opportunities elsewhere. That’s the same for many businesses.
Post-Brexit, the UK has signed new trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand. The Trade Secretary is proactively working to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Do these trade deals present strong growth opportunities for CRM?
Who knows? And that’s the problem. What do these trade deals actually mean for UK companies, particularly SMEs? What are the opportunities? Where is the detail? None of that is filtering down; we only get vague soundbites. Environmentally, it also doesn’t seem to make sense. When everyone is working towards net zero targets and reducing their carbon footprint, prioritising trading with the other side of the world, over what’s on our doorstep, runs counter to those ambitions.
This is the principle behind the exhibition. If it chooses to, the government could pull two levers that would supercharge grassroots efforts to buy local. The first would be to have a cross-party, long-term industrial strategy. The second lever is government contracts for major projects like infrastructure, defence or energy. The amount of work given to British supply chains needs to be increased and mandated.
We should look to use British businesses and British steel first, and only then look further afield. We saw this during the pandemic. Numerous British businesses had the capacity, experience and relevant accreditations to manufacture PPE but instead, the government chose to spend billions overseas.
Then, to add insult to injury, much of the PPE they bought wasn’t fit for purpose. If we refuse to invest in and grow sovereign capabilities, then we will always be at the mercy of others and external shocks. That’s why we faced such a crisis when Russia invaded Ukraine and the price of gas skyrocketed.
The opportunity of Brexit is to do things our way, to become more resilient and to safeguard our interests. Lots of manufacturers are calling for that. But it doesn’t just happen. It needs government to step up and provide industry with subsidies, contracts, stability and long-term support rather than always chasing the perceived cheaper option.
Give manufacturers that and in return we’ll provide well paid, stable jobs, support local communities, boost tax revenues, drive innovation and technological advancement, increase national security and resilience and help ensure the UK retains its position as a world leader in numerous fields.
- Sourcing from small suppliers doesn’t necessarily mean less convenience or limited choice
- Decisions that might save you a nominal amount financially might carry a substantial environmental cost
- An export journey should start with small steps, don’t try and do too much too quickly
- Applying for a King’s Award for Enterprise, previously known as a Queen’s Award, can be time consuming but the exposure it provides can open doors to new growth opportunities
All images: Courtesy of Corrosion Resistant Materials LTD
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