Canford Audio: Original thinking, original products

To coincide with the release of the Manufacturing Growth Network’s North East Manufacturers Growth 50 list, Insider will be interviewing the leaders of growing North East manufacturing businesses and publishing one interview per month over the course of the next twelve months. They will be delving into the growth strategies of these businesses and exploring how they aim to build and sustain this growth in the future.

The first interview in this series of 12 is with Iain Elliott, who heads up Canford, the Washington-based cable and connector manufacturer and supplier to the broadcasting industry.

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Making things has always been something Iain Elliott has done. It’s in his blood. The son of an engineer, raised and educated in the North East, he has been in the business of supplying professional audio equipment (cables, connectors, microphones, headphones etc) to the broadcasting industry since 1976.

Today, the business employs 140 staff (who have clocked up a staggering 1886 years working at Canford between them), and last year had a turnover of just under £16m. Production is split between the company’s Washington, Tyne & Wear headquarters where Canford produces fibre optic cables for ultra-high definition broadcasting and its metalworking factory on the Isle of Portland, Dorset.

Although the volumes of manufactured products are relatively small, Canford lists 450 mains distribution units that are typically used in broadcasting, as well as ‘off catalogue’ products that it delivers for the particular needs of customers. Over the years, Canford has acquired a number of businesses, all but one of them manufacturing companies, the most recognisable of which is Neal – the interview recording specialists.

Iain explains: “We are specialists in broadcasting products but we cross over into all sorts of other things too. The majority of our business is selling to the people who actually do the projects, the systems integrators. And these are our high-value customers.”

‘Boring’ products they may be to some but they are used in some very exciting environments. Their biggest customer is the BBC but they have other high-profile customers too. For example, every stadium that hosts a Premier League football game has Canford cables helping to beam images and sound around the world. Canford cables have also been used in such prestigious events as the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, at President Barack Obama’s visit to the UK for the G8 summit in 2013 – and even at the opening of the Channel Tunnel!

Iain describes the principles that guide the company today as “sticking to what we’re good at which makes us focus on being audio specialists. We have certain customers with which we have a true collaborative relationship. These are usually engaged in broadcasting – whether video or audio – which are key customers, including the BBC of course, and with whom we work right at the start of a project.”

Iain established Canford Audio (now just Canford) in 1976 but his first venture into the world of audio broadcasting came when he was a student at Durham University in the late 1960s. The BBC had created six experimental local radio stations, one of them being at Durham. “It was very enterprising station,” Iain explains, “and they decided that Durham students could produce a programme, so we did just that on Sunday evenings. In my final year at Durham, Radio Carlisle was born and I went there every weekend.”

At that point, Iain was doing operational engineering work, which required him to work on outside broadcasts. He quickly realised he had an ideal opportunity to build a supply operation for this expanding marketplace. So he set up a company and the first two products that the company developed were an acoustic table – for a radio station to manage reverberations in a studio – and the other was a tester for audio cables.

The business grew steadily throughout the 1980s, becoming more profitable with each year and by 1990 the company had around 2,000 products in its stock catalogue; today it has around 18,000. The last printed catalogue the company produced was in 2010 and weighed 2kg! The company’s website has since taken over as the primary publication.

The definition of a Canford customer is, according to Iain, one which “uses audio in a professional capacity” so any new product must begin with an examination of how things work. “It’s always been important for me to understand why a ‘thing’ gets used – what its attributes are, what we are doing with it, why it is designed in a certain way. “

In the early days of the business, Iain clearly defined the marketplaces in which he wanted the company to operate. “We have always specialised in supplying what I call the ‘boring bits and pieces’,” Iain says, “but I think that if you supply what everyone needs then you have a very wide marketplace. Our customers need our products for a huge variety of applications and the marketplace continues to grow for us.”

Iain is very clear about where he sees the business now and in the future. “I’ve never wanted us to be box-shifters – I want us to have original thoughts and original products. We do need to think about diversification but it always has to be very gentle. My view is that the more you go off from where you know and what you’re good at the more risk there is.”

Over the last six years there have been 21 apprentices, who have been employed in many areas of the business, including warehouse, production, purchasing, sales (UK and international), shipping and marketing. Almost all of them have been retained in the business. Apprentices are given real responsibilities within the company and are fully encouraged in their training and development from day one.

Iain is fully behind the apprenticeship programme:  “There are a few highly skilled employees who are in their sixties but we have an awful lot in their twenties, so we’ve used the Apprenticeship Scheme to bring in younger people to ensure we don’t have a problem with a skill shortage later on.

“And this is the strength of the business. We develop people and let them progress and I get a buzz from seeing someone really flourish. I think if you treat people right, you should be able to get the best out of them. The other advantage about taking on apprentices is that they are fresh and you can get them to do things your way and we have a very particular way of doing things.”

“Most of our staff are ‘home grown’. We are a very niche manufacturer and there isn’t a ready supply of people with the particular skills that we need, so we need to train people instead.  In fact, the only skills we’ve had to bring in are language skills for the international team. We have an assortment of languages in the business now and this has given us a good reputation in our overseas markets.”

Loyalty is something Iain takes very seriously – loyalty of the company to the staff (and vice versa) and loyalty to customers and is something he believes the North East does really well. “I’ve tried to build a company that’s a pleasant place to work in, and I think this rubs off on our customers – they like being with us because we’re friendly and we have a great culture within the business.”

It’s this focus on skills and culture that sets Canford apart and will sustain it long into the future.

*Interview originally published via Insider