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How to engineer success using maximum energy

IN this week's SME Focus we hear from a woman who has developed a successful engineering firm that is reaping the benefits of taking a co-operative approach to business development.

GOING IT ALONE: Jean Laughlin took over the business when her predecessor retired, and had to build a new team almost from scratch. Picture: Mark Mainz
GOING IT ALONE: Jean Laughlin took over the business when her predecessor retired, and had to build a new team almost from scratch. Picture: Mark Mainz

Name: Jean Laughlin.

Age: 55.

What is your business called? Linnet Technology Limited.

Where is it based? Headquarters near Stirling with satellite offices in Leeds and Andover, Hampshire.

What does it produce; what services does it offer? We supply, install and maintain back-up power equipment such as Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS), generators, central battery systems for emergency lighting and switch-tripping units.

In January we launched a Hydrogen Fuel Cell back-up power system, which is environmentally friendly (zero emissions), with Auriga Energy of Bristol. This picked up Best New Product at the Select Electrotechnical Awards 2012. The idea for the product was borne out of a discussion with one of our customers who had suffered a fuel leak that had contaminated a water supply. They asked if we know of a product that would offer a "clean" solution.

They introduced Jim Laughlin, Linnet's technical director, to Jas Singh of Auriga Energy. Jas's experience came from developing satellites for BAE and was at that time working with Fuel Cell technology. Jim has over 13 years' experience of UPS technology and also has a qualification as a time-served electrician.

Over a period of two years the two companies developed the system, which provides a UPS/generator-type product that produces only water as a by-product.

To whom does it sell? Because our clients rely on continuous power they need to have some form of back-up equipment which will allow them to have this 24/7.

Our customers include blue-chip companies such as BAA, the Met Office, BBC and BOC Gases. We also look after most of the emergency services in Scotland including Strathclyde, Tayside, Central Scotland, Fife, Grampian and Dumfries and Galloway Fire and Police and the entire Scottish Ambulance Service, as well as a number of hospitals such as Queen Margaret Hospital, Crosshouse, Hull Women and Children's and Leeds General.

What is its turnover? £2.3 million.

How many employees? 16 – eight are fully qualified electricians/UPS engineers spread throughout the UK

When was it formed? 1989 – Linnet was originally set up as a maintenance and repair organisation for computers, leading into UPS systems. With my arrival at Linnet as book-keeper in 1993, we felt selling products would help to build our maintenance business. This became my primary role and the business grew from there.

Why did you take the plunge? I was Linnet's first employee and worked hard over the next 12 years helping to build the business. When Philip Hainsworth decided to retire in 2005, in the absence of an outside buyer the business was offered to me. It was not an easy decision to make as there are very few women at the head of engineering companies such as ours and I was unsure whether this would work. Funding, close to £750,000, had to be raised and after some negotiation I was fortunate, with the assistance of our incumbent bank [Clydesdale], to raise the funds to realise the sale.

What were you doing before you took the plunge? Prior to taking over as managing director in 2005 I had been carrying out all aspects of running Linnet Technology. Those years of experience gave me the confidence to take the plunge! Before I joined Linnet I had worked freelance as a book-keeper to small businesses while looking after my two young children. Prior to that I worked for Marks & Spencer as a lingerie supervisor for 10 years.

How did you raise the start-up funding? Through a five-year Business Loan from Clydesdale Bank and a vendor loan from the previous owner. We were very fortunate because we were able to pay off our business loan early, and this allowed us to start our investment in the Hydrogen Fuel Cell back-up technology system that we recently brought to market.

What was your biggest break? Getting the opportunity to buy the business from Philip when he wanted to retire. On one hand the timing was perfect as shortly after this borrowing became nigh on impossible. On the other hand, however, we quickly dipped into a recession that has lasted for several years. Throughout, Linnet has dug in and worked hard and has continued to make a sizeable profit year on year.

What was your worst moment? When I took over in 2005 six out of our eight engineers left the company. I did get a slight complex I have to say! Three left to start their own businesses – using the old adage "well, if a woman can do it" – and out of the other three one retired and the two others went to work for other companies. Although this put us in a really tight spot, it allowed us to build a new team who are committed, respectful and enthusiastic. You could say the worst moment was also the making of Linnet.

What do you most enjoy about running the business? I love every aspect of it but I think my favourite part is working closely with my team, ensuring they feel valued and motivated at all times. I believe employees buying into a company's ethos are critical to the success of any business.

What could the Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help? We feel the Government needs to be looking seriously at providing incentives to enable businesses to absorb the high initial costs of new technologies such as hydrogen. Ministers could also simplify the grant process to allow SMEs to access funding in an appropriate time frame.

However, Business Gateway Clackmannanshire, Scottish Enterprise and SDI have all been really supportive to date. We have been fortunate in receiving funding from them for our marketing graduate, aid for overseas trips (Abu Dhabi 2012 and Frankfurt 2012) and also assisting with exhibitions, including the World Future Energy Summit, ADIPEC 2012 in Abu Dhabi and All Energy 2013 in Aberdeen.

What was the most valuable lesson that you learned? That nothing beats hard work. I come from a strong working-class background and have seen what can be achieved through hard work. In this day and age when a shortcut to success is the dream of many, I take great job satisfaction from knowing I am here thanks to the old-fashioned approach.

How do you relax? Spending time with family and friends.

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