Measuring risk to grow in the engineering sector

With dedicated R&D department and their own test engineers, there is still potential for growth in the business

Why is the managing director of a compay which designs and manufactures industrial sieving machinery so fascinated by 3D printing? Because Antony Hare sees a major new business opportunity.

Product innovation

“Companies which recycle the powdered metal left over after industrial applications, with a view to then fusing it to print 3D parts – typically for aircraft – first need to sieve the powder to ensure it’s of the right grade,” he explains.

And that’s where Farleygreene comes in, supplying the sieves for the process: Their belief in the market is such that a new brand has been established for the purpose, Sievgen, to add to the established Sievmaster range of products.

“3D printing like the replicator in Star Trek, the fictional device which could recreate inanimate objects,” says Hare enthusiastically. “It’s a really exciting new development in environmental terms because it provides a new way to re-use powdered metal that would otherwise be thrown away, and in technological terms because the use of 3D parts makes aircraft lighter and therefore more fuel efficient. The technology is developing so fast that an aircraft could soon self-identify that it needs a new part and by the time it reaches the end of its flight, the it will already have been printed and be waiting at the airport ready to be fitted.”

Looking to the future

Although that new side of the business has the potential for “huge” growth – Sievgen have a dedicated R&D department and their own test engineers and production manager – there is still potential for growth in the core business, which makes sieves for all manner of sectors from food to chemicals.

Hare bases that reckoning on the fact that the company has had approaches from agents who want to represent the business abroad. “They have been supplying big equipment manufacturers and they have seen our products popping up in other factories,” he explains.

Moving to new premises

Growth resulted in Farleygreene moving to new premises which at 6800sqft, were more than twice the size. With hindsight, Hare wishes he’d been bolder. “I was already thinking about when we might need yet more space, and I did look at premises nearer 10,000sqft, but at the time I thought that was a bit too big. Maybe we should have bitten off more and gone for it.”

That said, making the proverbial ‘on the other side of the coin’ argument, it would have left Farleygreene with less money to invest. “I do think a company has to be prepared to need to take more risk if it is to grow, but it has to be measured risk. I also have a responsibility to the people here, who have families and mortgages.”

What might happen is that the company takes an additional unit near the current premises. That building would become the engineering and production facility while the existing one would be the R&D centre and the showroom for the company, making it easier to invite customers to come in and test the product.

Dealing with the competition

What enables Farleygreene to compete against much larger rivals is how they react to an enquiry. “The approach has to be to respond to what customers want, rather than attempting to impose solutions on them,” explains Hare. “Our competitors can be our best marketing tool, because some are a bit arrogant in that they know best. We just won a big contract from a Swedish company because our rival was a bit prescriptive in their attitude. We reacted more flexibly to the customer’s specification.

“To provide the most appropriate solutions, you need to take a consultative approach with the customer; we take the time to research their industry and the materials they process. A one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t work.”

In the beginning

Hare’s father started the business in 1976, having previously worked at what is now Farleygreene’s biggest competitor. Hare junior has been involved since he was “dragged in to help” during his school holidays. He joined the business at eighteen as a fitter and learned the business from the bottom up.

“I was made to work in every department, from purchasing to marketing,” he recalls. “And dad would come down harder on me than anyone else. He would make an example of me if I did anything wrong. I couldn’t get away with anything, just because I was the boss’s son. But as a result, I know how every single ‘nut and bolt’ fits together; there isn’t an element of any machine that I don’t know in the minutest of detail.”

Hare still likes to be hands on. “I’m happy to help out on the shop floor,” he says.

This grounding meant Hare was in a position to cope with the responsibility of taking over when his father died suddenly in 2011. “I remember sitting at my desk on the Monday morning thinking what am I going to do now? But I had an understanding of how the business worked, so it was just a case of putting that into motion.”

measuring risk farleygreene

His father was certainly a strong influence. “All the things my dad used to say that annoyed me at the time, I realise now that he had a point. Things like having a work ethic: he instilled into me a way of working, just simple things like tidying up after yourself. And how to deal with people; dad was very good at finding amicable solutions. Sometimes when I am faced with a difficult conversation, I think about what he would say in the situation.”

The team

One of the things Hare finds most exciting about the business is its people. With a young workforce – most of the design engineers are under thirty – he enjoys seeing people learning and progressing; for example, one graduate engineer has been promoted to senior research and development engineer, and a technical sales engineer became business development manager.

He’s conscious though that young engineers don’t typically aspire to a career making industrial sieves. “Most start out wanting to be aeronautical or Formula One motor racing engineers,” he says ruefully.

Attracting talent

But they change, he adds. “Some of our engineers have come from motorsport or aeronautical. They realise it’s all very well working for Airbus but they won’t be designing the plane, only a tiny component of a wheel or the brake. They like it here because they get to design the whole product and they see it through from the drawing board to it going out of the door. There is a lot of satisfaction in that process. It’s more than just the salary; it’s enjoying a good, friendly ethos and feeling part of the gang.”

He’s a realist though. “One of our test engineers was offered a job with McLaren and I didn’t stand in his way,” says Hare. “Even I would have thought twice if McLaren asked me to join them! It’s an engineer’s dream job.”

So employee engagement isn’t a box which can be ticked, muses Hare. And there will always be issues which need to be addressed. “I remember a saying that there is somebody in every business who people will complain about, and if you don’t think you have that person in the company, then actually it’s probably you,” he says. “Inevitably there will be times when people get on each others’ nerves, and my approach is to get those involved around the table to sort out the issue, otherwise the atmosphere will become toxic. Everyone has their say, face-to-face, and then we can move on.”

Changing marketplace

Hare foresees a lot of smaller engineering and manufacturing companies getting swallowed up by bigger rivals as a consequence of the growing impact of 3D metal printing; indeed, he has had offers to acquire the business, mainly from those in the same field trying to buy turnover and critical mass. But he says: “I have never got to the point of asking how much they are offering. Selling is just not where I am at the moment. I have so much further I want to go. I’m not saying that I would never consider it – I’m open to anything, and it’s flattering – but it just makes me realise we are on the right path, especially when one of those who made an approach was a competitor. That just spurred me on.”

Business planning

Another reasons is personal. “After Dad died it was a really stressful time. He didn’t leave a will so there were problems with other family members wanting a piece of the business and expecting it to support them,” he explains.

In the end, Hare and his wife (a minority shareholder and the company book-keeper) bought out the family’s stake. “Because this business has always been a part of my life and I had to fight for it to be mine, I would find it hard to sell outright and I don’t want to give a percentage away to other people,” says Hare. “I can imagine my dad saying to me that if somebody offered a certain amount, it would be silly to turn it down. But I haven’t yet been offered that figure.”

Young engineers

In any case, Hare is more focused on for the future of the British engineering. “We have a shortage of experienced engineers in this country, a diminishing number of young people going into engineering, and in addition, a skills gap in the middle,” he explains. “We are all going to have to think much more about the vocational side of our businesses if this is going to be addressed.”

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