Overcoming SME supply chain hurdles

Navigating the supply chain is often fraught with hurdles for even the largest organisations. Seasoned traveller Margaret Wood of specialist glazing company ICW (UK) Ltd understands better than most the hurdles ahead and shares some of her insight.

I started ICW (UK) Ltd 23 years ago after the death of my husband Tony, to provide specialist windows and doors for fabrication rooms made by his former colleague.

That original partner business has long since ceased trading but we’re still here and his legacy is intact.

Margret Wood, founder and director, ICW (UK) Ltd.
Margret Wood, founder and director, ICW (UK) Ltd.

It hasn’t always been as easy as it appears to people who see me stand up in public and talk about the travails of being a woman in engineering, designing and manufacturing very niche products in often tumultuous times.

The most recent recession left many of the companies we supply vulnerable, threatening our future as they struggled to survive.

It is a credit to the team at our Wakefield factory that we are here to tell the tale. And if I have anything to do with it we will be here for an awful lot longer.

Innovation and our design skill has been key to our success; it has enabled us to scale up and manufacture in good times and baton down the hatches in bad when we have relied on our IP.

Having started the business I am still passionate about it and spend the majority of my time as the ambassador talking to potential customers who manufacture products such as factory vision platforms, clean rooms for food production or health screening vehicles that tour the UK providing a vital service in remote and not so remote corners of the country.

A major challenge for us is to be able to demonstrate the added value we deliver through our innovation, quality and service. Sometimes, we are at the mercy of people who have no regard for quality, but value everything on price.

Supply Chain Wood PQ

There is a great sense of being powerless in those circumstances. You can do very little to influence decisions; experience has taught us the best thing to do then is sit back and wait until the order has done the rounds, the customer has been let down because the cheapest can’t deliver then we pick up the commission anyway.

Similarly we have felt at the mercy of other people during tough times when buyers are struggling to keep their own businesses afloat and unable or unwilling to invest in either innovative ideas that could set them apart or simply maintain production levels.

Throughout the life of ICW (UK) Ltd I have always looked beyond the boundaries of what we are currently doing, aware that the business is agile and flexible enough to deliver products, services and design.

Margaret Wood (L) at The Manufacturer Top 100 2014.
Margaret Wood (L) at The Manufacturer Top 100 2014.

The latest thing always seems the most appealing and our way of innovating in recent years has been our commitment to the environment by using sustainable materials that embed lean manufacturing into the UK production line.

Ambitious, like everyone else I am keen to expand, and we are now poised for the next phase of our journey. Looking to the future optimistically, an apprentice is part of our planning, but I have always been committed to the talent that exists at ICW (UK) Ltd.

The design capability of Mick Broadhead and Peter Haythorne has ensured that the products we develop for our customers keep them at the cutting edge.

Whoever we take in to work alongside the existing team needs to be a bright spark with the get up and go to learn and adapt so that they can support our ambition to grow through innovation.

Having a great design service at our core meant that when a major retailer was looking to build cool stores for chilled drinks they came to us confident we could develop, make and fit temperature controlled glazing solutions.

Similarly as food producers look to maintain hygiene, quality and taste while manufacturing affordable food they turn to us for windows that give them vision access.

Supply Chain Wood PQ2While steering the ICW (UK) Ltd ship through stormy waters in the past 23 years some support from policy makers would have been welcome, but I have never been under any illusions that micro organisations like ourselves are within their sights when developing business policy.

In common with many they assume that the larger companies should get the lion’s share of the support because they reason there is more at stake. They forget the ground floor organisations like ICW (UK) Ltd are the innovators of the British supply chain and everyone else depends upon them.

I understand there is help available for SMEs, but often the application process is too complex and the hurdles we have to jump suggest to me they are pitched at companies large enough to employ people just to fill in the necessary paperwork.

Manufacturing seems to struggle with communications. There are too few people reminding the many that the UK is still the world’s eighth largest manufacturing nation, or that there are great careers to be had in an exciting dynamic sector.

The UK is facing up to its two biggest challenges, a skills shortage and productivity. Manufacturing SMEs can be part of the solution, but we need the raw materials to do it with.

Enthusiastic, bright, young people who value careers in manufacturing and appreciate hard work. Who knows, there may just be some out there who can be part of the new pioneers.

After all, I started this business as a pioneer 23 years ago when there were very few female scientists and even fewer women engineers; let’s hope the new crop can keep our flame eternal.