UK manufacturing needs export stars like never before. A-Safe, winner of The Manufacturer MX Award 2018 for Export, is an international champion with its feet firmly on the ground in the UK.
Steven Barr talked with co-owner James Smith and head of international marketing Sharon Hendry about the secrets of their success.
A-Safe’s industrial safety barriers often take a big hit, but the company has no such worries.
Exports have been a major part of A-Safe’s success over the past six years. Averaging 40% year-on-year growth has brought the company to £54m turnover, with the proportion of export earnings rising from just over 50% to now approaching 90%.
With UK manufacturing urgently needing to boost trade, what can we learn from A-Safe’s relentless progress?
It helps that there is a global need for A-Safe’s high-quality products in factories, warehouses, airports, carparks – anywhere that assets and people need to be separated and protected from industrial vehicles.
By 2014, A-Safe, a small family firm run by Luke and James Smith had already invented the world’s first industrial-strength polymer barrier (in 2001) and built a reputation with blue-chip clients like Unilever, Coca Cola and Jaguar Land Rover.
What these companies have in common is their global reach. And that’s the basis for A-Safe’s business model – they follow their customers.
The Smith brothers’ first big customer was Kimberly-Clark’s operation in Michigan. The site manager was so impressed with A-Safe’s safety solution and the savings in asset damage that he recommended them to the HQ of Kimberly-Clark in Texas. And the rest is history.
This article first appeared in the April issue of The Manufacturer magazine. Click here to subscribe
A-Safe now supplies 20 of the healthcare giant’s US facilities and 40 globally. It has since followed other customers from the UK into their international bases, establishing their own subsidiary offices in countries where it enabled them to better meet customer needs.
This model allowed them to branch out into markets they had previously found difficult to penetrate.
“At first we tried working with UK Trade and Investment,” says James, “but we found their knowledge to be broad, rather than the more localised market specialisation we needed. It was more effective for us to take control ourselves”.
Think global, act local
Even with a loyal customer base, breaking into new markets in unfamiliar countries could be fraught with risks and costs. How did A-Safe, still a relatively small UK company, manage these transitions?
James has a straightforward answer: “Do it yourself”. They tried appointing local sales agents, but quickly learned that A-Safe’s reputation for quality and service is best represented by A-Safe people.
Local agents became local employees, and training in the A-Safe way and support from HQ has become a key part of their experience. A-Safe still works with local partners, but is careful to prioritise the countries the company wants to work in.
“We’d like to personally support customers wherever they are in the world, but we have to prioritise,” says Sharon. “Our partners need to be as energetic as we are in living the A-Safe brand and really understanding our customers”.
Like many UK companies, A-Safe has benefitted from favourable exchange rates in the past couple of years. Their continuing success over six years shows they have a much deeper foundation. Building trust in people and understanding of markets have been essential factors in creating a robust export business.
It is difficult to size the market for safety barriers, but James and Luke look at the numbers using their own in-house formula, based on a wide range of sites with industrial vehicles.
“Does it feel right?” is then the acid test of how viable a new export market could be. In other words, the Smiths are prepared to take a risk and back their intuition, investing their own time and money in making overseas ventures work.
Production is still focused on A-Safe’s Elland factory where they are a major local employer – now up to 250 in all roles, more than half their worldwide team. They’re already making maximum use of their site and run a 24/7 operation to keep up with demand.
Product innovation has been and always will be a key attribute of their UK-based international operation. Even the core plastic extruded barrier product has been improved with injection and rotational moulding.
“We look for creative people who like change, who can challenge what we are doing and solve problems,” says James. “That way we’ve kept ahead of the competition. And we are looking now at even greater technical innovation using sensors and IoT.”
The keys to success
The Manufacturer likes to ask for top tips from past The Manufacturer MX Award winners to inspire others.
It is a measure of how natural the business of export has become that James has to reflect for a moment to pick out the transferable points. But he is in no doubt:
- Be the best, and take real pride in doing things right
- Be willing to give it a go. Get on a plane, see the market, see the customer and get to know them
- Ask questions of customers and people with local knowledge to gain greater understanding and inspire solutions to real problems
A-Safe is an export success story grounded in the values and exceptional capabilities of its UK leaders and workforce. Their strategy of international growth grounded in UK expertise, with relationships and trust just as important at home and abroad, is surely one that other UK manufacturers could adopt.
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 DRL-Tool.org with UK industry-wide support to maintain and improve the standards-setting Digital Readiness Level Tool.