What business qualities make an SME successful? We’ve been visiting various businesses to bring you some insightful case studies. Airdri – No 43 in The SME 10
In 1983, 10 years after it was founded, Eynsham-based Airdri literally added a lift to its balance sheet. Today the lift in question may well have Otis or Schindler on it, and Airdri ‘invisible light’ technology will control the safe non-contact opening and closing of its doors.
Lift doors were not on the Airdri sales radar before the1980s. Airdri was successfully manufacturing washroom hand dryers, which it continues to do today as a leading international supplier. It got into lifts by cleverly adapting the proven infra-red technology used in its ‘hot air’ dryers.
The success of this manufacturing diversification led to the formation of Formula Systems, now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Airdri Group, general manager John Curzon explained. Formula Systems is now a world-recognised authority in elevator door protection systems and has gained the Queen’s Award for Technological Achievement.
Curzon modestly admits that luck has played its part in the company’s manufacturing and sales fortunes. The fledgling hand dryer company, for example, secured a major client from a chance meeting at its first US trade show.
“The early road was quite bumpy but we managed to satisfy a growing demand. All SMEs need their share of luck,” said Curzon.
Airdri operates globally, and has incorporated companies in USA, Germany and China. Overseas sales account for 75% of its turnover. Its 50-strong UK headquarters deals with financials, product development, marketing and logistics.
“Often businesses grow, then plateau, and need something to take them to another level. We were like that when our crossover technology opportunity came along.”
Airdri’s core manufacturing competence improved the design, quality and output of Formula Systems products. The global nature of the lift industry, with its construction and building design links, improved marketing and sales opportunities for Airdri hand dryers.
Both product lines prospered. Hand dryers and lifts have similar markets, linked to property, with key sales areas in northern America and increasingly BRIC emerging nations. Even so, ‘invisible light’ sales have now outgrown ‘hot air’, and Formula Systems contributes around 65% of the company’s near £10 million turnover.
“In both fields, we offer considered solutions, value for money, and aim to become trusted business partners of our clients. Our clients get a lot more from us than just the product.”
While branding for clients, Airdri is currently aiming to reinvigorate its own brand image, to “make it more like selling an Apple computer than a hand dryer”.
Airdri strategically enhanced its business development and marketing resources for hand dryers last year. The change has benefited products and the bottom-line. Airdri recently launched new quieter eco-efficient machines that will dry hands in half the normal time, using 40% less electric power. They will also be more aesthetic, stylish and varied in design.
“In the last year, we have grown our core UK business by 50%.”
Airdri grew during the UK recessions. “Fortunately, recessions tend to hit those with large market shares, and we had a small market share in 1991.” In 2008, the global nature of Airdri operations largely offset the effects of the European recession.
Both products have new build and retrofit capabilities. “In recession, if new build drops, we still get installations because people invest in upgrading their existing washrooms or lifts.”
Airdri supports its own R&D and carefully watches market developments. “On both sides of our business we are not a follower. ‘Me too’ products tend to be poor imitations of the original. We regard ourselves as the authority on the original technology that we offer. There is room in our markets for more than one solution, but we believe ours will be the most appropriate in most cases,” said Curzon.
“We try to balance our investments with the growth of the business – standalone projects that pay for themselves as they progress.”
Funding has not been a problem. “We own what we have, and owe nothing.”
Choosing the right expenditure, however?
“We spent seven years looking for the right manufacturing partner in China, and then, taking the entrepreneurial approach, we set up our own general manufacturing facility, which is now something of a business incubator for SMEs entering China.
“We didn’t go to China for cost, it was needs-must. There was zero unemployment in the Oxford area at the time, and our OEM clients (already operating in China) were generating 35% annual growth for us. We needed to satisfy our client demand.”
SME-to-SME advice from Airdri
Pitfalls to avoid:
- Watch the market, accept change.
- Keep sight of what you believe in, but avoid stubbornness.
- Don’t plough good money after bad.
- Don’t get bogged down in the day-to-day.
- Don’t believe the hype – theirs or yours.
- Prepare for the future now.
Qualities to nurture:
- Flexibility should be a core competency – “If you can’t adapt, you will die.”
- Innovation and flair.
- Courage and stamina.
- Team commitment and trust.
- Involvement and open management.
- Soft skills, such as networking and customer relationships.
“SMEs today have a golden opportunity. Through websites they can market and portray themselves globally. But, they also have to be prepared to back it up through performance,”