IN this week's SME Focus we hear from a man whose business won an unusual boost from the Scottish Parliament after he demonstrated an adaptability learned at an early age.
Name: Kevin Priestley.
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What is your business called?
NPI Solutions Ltd.
Where is it based?
What does it produce, what services does it offer?
We produce components, assemblies and manufacturing fixtures for a range of clients. As well as producing the nuts and bolts and shells and casings for all manner of products in the defence, medical and aerospace industries, we produce prototypes for novel technologies devised by scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs.
To whom does it sell?
Manufacturers, defence contractors, design agencies, and entrepreneurs. Typical existing customers include Raytheon (defence), Chemring (defence), BAe Systems (defence), Teknek (capital equipment), New Brunswick Scientific (medical), Invotec (printed circuit boards and aerospace), Linn Products (commercial products), etc.
What is its turnover?
How many employees? 35.
When was it formed? 2001.
Why did you take the plunge?
I was brought up in Tain in the Highlands of Scotland and was of working age at the beginning of the 80s. The area had very little in the way of large employers with Invergordon smelter shutting down and Nigg oil fabrication yard coming towards the end of its boom years. Many worked in a family business, part-time or in a seasonal job, so you were expected to create your own opportunities as there was little in the way of regular, permanent employment.
After completing my formal training, I was hired by Enco Industries, a traditional engineering company founded in the boom years of IBM and the rise of Silicon Glen.
Within 10 years I had progressed to senior management level but, in 1994, I was made redundant and my world collapsed. Like many people in employment, the thought of leaving a secure job and starting out on my own was a daunting prospect, but being made redundant removed the security blanket of paid employment and, with little prospect of employment available elsewhere, I had little choice. I raised a small pot of money and went into business.
What were you doing before you took the plunge?
After working at Enco Industries, I had a short period with the Red Cross before launching Evolvon Ltd, which designed and manufactured tooling for the electronics industry, and printed circuit board heatsinks for the PCB industry. I had started the company with my former managing director at Enco.
My responsibilities were supposed to be confined to the technical side of the business, where my experience and skills were strongest, but things didn't go to plan.
My business partner became ill shortly after we started operations and I had to take on all the other functions of the company in addition to manufacturing which substantially held back the company's development.
I was unhappy with my lot at Evolvon, but I don't regret the years spent there as it provided a fantastic training ground.
How did you raise the start-up funding?
Initial funding came from the bank. I had been with a well-known high street bank for many years without breaking their terms all the way through our relationship.
When I decided to go it alone I asked for a £5000 loan, but they refused which came as a real surprise. I could probably have got a £15,000 loan for a car, but to invest it in myself was considered too high a risk. I moved my account to a different bank which gave me the funding I needed.
While running Evolvon, I decided to set up another business that became NPI, but I funded it very differently. My business partner and I worked part time on the new business with the fundamental rule that we would not seek outside funding as we considered the strings too onerous.
Each step was carefully considered and, by the end of the first year, we'd built a basic manufacturing company, turned a moderate profit, but had not borrowed.
What was your biggest break?
In our first year, I received a telephone call from a company which knew us for our manufacturing abilities and our willingness to take on difficult projects.
They asked if I could bend pipes and weld steel. My answer was, of course, yes although at that stage we didn't do very much of either – machining was our strength. After a few weeks of discussion we had our quote accepted.
We had won a significant contract to supply the Scottish Parliament with all the metalwork for the 131 lecterns that had to be made for MSPs.
This single contract moved us on significantly, with all the earnings being put back into the company.
Had we known in advance the complexity and high visual standards that had to be adhered to we would most likely have declined, but it was from this platform that we became a "real company" employing people who relied on us for a wage.
What was your worst moment?
Doing a joint venture with a larger company and giving up equity within the deal in exchange for equipment and some contractual work. Both parties had different ideas as to how the company should progress and often ended in an impasse. It was a bad moment that lasted three years.
What do you most enjoy about running the business?
I am one of those people who likes going to work. If I won the Euromillions lottery, I'd still turn up at the office every day.
I enjoy success, doing my best to be environmentally and sociably responsible and yes, I like making money.
If nothing else, it's a measure of the overall success that we're achieving.
The most enjoyable part, though, has to be dealing with the entrepreneurial characters that I come into contact fairly frequently, who have come up with great products and believe they can make some money or even launch a business with it.
What do you least enjoy?
Red tape is the least enjoyable and productive element of running a business.
I don't recall any single piece of compliance paperwork that has ever improved my company's profitability.
What are your ambitions for the firm?
My ambition for NPI is to increase turnover to £5m and remain profitable within the next three years. The economic climate hasn't helped us in this task, but I refuse to allow that to be an excuse. Indeed, working with Shirlaws (business coaching) has enabled us to predict with confidence what is probable within the economy looking forward.
What are your five top priorities?
Attracting new customers; cost control, cost reduction and increased efficiency is my next priority as this will aid profitability; attracting and retaining effective team members; diversifying our offering; expanding our geographic footprint.
What could the Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help?
Businesses will only become stronger if governments assist by giving maximum support to allow them to thrive via access to growth funding, advice and information, sensible and stable taxation and stable foreign exchange rates.
Government needs to remove red tape and barriers, support entrepreneurial culture and allow business to thrive.
What was the most valuable lesson you learned?
Treat everyone the way you yourself like to be, and expect to be treated. At some point you will need the assistance of someone in your circle of business; if you have been genuine they are more likely to do their best to provide the support you need.
How do you relax?
I'm not very good at this. I like reading business books or searching for my next product line for a revenue stream.
When I do relax it will always be with my close family. Travel is our main passion.