IN this week's SME Focus a veteran of the Special Branch who turned his hand to sailing superyachts explains how he managed to create a business out of a singular range of life experiences.
Name: Wynne Edwards.
What is your business called?
Marine MTS (Marine Management Training & Security).
Where is it based?
Portlethen, in between Aberdeen and Stonehaven.
What does it produce, what services does it offer?
We produce innovative marine technology, and training – focused on safety and security – or prevention of key maritime threats such as accidents, terrorism or piracy. We also deliver company security audit and assessment services, conflict zone personnel threat assessment and awareness, vessel perimeter monitoring, and security and cyber threat assessment and prevention.
To whom does it sell?
Our market covers just about anyone operating on or near water – including oil and gas companies, commercial shipping, super-tanker operators, cruise ships, leisure marine operators and ferries. We also provide training for companies that work on or beside the water, such as port authorities. Clients include Total, Shell Exploration & Production (E&P), Vroon, North Star Shipping, Hanson, Seatruck, TAQA Bratani, Marathon, Bernhard Schulte Ship Management, Trinity House and the British Antarctic Survey.
What is its turnover? £280,000
How many employees?
Twelve, including contracted and part-time staff.
When was it formed?
Why did you take the plunge?
I started MMT (Marine Management Training), my first business, in 2003. That provided training for the maritime sector and was starting to get into software development. I had the idea for that business while recuperating from heart surgery, when someone asked me to research the availability and quality of marine training in the UK and Europe. I soon realised that there was a gap in the market, which I could fill. If I couldn't be operational at sea, I was determined to be involved in some way.
What were you doing before you took the plunge?
I had a 17-year career with the police, including the Special Branch national ports unit, where the prime focus was securing the ports from threat of terrorism during the troubles in Ireland.
I then moved on to a variety of CID and Crime Squad roles, mainly in drug prevention. After leaving the police force in 1989, the only other thing I really knew about was sailing, as my uncle had taught me as a boy. So, I ran away to sea.
Within a couple of days I was in the Caribbean working as a rather mature deck-hand. I soon qualified as a skipper and an instructor, and began a 20-year career in the leisure marine industry, skippering super-yachts (up to 100m) for the rich and famous, all over the world. This developed into project managing the build of super-yachts, which aren't really that different from super-tankers: the fixtures and fittings might be poles apart, but the principles of seamanship remain the same.
I also became involved in yacht racing, and trained all the first mates for the Millennium Round the World Yacht Race as well as crew for the Clipper Round the World Race in 2000.
How did you raise the start-up funding?
What was your worst moment?
There were two really. First, in 2003, when a virus contracted overseas damaged my heart, and as a result my life on the ocean waves came to an abrupt end.
It was then that I started MMT, which brought about the second worst moment.
The company went under in 2011, after clients had started delaying or cancelling training contracts because of the recession.
Cash flow suffered, and the software development side of the business wasn't yet strong enough to support us, as we didn't own the software that we used as the basis of our products. We were at the mercy of both our sales and our suppliers.
What was your biggest break?
When I started Marine MTS, immediately after MMT folded, it was with the express intention of getting the rights to the basic software we had started using at MMT, and building a business that could innovate without limitations.
I was very quickly able to buy the complete rights to the software we needed, and started over again, with a business that still provided training, but focused on product innovation.
Equal to that was finding (and keeping) the team I have around me. It comprises a former Royal Marine, a police officer and an NGO head of security – between us we have pretty compelling credentials in the maritime and security sector.
What do you most enjoy about running the business?
Being able to take ideas from the light bulb moment right through to market. We've tested, and tested again, and it's great to be in control of their destiny. If they work (which they do) it's down to us, if they didn't – well that would be down to us too.
That's a strong motivator. We have just launched a new personal locator beacon that beams individual location information. It's designed for faster rescue when casualties end up in water from a vessel going down or a helicopter ditching.
What do you least enjoy?
As someone who's come from a background of being out in the open air, or on the water, the 'desk driving' is the part of the business I least enjoy. Chasing up payments, doing the books and the day-to-day management minutiae ... They're all things I'd gladly hand over to someone else. However, as a growing small business, I need to keep a tight control on things, so it's a necessary part of my job.
What are your ambitions?
To be secure, successful and a good employer. Specifically, to be at the forefront of technology and security in the maritime sector, and the acknowledged leader in our field. And to hit a £10 million turnover within five years.
What are your top priorities?
In no particular order: People (clients and colleagues); service quality; product quality; constant innovation; reliability.
What could the Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help?
Create an environment where small businesses can thrive. Small businesses could support the UK's climb out of recession, but Government doesn't do enough to help. They could encourage the banks to provide viable funding options, or develop a workable funding body that would compete with the banks.
Banks are my biggest bugbear, as their ethos doesn't support small business. Given what's happened, the banks have withdrawn into themselves and are effectively providing an administrative service, as opposed to being a useful business tool, or even a partner. If there was an alternative, I'd take it.
What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?
'Fix the problem, not the blame'. In my business, there is a lot of trial and error, and the Marine MTS team really does work together to solve problems. Earlier in the year we all worked for four days and nights to come up with a piece of software for Total to help them during the Elgin platform gas leak incident. Our solution helped them to track real-time vessel movement around the incident area. Total has now rolled out the solution to all its UK assets, and we have launched the product to the wider market.
How do you relax?
I've recently taken up Kendo again, and I am also getting into cycling – perhaps it's the Olympic effect! For a more relaxed pace, I like a cheesy movie and I play the guitar. And for relaxation and adrenalin, there's my Honda ST1300 – even if I can't have a mega yacht, I still need a decent boy's toy.