Tharsus: Top tips on driving a progressive revolution from one of the UK’s leading SMEs

Posted on 13 Feb 2019 by Jonny Williamson

Tharsus has come a long way from its beginnings in metal fabrication via advertising (really!) to become the advanced machines and robotics manufacturer of choice for Ocado and other discerning customers.

Their recent award as The Manufacturer’s Manufacturing Excellence ‘Progressive SME of 2018’ recognises that journey, and their continuing growth ambition.

Steven Barr spoke with chief executive Brian Palmer about vision, commercial excellence, and being surrounded by creative people.

Tharsus at The Manufacturer MX Awards 2018 - image courtesy of The Manufacturer.
Team Tharsus at The Manufacturer MX Awards 2018 – image courtesy of The Manufacturer.

Tharsus has grown 10-fold in staff numbers in 10 years and tripled its turnover in the past three years to £50m – with more expected in 2019.

Now, this North East-based innovator is exporting to 14 countries and the team is building a 20-year strategy. All of this in challenging times for smaller businesses. ‘Progressive’ might be too faint a praise for their achievement.

Could other SMEs benefit by following Tharsus’ lead? CEO Brian Palmer thinks so. “We have a fairly unique business model,” says Brian. “And if others take it on then it would have an impact on the structure of the industry”.

A progressive revolution is in the making – in particular, in the making of just the right equipment to enable the commercial success of customers and allowing them to retain IP.

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

Exclusivity and disruption

Tharsus makes advanced machines and robotics (AMRs) that enable their customers to disrupt their markets and grow market share. Exclusivity is an important factor – they work with only one customer in any given market and their arrangements remain confidential until the customer is ready to publicise their advantage.

“It is all about getting closer to the customer. OEDM [original equipment design and manufacture] is about alignment, which delivers collaboration. There’s a win-win with a formal tie-in to the success of our customer.”

Confidentiality holds Brian back from detailing the latest opportunities in Europe that his team is developing, but he sees substantial new export markets opening up for the Tharsus way.

Tharsus has transformed its product line from metalwork to AMRs in response to market conditions. Brian acquired an outdoor advertising Adbox maker as a package deal in buying a defence fabrication business. When that capital-intensive market was disrupted by internet advertising, Brian chose to reinvent Tharsus as a full-service contract manufacturer.

The Manufacturer MX Awards 2019 - Open for Entries

But a very focused one – Tharsus works in sectors under pressure from mega-trends, such as labour scarcity, high costs of labour and rapid order turnaround.

“We work with progressive customers,” says Brian. “If technology can improve their value proposition to their customers, then they should own that space and use it to differentiate their products and services.”

When Safetykleen wanted to create the most efficient solution in the market they came to Tharsus, who started by building the right commercial strategy – not the best product, but the best commercial solution.

Then they created the technology strategy to deliver the commercial vision and developed and delivered the robotic solution.

Leadership and human capital

Brian does not claim the glory of Tharsus’ success for himself, although he has been CEO and the main shareholder for 15 years.

“Leadership throughout the organisation has been so important. We are a human capital business, and it’s the creativity of people that really makes the difference. They are not constrained by what they know, and they have the space to fail fast and fail forward.”

The process of applying for The Manufacturer MX Awards was driven by Brian’s team leaders, and all staff have benefitted from the recognition that their win has brought.

Now there is a companywide focus on its Vision Mission Roadmap for the next 15 to 20 years, a bold concept in these uncertain times.

How could other SMEs join the progressive revolution? Brian offers a few tips from his personal experience over the past 15 years:

  1. As CEO, surround yourself with people better than you, including a professional board chairman and experienced non-execs, to drive accountability and openness to new ideas.
  2. Be clear why the company matters and strive to be the best partner for customers to succeed commercially.
  3. Recruit very talented people regardless of their career paths, train them to collaborate and give them scope to fail fast and fail forward.

Brian sums up what being progressive means for Tharsus: ‘Aiming Higher, Thinking Wider, Working Together’.

Seeing the achievements of Tharsus in numbers and in the transformation of their market position, will other SMEs join their progressive revolution?

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. He also leads the not-for-profit community interest company with UK industry-wide support to maintain and improve the Digital Readiness Level Tool.

Digital Readiness Level Tool (DRL-Tool) - Digital Outsider to Digital Champion