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Concrete mixer business built on solid foundations

IN This week's SME Focus we hear from a business person who has had to grapple with the fall-out from the downturn in the construction industry and who wants ministers to do more to support home-grown small and medium-sized enterprises.

ON THE MAP: McPhee Mixers boss Brinsley McFarlane hopes recent innovations at the company will have an international appeal and lead to an expansion into Europe.
ON THE MAP: McPhee Mixers boss Brinsley McFarlane hopes recent innovations at the company will have an international appeal and lead to an expansion into Europe.

Name: Brinsley McFarlane.

Age: 53

What is your business called?

McPhee Mixers.

Where is it based?

Blantyre, Lanarkshire. The site includes a range of manufacturing plants, production lines, a paint shop and office accommodation.

What does it produce, what services does it offer?

We are the only company in Scotland designing and manufacturing truck-mounted concrete mixers, and over the last five years have established ourselves as a leading supplier to the UK market.

We offer a range of standard and bespoke mixers from three-cubic-metre mixers mounted on four-wheeled 15 tonne chassis vehicles to 12-cubic-metre mixers mounted on 44-tonne articulated trailers.

We have established a network of service agents to assist with infield maintenance and repairs.

In recent years there has been a clear need to produce safer and more environmentally friendly concrete mixers.

We have developed five innovations during the last two years, which target specific mixer-operator safety concerns and the impact of washing down highly alkaline concrete slurry, which inevitably enters the water table.

Who does it sell to?

A range of customers from independent sole operatives to some of the major players in the concrete-mixing world including Hanson UK, Lafarge, Tarmac, Cemex and Aggregate Industries.

What is its turnover?

This year we expect to generate sales of £3.4 million and in 2013 we're projecting £4m. Last year's sales amounted to £2.6m.

We've a healthy order book but life is challenging because we rely on a thriving construction industry. We've seem some chink of positive growth but nothing that makes us complacent about the future.

How many employees?

Currently we employ 44, having increased the total by 12 in the last few months.

Remarkably, we still have the first welder who joined us almost 40 years ago and our first apprentice who's now a senior employee.

When was it formed?

My late father-in-law William McPhee launched the business in 1972 so we're celebrating our 40th anniversary this year.

Why did you take the plunge?

My original connection with McPhee Mixers was a very personal one.

I'd met and married the founder's daughter Lorna who is also my co-director in the business.

I'd been working in Paris and Vienna for an offshore investment company and I decided to come back to the UK to work when we met.

Lorna had quit her role as a midwife to join the family business in 1992 and we saw an opportunity to take a small Blantyre-based Engineering Firm and transform it into the leading producer of concrete mixers in the UK.

I joined in 1995, spent a few years in the workshop learning manufacturing skills, and from there started to develop what was a Scottish-based customer portfolio into a UK-wide based portfolio.

What was your biggest break?

Selling the first of our concrete mixers south of the border in 1998.

Before then the company had focused its sales on Scotland only and I believed any potential growth was through expansion into new sales fields.

I visited most of the plants where mixer operators were based, speaking to drivers and assessing their needs and telling them what we could do for them with our range of mixers.

It was a case of making sure we knew exactly what our market could be in detail.

I had a map on the office wall and pinned a flag with our logo on it each time a new sale was made. Soon we had flags all over the UK.

Today we dream that a number of our recent innovations will have an international appeal and that we may need to purchase a European sales map.

What was your worst moment?

The financial crash of 2008. We lost 90% of turnover in three months and our workforce went from 65 to 13 and onto a four-day week.

What do you most enjoy about running the business?

Working on introducing new innovations to our designs. This year we've been focused on improved safety features and making our new fleet of mixers what we think is the most environmentally friendly in Europe.

What do you least enjoy?

The frustration of not always achieving the daily goals I set for each day.

No matter how focused I'll be on working through my list, something unexpected will come up on the production floor that needs my attention and so diverts me from what I'm aiming to complete.

What are your ambitions for the firm?

My main aim is to continue our sales growth and explore new sales opportunities both here in the UK and internationally.

What are your top priorities?

In no particular order they are commitment to quality, developing innovation, maintaining a high level of customer service, increasing our turnover and managing a workforce that's reliable and steady.

What could the Westminster government and/or the Scottish Government do that would most help?

I feel that the same enthusiasm should be shown for home-grown SMEs as there is for global organisations who come to invest on our shores.

They'll often come here, taking all the tax breaks and incentives on offer and employ several hundreds or thousands.

Then, after five or 10 years, they often close up and go, citing economic reasons.

That to me is a government focusing on short-term investment only.

Support should also be given much more readily for those companies – and I include my own – that have had to work extremely hard and continue to do so to give workers long-term employment prospects.

How do you relax?

Spending quality time with my wife Lorna and two daughters.

Nothing beats a long walk in the countryside with our dogs to help me escape the world of concrete-mixer production.

Having a partner in the same business means we need to focus harder at avoiding chat about work issues. It's so important for us both to switch off... though the phone's never turned off.

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