Christine Bewley, MD of Aycliffe Fabrications, was one of three business owners invited to meet with the Cabinet Office recently when they visited the SFEDI and IOEE offices in County Durham.
The business has an impressive portfolio, creating one off artistic commissions in steel and aluminium for public art and schools. As well as bespoke metal products for industry, local authorities and construction projects. We caught up with Christine to find out about the visit and get her thoughts on the challenges of running a small business.
Tell us about you and your business.
Aycliffe Fabrications began in 1980 and I’ve been with the business for over 30 years.
Myself and another Director of the business led a management buy-out some years ago, and now after the retirement of the other Director I’m the Sole Owner. My role in the business has always been mainly financial and marketing, and I am supported by two really excellent managers, a production manager and estimating and technical manager, who look after all of the production and estimating aspects. In total we have 7 employees.
What kind of products does the business produce?
We design and manufacture many products from large-scale sculptures and architecture commissioned pieces out of mild steel, stainless steel and aluminium to the more mundane everyday safety and security products for industry, schools, local authorities, etc. Some of our more well-known work includes the Joseph Hillier sculpture In Our Image, the Swirl Sculpture at Baltic Place Gateshead and a Stainless Steel and Glass Structure for the NHS Corbett Hospital. The work we carry out for schools includes ornamental gates and signs, in fact we’ve also become pretty good at advising them on how to approach those projects as there’s a lot to consider.
What kind of skills does the team have and how are those developed?
It’s very specialist work so the team is highly skilled. Everyone who’s worked here has served an apprenticeship. All our employees are CSCS (Construction Skills Certification Scheme) accredited meaning our customers can be sure of a quality workforce. We’ve always had apprenticeships and are really committed to them; they’re essential to our business. We’ve always used South West Durham Training to train our apprentices, as they specialise in manufacturing.
I’ve seen a change in apprenticeships in recent years, with more of a focus on NVQs. The apprentices don’t get the grounding they used to so we need to invest more time in ‘on the job’ training. It’s hard for small companies to cover the apprentice’s wage and the cost of taking the skilled people taking off the job to train them. It’s a big step to take someone on, so it would be fantastic if there were more of a direct incentive for the company during the first year or two. It would also be great to get more support if you’re recruiting slightly older apprentices. We recruited a 19-year-old recently but because he was older, we didn’t get the same level of funding as we would have got for someone younger. The National Insurance exemption during an apprentice’s first year is great, but I’d love to see it extended to cover those supporting the apprentice, and beyond the first year as well.
Has your business ever developed enterprise skills or worked with a mentor?
Yes, I found two really crucial sources of skills development when I was part of the first management buy-out of the company nearly 20 years ago.
Firstly I did a Level 4 Management Qualification, which was really useful way for me to learn the specific skills I needed as a Director. When you’ve worked in a business for a long time and you buy into the company, you think you know what it’s going to involve and that you have the skills you need. You can think that you just need to continue doing what you’re doing, but I quickly realised that I needed to develop a whole additional set of skills.
Secondly, we worked with a business consultant who acted as a fantastic mentor for me and the business - he was excellent. The difference I found with him was that he didn’t teach me things, he would question my thoughts and ideas. When I talked about some of the challenges we were facing, he would say, ‘you know what to do’, It gave me confidence that I actually did know what to do. It wasn’t like teaching but I learned an awful lot.
Have you considered mentoring yourself?
As a business we have done lots of work with Young Enterprise and local schools, which we’ve really enjoyed. Beyond that I’m pretty focused on running the business, and would struggle to find time to fit anything else in.
It could be interesting to explore mentoring someone where we’re both getting something from it. So I could help on the financial side and perhaps get support from someone with knowledge in social media which is an area we are developing. So both people give something and both get something.
Have you ever found any differences being a female business owner in quite a male dominated sector?
I honestly don’t find any differences as a woman, but then I don’t look for them. I work with all men and I’ve never had an issue. My only sense has always been that you need to have a great team that you have complete trust in. I leave the management team to do what they’re great at, and they trust me to do what I do. I’ve always thought that as a team you’ve got to work together. When you’re running a business it’s not about men or women it’s about us as a team.
You know it’s funny, there have been occasions when people have called, and you can tell they’re thinking ‘can I speak to a man?’ I’m the first to say I’m not the technical expert in the company but that is because others are better than me at that aspect and it is not because I am a woman. ‘I think that if I’ve come across anything like that I just brush it off. I was brought up with three sisters and my Dad always encouraged us to believe we could do anything we wanted, being girls had no restrictions and that’s always stayed with me. My Dad was a time served Sheet Metal Worker and I used to love going into work with him at the weekend and cutting pieces of metal on the guillotine! It wouldn’t be allowed these days with Health & Safety but maybe seeing the Engineering Industry from an early age meant I had no fear of it.
There’s more emphasis today on encouraging girls to get into engineering than there was 30 years ago, so things are changing. One thing that’s perhaps not promoted enough is that there are lots of roles in finance, marketing, etc., that are also a great way to find a rewarding career in the manufacturing and engineering sectors.
What were your thoughts on the visit from the Cabinet Office?
I was surprised at the high level they were at, reporting directly to Number 10, and that they would be interested in talking to a small business like us. They did a lot of listening and asked a lot of questions. I really felt they were interested in making a difference.
One area they’re very interested in is how to support business growth. Everything seems geared towards taking on that extra employee. That’s great but as a business we’re interested in growing in many ways, e.g. increasing profit and outsourcing work when we can, so creating work but not always direct employment. If we make more profit the government will get more tax so I find it difficult to understand that the only way they look at growing a business is to take on extra employees. It’s such a big step to recruit a permanent employee that in the shorter term our growth depends on being more efficient, sourcing more quality customers, and then creating employment indirectly by increasing the work we give contractors, e.g. haulage and powder coating companies rather than taking someone on directly. As we become more profitable we can outsource services such as Health & Safety and Marketing which we do in house at the minute and that is another way of creating indirect employment.
What are your plans for the business over the next couple of years?
Well the last few years have been really tough. I’ve been in business for 30 years and the last 5 years have been the toughest yet. The global recession hit the construction and manufacturing industry dreadfully, and that had a knock-on effect for us. Small jobs that we used to do were being taken on by the big companies. We also did a lot of work for local councils, and with cuts in the public sector, a lot of that work isn’t there anymore. We’re not out of the woods yet but it feels more positive.
We’ve also had a lot of changes here as I had to raise funds for the buy-out, but now that is behind us we can concentrate on the future. The way forward is to become more efficient, try to grow the business by working smarter, not harder, and to be more selective about the work we take on too. If we do become more profitable we can then hopefully look to take on another apprentice once we are confident the increase in work and profit is permanent.
We are very versatile and do work for a lot of different sectors so I’m very positive about the future. We do great work and have a fantastic team so I’m looking forward to where our upcoming projects will lead.