TM talks to anti-vandal unit manufacturer Ultra Secure about overcoming the effects of the housing slump and the importance of maintaining a flexible approach.
Commercial vandalism and theft, defying recession, is booming, and driven by a criminal audacity and sophistication that is an innovative spur to Ultra Secure Products, Britain’s leading supplier of anti-vandal units.
Based near Hull, Ultra manufactures a comprehensive range of anti-vandal site accommodation, mostly for major hire companies supplying the construction sector and other industries.
Aimed at securing valuable information and equipment away from thieves and wreckers, these range from offices and stores, to mess facilities, kitchen units and toilets – “anything the customer wants and in whatever size and internal configuration,” says managing director Charlie Watson, a 56-year-old Scot with a degree in engineering and an extensive management background in Britain and abroad.
But the construction industry is a major victim of both criminals and slump, and six months of downsizing has seen Ultra’s turnover halved from around £17m two years ago to £8.5m, with a workforce cut from 220 to 75.
“In terms of demand for the traditional Ultra products, the recession has impacted on us quite severely, but I’m happy to say that over the last two years we’ve developed some fairly specialised products where there is still a significant demand in the marketplace,” says Watson.
These are primarily in the anti-blast unit field, with Ultra supplying petrochemical and similar sites where risk of explosion and employee safety are constant issues. The company is also expanding in the development of fire-rated units, driven by the increasing development of brownfield sites and related high-density safety legislation.
Ultra describes itself as a traditional business manufacturing straightforward products. Operating from an extensive site at Gilberdyke in the Humber Gateway, products range from single on-site units to 50-plus linked units, and in sizes up to 40ft by 12 x 12 high; as well as modular bays that can be joined to form large open-plan spaces.
Innovation is key
“We continually have to develop new ways to lock things up and protect, as the vandalism and theft becomes more blatant and refined. In terms of locking mechanisms we are making our units both stronger and more foolproof.” Asked to recall a notable client horror story, Watson says no one case is outstanding, rather a pattern of smash-and-grab.
“It’s where they will borrow a bulldozer from the same site and use it to bash in or remove the side of the doors of an accommodation unit.
“We have a relatively simple product to build,” he continues. “The key is in the scheduling of the units and in keeping their lead times down as they go through the plant. This means we can be very flexible in meeting the varying demands of the customers, in terms of both delivery times and internal specification.”
Typically, customers are looking to a two- to four-week lead time from placement of order to delivery but often, expectations are more exacting. “We can have an enquiry on Monday and the order Wednesday, with a demand for the product to be supplied towards the end of the following week.
“These lead times are very short and demanding, driven primarily by the fact that this type of product very typically is secured by the end customer from a hire company.
“And since on-site accommodation costs can be high, the construction companies wait until the last minute before making a commitment, with the hire operators having little time to respond to their requirements. Hairy? Well, yes – in terms of having to work cleverly and intensively 100 per cent of the time – but it’s a very enjoyable industry to work in.”
Skilled for success
Watson says a critical contribution to Ultra’s success is ensuring its workforce is flexible, and individual skills sets enhanced. “We work very hard in keeping our workforce informed on the state of the business, future development, the changing marketplace and the requirements the business has of them.” To this end, the Gilberdyke training programmes and rewards systems encourage individual competence and flexibility.
Parallel with this, close employee involvement in lean, aimed at reductions in lead time, inventory and finished product time, has produced significant advantages in working capital control.
“This is one of the biggest challenges in a traditional business like ours,” says Watson. “Over the last two years it has allowed us to halve the working capital for the same amount of throughput – a huge amount, especially when times are hard.”
His advice to SMEs in the worst recession since the 1930s? “Look at those areas that actually add value, and eliminate those which are a comfort blanket and nice to have.
“You absolutely have to take out all these non-value adding areas. Recession or no, the survivors are those who concentrate on developing products the customers want, and providing good and valuable customer service. Everything else is pretty meaningless.”