The Expanded Metal Co: Expanding Horizons

The Expanded Metal Company were recently named within the North East Growth 50 list published via Insider Media on behalf of the Manufacturing Growth Network (MGN).

Phil Cunliffe, Insider’s business editor met with Phil Astley, their managing director to find out what the company looked like when he took over three years ago.

The Expanded Metal Company has been supplying products from its base in Hartlepool for well over 100 years. Despite this long and proud history, the company has been through its fair share of lean times. But new owners and a driven and focused management team have transformed the company’s fortunes of late.

Of all the barbeques that were lit in the UK over the recent baking hot Bank Holiday weekend, many would have been the disposable variety purchased at a supermarket. And the majority of these will have had metal grilles manufactured in Hartlepool by The Expanded Metal Company.

This is just one of the vast array of applications the company’s products are used in. From air filtration tubes for the automotive industry to security fencing and window guards for retail, the company has an expanded metal solution to suit.

The expanded metal process was first introduced in 1884 and over the years it has been developed, enhanced and improved and is still the basis for all the products that the company manufactures today. With a turnover of over £17m, an increase of 17 per cent over the previous year (a figure that sees the company on the MGN ‘s Growth 50 list), the company goes from strength to strength.

Much of the success that the Expanded Metal Company is enjoying today is thanks to managing director Phil Astley and his senior management team. Taking over the company in 2016, at a time when the business had recently been bought by new owners, Astley set out to change the culture and the business operations. In the process he has not only seen a leap in revenue growth but has introduced new working practices, a revamped web presence and a sales and marketing strategy that will see sustainable growth well into the future.

The company, which picked up the Manufacturing Company of the Year (for businesses with a turnover below £25m) at last year’s Insider Made in the North East Awards, has been operating from its site in Hartlepool for well over 100 years.

Phil said: “The previous US owners had bought the company in 2006 principally as a stepping stone into Europe and beyond. But they never showed any great interest in the business, especially as the global financial crisis bit. There was very little prospect of any investment, so these were quite dark days for the business.” Morale amongst the staff was at rock bottom, there was no forward vision or drive from the management, essential maintenance on the machines and the fabric of the building was ignored and the business was soon put up for sale.

The company was then bought by private equity firm Empire Investments in 2016 and made an immediate impact. “The new owners have a genuine interest in the business and are adding value in order to see real growth in it. They’ve invested in the future, corrected all the machinery that had been neglected and this has really turned things around.”

THE MARKET IS CHANGING – WHERE COMPANIES WERE ONCE PREPARED TO BUY A SHEET OF MESH AND THEN DO SOMETHING TO IT, THEY NOW WANT A FINISHED COMPONENT. SO WE NEED TO FIND WAYS TO PROVIDE A GOOD RANGE OF PRODUCTS IN SUFFICIENT VOLUMES AND MAKE THEM AS EFFICIENTLY AS WE CAN.

The effect on all this on the business has been profound, not just in terms of staff morale and productivity but in increased revenue and turnover. “It was magical really. We normally expected a bit of a dip in revenue over December but in 2017 we were offering overtime for the first time in a number of years.”

A number of the previous management team were replaced and the new team has a fresh approach to the way things are done, totally re-energising both the business and the staff. With a new, more interactive website, which has an e-commerce function and images that display products in 3D and enhanced clarity, the company is much more customer-focused.

“Although we are the market leader for our type of products, in recent years we’ve rather lost touch with our customers. So we’re putting more sales people on the ground and thinking about this more strategically and more geographically too. Our aim is to have Field Application Engineers who can design expanded metal products into customer solutions.

“We’re also very good with data and have an excellent customer database that goes back to 2015 and can easily trace the activity of any customer has with us and it’s this sort of detail that gives us real strength for the future.”

Astley wants the company to have what he calls “enhanced products” to offer their customers. For example, it has quality systems, two-day lead times and have stock available to customers. “We’ll never compete just for a basic product, we’ve got to have an enhanced set of offerings. Our customers rely on us to deliver quality mesh products and a quality all-round service.

The Expanded Metal Company has got smarter in the way it does things too, as Astley explains: “We’re more efficient and we closely monitor the way we do things and why we do things. Obviously the investment made in new and improved machinery has helped in making sure things work much more efficiently. The market is changing – where companies were once prepared to buy a sheet of mesh and then do something to it, they now want a finished component. So we need to find ways to provide a good range of products in sufficient volumes and make them as efficiently as we can.

Expanded Metal Company“We’re looking at new patents and doing clever things with expanded metal, innovating metal products. One innovation we’re looking at is the security of commercial vans used around the country from which tools are very often stolen at night time. We’re developing some security capability that can be retro-fitted into a van.”

One issue facing the business is its ageing workforce but is being resolved through an apprenticeship scheme. The challenge, according to Astley, is not only getting good apprentices in but also in retaining them once they’ve gone through the scheme. “We have seven apprentices at the moment, including one who is going through a four-year engineering course to become a tool-maker. It’s an expensive resource but having this skill in-house will we think differentiate ourselves from the competition.”

And what about Brexit? Will it impact on the company at all? Phil Astley is reasonably confident they can weather the Brexit storm. “Most of our export markets are in Europe, with a little bit into the Middle East and the Far East. Our biggest customer is based in Europe, although thankfully we’re a strategic supplier to them albeit one of many strategic suppliers they have in the UK. But we work hard to ensure we give our customers what they want, when they want it, and will continue to do so whatever happens with Brexit. We’ve been building up stock to cover any issues come November.”

Astley is certainly positive about the future for this historic Hartlepool company and points to how they have adapted in order to not only survive but succeed. “What was right yesterday won’t be right for tomorrow and we might need to tweak the way we do things in the future, maybe change the focus of the way we do business and the people that we do business with too. We want to be more laser-guided with the things we do, working on the profitable things and not wasting our time on scatter-gun approaches. We’ve survived and thrived to this point but our strategic planning processes will see us adapt for the future.”

Like the metal, horizons are being expanded too.

*Interview originally published via Insider