New hope for firm that wouldn't die

JUST five years ago one of Ipswich's best known firms was close to collapse. A change in ownership, a new managing director and a move to new premises have transformed the fortunes of the historic engineering company.

JUST five years ago one of Ipswich's best known firms was close to collapse.

A change in ownership, a new managing director and a move to new premises have transformed the fortunes of the historic engineering company.

Today KATE MCNALLY investigates the amazing turnaround of compare Reavell.

AT Ipswich engineering company CompAir Reavell there is a strong sense of regeneration.

When CompAir moved to premesis on the Whitehouse Industrial Estate in 2002, it was the first step in a major five-year turnaround plan that has seen the company, which makes compressors and compressor systems, transform itself from an ailing business with just three weeks' orders on the books into a thriving outfit now three times the size it was when still just about operating at its old site near the town's railway station.

Equally, it is good to see a sizeable part of the former Agilent headquarters transformed from a potential white elephant, when the American technology giant pulled out of Ipswich, into a buzzing, valued, engineering site.

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The new premises have been instrumental in CompAir's reversal of fortune.

As managing director Malcolm Blackwell says, they needed to move to a facility that gave them space to breathe and grow.

“We had a very old, very run down facility that hadn't been invested in for a long time and wasn't suitable for modern manufacturing. We also had a very old foundry that had the same problems - old technology, old equipment - and a machine shop in the same category.”

Malcolm was brought on board in 2001, specifically tasked with assessing whether the company could survive and, if so, how. His remedy was 'modern manufacturing', which essentially meant closing the lower end activity - the melting of raw ore and manufacturing the components - and focusing on the higher end, namely assembling the engineering systems, testing them and getting them out to the customer safely and on time.

“If you're going to have a UK manufacturing business you need to be focusing on the higher end - the simple things you can't do competitively in the UK,” explains Malcolm.

“So we stopped doing the casting and machining bit and now bring in finished components to our designs, and we concentrate on what we think is the difficult bit.

“We did a lot of work in terms of what our customer perceives as the value he's getting when he buys from us, and the plain fact is the customer doesn't really care where the components are made. What he cares about is that the system is put together properly, tested properly and it works. Our view was that the real added value we bring is in that technology and engineering side, so that's where we've gone.”

Malcolm immediately realised CompAir needed to move from its former site on the river by the railway station which it had occupied since 1898. It wasn't, however, a foregone conclusion that the company would stay in Ipswich. At that stage, CompAir had been bought from its parent group Invensys by private equity company Alchemy Partners and the new owners were looking for results. There was no room for sentimentality for the firm's Suffolk roots.

But, after what Malcolm describes as a “complete analysis” of where to move the business, including UK rural development areas, China, and Wales, he made a “conscious decision” to stay put in Ipswich in recognition of the company's skilled workforce who were based in and around the town.

“When we worked it all through, we felt the best option was to stay here and secure the workforce and skills we've got. In a business like ours, which is the engineered side of what the group does, there's a lot of inherent skill and knowledge in what people do. At the end of the day, you've got to have good people, if you don't you won't have a successful business. Which is why we're keeping the business here, making sure we keep that talent and looking at how we can bring in newpeople to help us grow.”

Also key to the turnaround was reintroducing former product brand names, including the company's original name Reavell.

“It is a fantastic brand with a very good reputation,” says Malcolm.

“One of the decisions made by CompAir way back was to get rid of all the brand names. One of the first things we did was to bring them all back, because across the group we've got some very strong brand names and people recognise them.

“We are a major supplier to the navy, for example, and when naval people talk about the high pressure air compressors on frigates, they call them 'Reavells'. We've had lots of people say they have a great image of the Reavell business and what it does.”

Five years on, CompAir UK is in a much stronger position and is now, once again, looking to the future.

The company operates in three principal markets: compressed natural gas for use in vehicles, from refuse trucks to buses; breathing air, primarily used by fire services and for scuba diving; and industrial air and gas, which has a variety of uses including air break testing, particle board manufacture and the supply of compressors for big naval tankers.

“Marine is a big sector for us,” says Malcolm. “We have been the main supplier to the Royal Navy for a long time and now to the Pakistan, Canadian and Australian navies, basically other countries to which the Royal Navy has sold one of its old frigates that has our equipment on board.”

CompAir is a heavy exporter - around 90% of its product goes abroad - so being close to the docks is “very, very useful”, says Malcolm, and he believes there is considerable scope for expanding into new geographical markets going forward. Two years ago, the company set up a joint venture in China where, in particular, there are significant opportunities.

Part of securing future growth is devising a strategy to attract new people into the company - both on the engineering side and the support side. Interestingly, the latter accounts for two thirds of the 150 staff based at the Ipswich site.

This strategy includes reintroducing apprenticeships as well as other schemes, such as a year in industry pre-university and summer work experience for undergraduates.

CompAir is currently interviewing for two apprentice positions. Malcolm would like to see greater respect given to the apprenticeship career route within the education establishment.

“Schools are pushing youngsters towards higher education even if that isn't what they want to do. These are the young people we want as apprentices but often they don't know where to go. The balance isn't right between encouraging those who want to go on to higher education and helping those who don't.

“Later, when we start looking at undergraduates for sponsorship and graduates to take on, we have to look closely at where they did their degree and whether they have really got the skills required.”

While the focus is on attracting the right new talent, CompAir also helps existing staff to train up and progress within the business.

“We don't want to lose sight of developing the guys we have. There are good opportunities within the group for training, moving across into different areas or taking up secondment abroad,” says Julie Cann, head of HR.

Employees were also fully involved in the move to new premises, a project which proved so successful that the UK operation is now the benchmark for the group when it comes to office moves. The culmination of the new approach to employee inclusion and advancement was achieving Investors in People accreditation earlier this year.

All in all, it has been a busy, exciting and incredibly productive five years returning CompAir Reavell to profit and to a standing equal to former glories of bygone years. But Malcolm and his management team aren't about to take the foot off the accelerator.

“In turning a business around, you have to think short term to get out of the problems but once you get out you've got to be thinking how to make sure it can continue to grow for many years,” he says. “We like to think that what we're doing now will help the company to be here in Ipswich for another 100 years.”

Advancing at CompAir UK

Rehana Khanam, 20

Third year engineering student at Cambridge University

Two summers working at Compair

“I wanted to study engineering because it is a natural progression from the A levels I most enjoyed and had the most talent for - physics and maths - and because I knew it would open the jobs market wide up to me.

“When I signed up for university I was going to specialise in mechanical engineering, which is our main bread and butter, but once I came to CompAir I was more interested in speaking to the guys on the shop floor and getting the link going between the workshop and the office.

“I found it exciting to learn more about the nuts and bolts and how you actually make things rather than just doing the technical side all the time.

“I really enjoy working here in the summer. I think this place is quite special. I chose it for work placements because it has a factory and not many places still have the manufacturing function. And CompAir has done a lot for me - I can call the operations director for advice throughout the academic year which is really nice.”

Luke Roberts, 17

Apprentice at CompAir

Left school last September with 13 GCSEs, six at 'A' grade

“I thought I was all right at studying but I opted for an apprenticeship because I'd rather learn more practical skills and earn some money at the same time.

“I'm moving around here doing different things which I enjoy and at the end of three years I'll be a qualified fitter, educated to BTech level. There is also a possibility of going on to do a university degree which I'd be up for.

“After the apprenticeship, I would be interested in taking up a job with CompAir but it would depend on what they offered me.”

David Brooke, 62

CompAir employee

“I joined CompAir two years ago. Boulter Boilers, where I had worked for 14 years, was closed down and I registered with an agency. They said there was a possibility for short-term work at CompAir so I came for 4-6 weeks and have been here ever since.

“They offered me a permanent position last June and asked if I would consider taking an NVQ course. I thought it would be a challenge but I've found it helpful as I've learnt computer skills as well. And as I've learnt more I've been given more to do. I have found it very interesting and the people I work with have been very helpful.

“When I was made redundant, I thought the most I could hope for was temporary work which wouldn't have been as well paid, nor as rewarding or secure. I also thought I was going to miss the people but now I've got another whole group to work with. I can't speak highly enough of CompAir because they have given me the chance to progress.”

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