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Engineering firm with family background plans to expand

IN this week's SME Focus we hear from a Scottish engineering firm which is planning expansion after overcoming the challenges posed by a recession that took a toll on the sector.

DIVERSIFIED: N J Slee Welding and Fabrication is currently turning over £650,000 a year and the figure looks set to rise despite the challenges posed by the recession. Picture: Chris James

Name: Steven Slee

Age: 35

What is your business called? N J Slee Welding and Fabrication.

Where is it based? Garelochhead, Argyll and Bute.

What does it produce, what services does it offer? A range of services including heavy and light fabrication, structural works, pipeline installations and repairs, jetty works and general blacksmith services.

Who does it sell to? Our customer base is wide and includes blue chip companies such as Babcock, BP, Rolls Royce, Ineos and Qinetiq. The main industries we work for are oil and gas, petrochemical, construction and defence.

What is its turnover? Circa £650,000 although we hope to see this figure rise year on year.

How many employees? Six.

When was it formed? My father Nicol founded the company 35 years ago. We began by working primarily for construction companies developing the local Faslane and Coulport defence bases but over the last 35 years we have diversified. This was a combination of a natural progression and the advantages of our location. Finnart Ocean (oil) Terminal which was originally run by BP, is only around three miles from where we are based and since the early days we have been working there on a regular basis. We have maintained a strong working relationship with whichever company has been managing the facility and that has allowed us to break into different industries. Although these works are in the downstream oil and gas sector, we would like to capitalise on this and break into the upstream, exploration and production sector.

Why did you take the plunge? Last year my dad hinted to the family and workforce that he intended to retire in the near future and both he and I felt I was the natural person to take over.

What were you doing before you took the plunge? I served my apprenticeship with my dad's company and stayed there for six years. I then enrolled in the University of the West of Scotland and gained a BSc in Quality Management.

After joining the oil and gas industry as a Quality Engineer, initially in Aberdeen, I spent some time working for a manufacturer of Floating Production Storage and Offloading vessels. The fabrication of these took me to many places around the world and finally I worked as a quality engineering manager in the subsea structure sector on projects worth circa half a billion dollars.

However, at the back of my mind I always felt I would like to end up back in the family business one day. My experience and understanding of the work my dad carried out combined with my knowledge of the oil and gas sector meant we both felt I was the perfect person to lead N J Slee Welding and Fabrication into the next generation.

Family businesses can be challenging in their own way but I love being part of something that my father built on his own and I am relishing taking the company forward.

How did you raise the start-up funding? My dad used his savings to acquire his first lorry and welding plant. From the work he got out of this he was able to afford the rent of a small workshop and it just grew from there. I feel we can capitalise on all the work my dad has done and I approached Business Gateway in Argyll and Bute to see if they could help with my growth plans. I was encouraged to apply for a Business Gateway Plus growth grant. Having been awarded the maximum £3,000 under this scheme, I was able to take the company through the ISO 9001 certification process which is a Quality Management standard that will help us attract and tender for higher value contracts.

What was your biggest break? Our location has been a huge benefit for us. We were constantly called upon by all major contractors during the building and development of Faslane and Coulport Submarine base and armaments depots.

This work allowed the company to keep on progressing and increased our reputation in these very important industries.

What was your worst moment? The recent recession, which caused so many problems that were out of our control. It was a difficult and anxious time. Many companies like ourselves didn't survive it and we are very proud that we have come through it.

What do you most enjoy about running the business? I like doing different things and the variation of the contracts and projects we take on is always really interesting and challenging.

What do you least enjoy? Having to turn away work if we are already working on a big project. This is something we aim to put right in the near future, so we can take on more contracts without it impacting on any others. Our staff recruitment ambitions should help us with this.

What are your ambitions for the firm? I want us to be competing for more and larger contracts as we go forward. Although we are a small company, we believe our current and projected workload will allow us to take on apprentices and steadily increase our staff, hopefully initially back to around the ten personnel the company had over ten years ago. Getting the ISO 9001 was the first step in us achieving this. We have a history of offering apprenticeships and this is something I want to continue and build on. I served my time with my father and it is not only a fantastic opportunity for the company to train someone young up to our style of working, but it's a wonderful experience for the apprentice.

What are your top priorities?

Entering and becoming a well-known name in the offshore wind energy sector, delving further into the oil and gas sector, providing further training to our staff, increasing the numbers in our apprentice scheme and increasing turnover.

What was the most valuable lesson that you learned? The customer is always right.

How do you relax? By getting away as much a possible.

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