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Messrs. Mak and Loadlink

A visitor to SP inspires Mr. Loadlink’s latest blog about minding your own business, applying for grants, and education. He also looks forward to another busy trade show season.

Last week, we were honoured to welcome Alan Mak, Member of Parliament for Havant, to SP’s headquarters. Mr. Mak was keen to visit us after we secured a grant that funded equipment purchases for an additional unit on the Dakota Business Park, home to our new machine shop. There, among the shiny Haas kit, we spoke about a number of things, but they all revolved around three key subject areas:

  1. The company
  2. Grants
  3. Education

It struck me how important each of them is to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), indeed, any business.

The company

Few things put a place on its toes faster than a high profile visitor. Remember when you were at school and the head teacher said at assembly that the chairman of governors or, worse, Ofsted inspectors would be visiting classrooms? Uniforms had to be pristine, behaviour exemplary and manners impeccable. Mr. Smith might as well have said, let’s make the place look and feel as different as possible from a normal day!

A good yardstick by which to measure a business is to what extent the same needs to happen when a visitor—an MP, for example—arranges an appointment. This blog isn’t about SP per se but, other than a couple of tweaks here and there, our ducks (load cells) were already in a row. If a memo needs to go out about punctuality, not eating at workbenches, smoking, chewing gum and addressing people in a professional manner, there needs to be a rethink.

It goes beyond aesthetics. A visitor is certain to ask questions; it’s the most efficient way to demonstrate interest and guard against awkward silences. How many people work here? In what roles? Who is the longest-serving employee? Do you employ apprentices? What does this machine do? Where is that product going? Etc. Most CEOs and employees should be able to answer these questions standing on their heads, but what if the visitor digs a bit deeper?

Does the company have an environmental policy? Does it contribute to local business groups? Do you believe in the value of networking? At what end of the market do you compete? What is the state of UK manufacturing? If a visitor is trying to trip people up, they will find a way of doing so, but in the main they ask questions because they are interested and want to give the business they’re calling upon a chance to talk about itself. If the hosts stare blankly into space in response, it’s another good indicator that better education (we’ll come to that), systems and policy should be in place.

Leave room for interpretation, however, and allow individuals to shine. Mr. Mak probably got the memo from Conservative Party HQ titled, ‘Strong and Stable’, during the latest election campaign. Businesses shouldn’t look and feel like political parties, but nor should they resemble a youth club. A visitor should leave with a clear understanding of what a business does and what it stands for. In the case of an MP, they should feel comfortable to keep the lines of communication open and involve the business in future initiatives. Mr. Mak asked us if we would participate in upcoming business breakfasts he was supporting, which I took as a good sign.

Grants

This is a staggeringly overlooked area by businesses of all sizes, but particularly SMEs. Let’s tell it like it is: there is government money out there that companies can apply for to buy stuff or invest in things and people. Ok, it involves more than knocking on the door of 10 Downing Street and holding out one’s hand, but the principle is literally that straightforward. And it’s not only a case of getting £100 for new company t-shirts. No, serious cash is available if a business is prepared to adhere to the process and demonstrate how they could spend it wisely.

SP has recently secured its second significant grant, which we used to kit out the new unit with a VF-2 CNC (computer numerical control) milling machine, TL-1 CNC lathe, Bridgeport manual turret mill, Colchester chipmaster lathe, Sealey band saw, hydraulic press, and more. In fact, it was the funding that led to Mr. Mak’s secretary giving us a call and asking to have a look around to see what we’ve done with the money. The equipment joined our new load cell testing machine that was also purchased through grant funding.

Richard Woollett, SP’s financial controller, has become something of an expert in securing grants. He achieved the latest funding through the Havant Business Support Fund, a government local growth initiative, in partnership with Solent Local Enterprise Partnership and Portsmouth City Council. Richard explains that the process involved a lengthy application form, a business plan, three years historical figures, and a three-year financial forecast. Last year, we also received smaller grants for apprenticeships and consultancy. If you’re in the Solent area, there’s your starting point, but there’ll be a similar scheme near you that can be found with some simple online research.

As Richard will agree, it isn’t easy to get the money, but it is possible—and worth it. The first step is identifying a need for funding, whether it is new kit, apprentices, training, expansion, or something else. It’s probably the case that a business already has a long list of investment opportunities but hasn’t advanced them because of the lack of capital. Next, it’s a case of making a positive decision to apply for funding, assigning someone to oversee the process (like Richard) and sticking to it with the same tenacity and passion that makes it a successful company in the first place.

Grant processes take various forms (sometimes literally). I remember when my business partner, Peter McGreal, and I had to stand before a panel and outline a business plan for acquiring the new test machine referenced above. If you find yourselves in the same boat, prepare for questions: Why do you need a new machine? What will it be used for? How often will it be used? How will the purchase lead to increased revenue and jobs? Will the machine open up doors to new markets? Will it allow you to be more competitive? Work on the answers and sell the concept. In most cases, the people holding the purse strings will want to offer up the cash but they need to tick the boxes; needless to say, the government isn’t in a position to waste money. Make your business the soundest investment they’ve ever made!

Education

Training and education is an SP cornerstone, as regular readers of this blog know. As we discussed with Mr. Mak, it’s also been a focal point of grant funding in the past. I’d struggle to find common ground with any business leader who couldn’t see the value in applying for funding to train, educate, uplift, engage and retain people. It’s hugely rewarding to watch a team grow together and introduce new personnel, as growth of the company requires more resources.

This is arguably the component of business most suited to grants. A firm might proceed with its expansion plans, acquiring the space and kit to do so, as a matter of course. CEOs, finance guys and senior management will probably see the benefit of expanding to make more money. Yet, training and education can often be met with negativity. What do we get back? What if people take the skills and go elsewhere? Can’t we spend the money on something that makes more money? They’re all questions that have been tabled at board meetings up and down the land.

I accept that it wasn’t always my plan to invest as much time and energy as we do on staff training so I remember what it’s like to be further down the curve. Regardless, I’m now a massive advocate for it and implore businesses to train their people. Perhaps grant funding is the single best way to get such investment approved. Once the results become apparent, even the most cynical of CFOs will see the value in it. They might even reserve a big chunk of the next budget for a day of emotional intelligence speeches. Ok, one step at a time.

Seriously though, training works. We’ve even added it to appraisal agendas, asking staff: What training have you been exposed to over the last six months? Was it useful? What content did you find redundant? How has it benefitted your work? Would you have welcomed additional training? If you could tailor a day of training content, what would be on the list of topics? How many Action Coach (our coaching provider) sessions did you participate in? Will personal enrichment make you more or less likely to stay at SP for the long term?

What books have you read? Yes, we ask them that too. We don’t sit around discussing the varied emotions of convict Abel Magwitch when Pip encounters him on the marshes in Great Expectations, but we do talk about business literature. Reading a book about business practices can be enlightening and it’s amazing how even the most generic of messages can be translated to dealings at a UK-based load cell manufacturer. Businesses should encourage staff to pass on such literature they’ve enjoyed to colleagues and create a book club environment. Soon staff will be saying, ‘Do you remember what Mike Michalowicz said in The Pumpkin Plan?’

As an aside, that book is about comparing businesses to pumpkin farmers who develop and nurture their biggest pumpkins to make fat, juicy, glowing orange, award-winning fruits. It aligns with the theory that all businesses have A, B, C, D… list clients and they should all want more of the best kind. It’s just one of a multitude of books out there. If you’re new to this kind of text, start with ‘Start With Why’, by Simon Sinek. Why? You’ll see.

Show-offs

We’re on the cusp of another trade show season that starts for SP at SPE Offshore Europe 2017, which takes place at the Aberdeen Exhibition & Conference Centre in Scotland on 5-8 September. It’s an exciting way to kick-off another events campaign as this is the first time we’ll take exhibition space at the biennial show, having launched a full range of ATEX and IECEx products since the last time it was held at the same venue almost exactly two years ago. Look out for a subsea load pin that we recently manufactured, and whether you’re a social media fanatic or not, it’s worth monitoring the #OE17 hashtag on Twitter, which is among the most vibrant online show networking platforms of all the events we go to.

A trade show in Australia follows shortly afterwards before Seatrade Offshore Marine & Workboats Middle East in late September, where I’ll team-up with the Rigmarine guys. In the meantime, we’ll have representation at LEEA’s final roadshow of the year in Bristol on 20 September before the association’s flagship annual event, LiftEx, which this November takes place in Telford. In between the LEEA events, Associated Wire Rope Fabricators (AWRF) stages its 2017 Fall General Meeting and Product Information Exhibition (better known as PIE) towards the end of October. And that’s to name just a few events in the SP diary! If you see us, please say hello. As Mr. Mak will testify, we make great hosts and we know our areas of expertise inside out.

Thank you for reading.

Mr. Loadlink

Dizzy Heights…

Mr. Loadlink comes back down to earth after scaling the heights of the recent National Association of Tower Erectors annual conference in Fort Worth, Texas.

Was the suspense killing you?

I closed my last blog with reference to our latest ‘groundbreaking innovation’, offering only a clue that it will be used for ‘measuring tension on static lines’, and kept you on tenterhooks by adding, ‘watch this space’ before signing off and disappearing knowingly into the sunset.

The Clamp On Line Tensionmeter (COLT) boasts a state-of-the-art Bluetooth load monitoring app among a myriad of standout features.

The Clamp On Line Tensionmeter (COLT) boasts a state-of-the-art Bluetooth load monitoring app among a myriad of standout features.

I wasn’t really trying to create the same effect as the novelist of a good old-fashioned page-turner; I’m a humble blogger. I was merely honouring a commitment we made to stage the official launch of the Clamp On Line Tensionmeter (COLT) at the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) annual conference, which straddled the end of February and the beginning of March in Fort Worth, Texas. As the show proved, there was no need for added theatrics.

 

The reaction from the tower erection, maintenance and service professionals in attendance was overwhelming. I’d go as far as to say it was the most emphatic response I have seen for a new product in nearly three decades of attending trade shows and exhibitions. I’m glad it was kept under wraps, as the engaged, positive, quality demographic that NATE attracted to the convention deserved the first look.

Of course, many pointed to the state-of-the-art Bluetooth load monitoring app, while the integral quick adjustment mechanism (meaning it can be used to measure wire rope diameters from 3/16 in. to 1 in. or 5mm to 25mm) was the standout feature for others. Both elements equally impressed one of the early visitors to the exhibit, from the tower erection sector. “So I won’t need additional sheaves or tooling and the app will contain details of infinite wire ropes,” he remarked. “Wow!” he added. It wasn’t the only time we heard that word.

If the constant flow of footfall had abated I would have sat down to catch my breath. Reality was, no sooner had one inquisitive tower maintenance team left the stand (or booth as they call an exhibit stateside) a service company arrived, followed by another tower erector. At times, people had to leave the back of the crowd and come back later. Our product range is generally well received but this was unprecedented.

Tower erection and maintenance professionals were among visitors to our exhibit at NATE’s recent conference and exhibition.

Tower erection and maintenance professionals were among visitors to our exhibit at NATE’s recent conference and exhibition.

Plumb market

This blog isn’t about basking in our glory. The more important takeaway is the importance of tailoring a product to a marketplace and launching it in their back yard. Not everyone in the below-the-hook or, more specifically, force measurement industry knows what ‘plumb and tension’ means. To the NATE community, that’s their world. It’s a way of life. It was the perfect audience for the COLT, hence our endeavours to keep it behind closed doors until the event.

Welcoming another NATE attendee to the Straightpoint exhibit.

Welcoming another NATE attendee to the Straightpoint exhibit.

As I said in the press release we circulated as NATE doors flew open, we based the COLT on feedback from end users. Combining industry intelligence with our own research and engineering expertise, we devised a product that fills a gap in the market and supersedes alternative solutions. Further, it raises the bar in tension measuring technology to the stratosphere.

The towers themselves are getting pretty high too. Many of the professionals we met frequently service structures that are hundreds of feet in the air and I heard references to 1,000-foot-high structures, as the communication network achieves coverage across the vast landscapes of North America. Imagine how important it is therefore that when there are, say, 12 guy ropes around a tower, the tension is equal. In this business, it’s no good being a few degrees off vertical.

That’s where the COLT comes in. The computer numerical control (CNC) machined aluminium construction with high precision roller bearing pivot; high leverage tensioning arm; auto-locking magnetic handle mechanism for security when installed; and IP67 / NEMA6 waterproofing rating, will all combine as the tensionmeter is applied to keep this fascinating sector working efficiently and safely.

(The COLT will typically be applied from ground level or using a stepladder to attach it two feet from a termination or connection).

Wayne’s world

Wayne Wille, technical sales manager, has walked the corridors of NATE for a number of years. He’s a trusted authority in tension measurement and served as a great product champion for us after he joined the company during the latter stages of the COLT’s development. It was tremendous to have him on the stand throughout the show.

Therein lies another important reminder: becoming a thought leader and commentator on a sector builds up incredible trust in a marketplace. It’s not as crude as this, and I paraphrase, but one delegate suggested, “If this product is as good as you say it is, Wayne, we want to buy it”. Another said, simply, “Wow! That looks awesome”, after exchanging pleasantries with their old friend and looking across to the COLT.

Wayne started working with the tower industry in 1994 and attended his first NATE event in 2006. I like the way he summed it up when I asked what he enjoys about working in the sector. “The tower industry is always looking for solutions that offer them efficiency, safety and reliability,” he replied. I could certainly relate, as a supplier of equipment that does just that. As Wayne added in networking conversations, Straightpoint offers a solution that is very quick and accurate. It was music to the ears of a captivated audience.

Wayne Wille, technical sales manager, talks a NATE visitor through the COLT.

Wayne Wille, technical sales manager, talks a NATE visitor through the COLT.

Even as the business leader, I was there to learn from Wayne and the contacts he has spent many years cultivating. It would have been a mistake to be bullish on my first visit to the show. As I listened to stories, I was charmed by references to the mechanical dynamometers with cable grips and come-a-longs that were widely used in the sector years ago. They spoke about juggling three pieces of equipment; with COLT they’ll use just one.

I’m singling Wayne out but it’s worth referencing the expertise Dave Mullard, our UK-based business development manager, has in this marketplace. The engineering and marketing teams deserve a doff of the cap too for producing a product that looks fantastic but is also designed for purpose. Many tower erectors identified its key components and standout features just by looking at the COLT’s dimensions, which was rewarding.

Despite this positivity—“The COLT will sell very well in this market,” Wayne beamed within the first hour of the NATE show—we haven’t put all our eggs in one basket. Manufacturers of any product will be wise to challenge its potential for diversity even when the fanfare from the primary marketplace is prolonged. We’re already looking at applications including cable median barriers, zip lines, metro transit, ski lifts, fall arrest systems, and more. The first units will be put to use on site as early as 1st May this year!

Wayne Wille and I used our trip to NATE’s conference to visit Aldinger, an accredited calibration, certification and repair center for test and measurement instrumentation.

Wayne Wille and I used our trip to NATE’s conference to visit Aldinger, an accredited calibration, certification and repair center for test and measurement instrumentation.

Power of positivity

It was truly an honour to spend a few days among tower erection professionals, most notably because of their positive outlook. Positivity is damn powerful; don’t underestimate it. I spend a lot of time at lifting equipment, oil and gas, maritime, breakbulk and other trade shows where, with all due respect to these industries, there is often an air of negativity about the state of the market and prospects for each other’s businesses. Not so at NATE. These guys are on the up, in more ways than one.

Meanwhile, Jeff Miller, the new general manager of Straightpoint Inc., has settled into the company and has started to focus on our six key performance indicators for 2017. The old adage is true, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. (There’s a nice synergy there with our equipment!) Jeff’s introduction to the company has allowed John Molidor, director of sales for the western hemisphere, to concentrate on big projects, research niche markets and attend trade shows. He was at ConExpo-Con/Agg in Las Vegas this week where he caught up with many contacts to discuss force measurement, load monitoring and suspended weighing load cell solutions for the construction sector.

There have been other highlights over the last month or so but, as always, I can’t cover them all in detail. Joining Scott Abernethy on a traditional English pub-crawl during his recent visit from Straightpoint Inc. in California and an enlightening trip to Gaylin in South Korea were among the most memorable moments.

Thank you for reading! Use the hashtag #loadcell on social media.

Mr. Loadlink