A star turn for toolmakers

A star turn for toolmakers

William Hyslop wanted to set up his own business in 1977. Today his son Craig runs Hyspec Engineering, employing more than 100 staff with a £1.5m expansion plan.

Want some good news? Scottish engineering is alive and kicking. Despite fears of a skills shortage – which there is – there are jobs for qualified Scottish engineers in a host of persuasions across our small nation and further afield. What’s heartening is there are also brilliant Scottish engineering companies under the radar. You’ll find one of those unassuming gems behind the platform of an Ayrshire railway station. As commuters at Stewarton wait to board their morning trains to Glasgow, they can hear the girn of the lathe, the whine of the drill and whirr of the grinder emanating from Hyspec Engineering.

Once inside the door, the buzz becomes more pronounced and you can smell the heady mixed aroma of scorched metal, industrial polishes and setting moulds. Every product that leaves this company is beautifully created – sculpted with precision out of lumps of low alloy and exotic steels – using advanced computerised technology. Craig Hyslop is the managing director. He is a time-served toolmaker – one of Scotland’s true artisans of engineering manufacture – with the ability to make vital components for the oil and gas, aerospace, nuclear and renewables industries.

There’s been no hype and no public relations glitz. Yet somehow this firm – based in Stewarton’s Rigg Street and employing more than 100 people with a turnover in excess of £10m – represents a better vision of Scotland’s manufacturing future. And what’s heartening is that there are other Scottish companies out there too. If Kevin McLeod, the presenter of Grand Designs, was looking at this firm he might say: “This is a refreshing place where engineering prowess and skills are cherished.

But where the modern methods are embraced and used to full potential.” BQ Scotland asked industry champion Peter Hughes to suggest a typical engineering firm.  He reeled off the mighty ones but he said that Hyspec Engineering, renamed in 2010 from the more prosaic Jigs & Fixtures, was a diamond. His enthusiasm is understandable. Its founder, William Hyslop, is now semi-retired at 66.

While he’s in the office most days, he devotes more time to his other passions – his family and breeding greyhounds. Now his son, 41-year-old Craig, is running the show. William remains the master who served his time as toolmaker in the 1950s. He worked in various machine shops and tool rooms all over Ayrshire before starting his own business. Companies such as Scottish Tooling and Massey Ferguson, which served the county’s rich agricultural needs for machinery, and Hyster fork lift trucks. He was making press tools for these companies. He then decided to set up for himself with Hyster and then Volvo among his first customers.

“I started Jigs & Fixtures in 1977 with the ambition to be self-employed,” says William. “Never at the early stages did I think we would grow to the size we are today.” Craig was six at the time. “I remember my dad working lots of hours,” he says. “He has always said to me, ‘There’s no gain without pain’.” Originally from Kilmaurs, a few miles south of Stewarton on the A735, Craig left school at 16. He joined his father, serving his apprenticeship as a toolmaker until he was 20 when the business had a turnover of about £1m.

“We started off in Kilmaurs for two years,” explains Craig. “My parents bought a house with a small industrial unit at the back which was once used for hosiery – and it still had the old knitwear machines in it.

It was ideal and my father put the first two machines in there.” But, in 1979, after two years, he had outgrown the unit and Jigs & Fixtures found a place in Stewarton. The Ayrshire town is nicknamed the “Bonnet Toun” and they purchased a former hosiery factory which was still filled with bobbin wheels from knitwear machines.

“We’ve been here for 32 years,” says Craig. “There’s not a lot of industry in Stewarton now, it’s mainly a commuter town. Glasgow is only half-an-hour away and has two trains an hour to and from Stewarton.” Toolmaking was once a vital element of Scotland’s world-leading engineering prowess, but today it is virtually impossible to find toolmakers in the country. Jigs & Fixtures prospered by undertaking work for the steel manufacturing and electronics industry, the car industry and the circuit board industry.

“It’s a dying art in the UK but is most definitely a factor in Hyspec’s success,” says Craig. “This toolmaking background has given us good problem-solving skills and allows us to thrive in the manufacture of complex parts. It’s the kind of work we want.

“People say to me, “Why did you set up in Stewarton?’ and I reply, “Why not, there is a good skills base in the area’.” Hyspec has excellent links to the M77, good rail connections, and ferry connection at Troon and Stranraer to customers in Ireland, and is well situated to service customers across the globe. In 1995, Jigs & Fixtures secured a significant deal that doubled the firm’s size overnight. The company was a sub-contractor to a world-leading organisation that supplied advanced products and systems for the global steel and foundry industries. They were leaders in the development of steel flow control products which allowed molten steel to be continuously cast rather than the conventional way of pouring into individual ingots.

Craig says: “Our customer was using about six sub-contractors in the area at the time to manufacture an array of tooling; we were the only ones capable of manufacturing the continuous casting tooling. Our tools returned practically zero scrap pieces for our customer, while our competition scrap rate was very high – we were the only one to be able to make this type of tooling.

“My father actually programmed the machine tool programs long-hand; this was before all the fancy software became available. “Computer Aided Manufacture (CAM) was in its infancy. He measured tool cutter intersection points using a calculator and his mathematical ability. That’s what differentiated us from our competitors.” This, plus the quality of the work was a game-changer for J&F.

“No-one could beat us,” says Craig. “They couldn’t do the job and couldn’t produce the quality. Our customer came to us and said, ‘We want you to take over all the tooling worldwide’. We secured the contract and immediately bought over one of our rivals in order to secure their manpower. Incidentally, it was J&E Allan where my father once worked earlier in his career.” This allowed the company to build an extension at Stewarton and transfer all employees to a single site.

“It was quite fraught getting it all together. Overnight we jumped from 25 people to 50 and our turnover jumped from £1m to £2.5m. We landed the contract and our turnover went up and up. In 1999, 90% of the turnover was from this single source. Industry at that time was booming, we kept getting more and more work from this single source and could not take on any new business from others.” Alarm bells began to ring. The business textbooks say that being so dependent on one single customer is not a healthy way forward for any business. Several years into the contract, global sourcing started to become the preferred choice for most multi-nationals.

Sourcing strategies were changing. J&F forecast reduced levels of business and made a decision to look for other sectors of work; future growth would come from the oil and gas industry.

“At that point, we had very little in the way of management team,” says Craig. “There was me, my father and one other. “The work had been relatively easy to get. Drawings came in by fax, we manufactured to customer specification, delivered and invoiced. It was a slick process that allowed us to focus purely on manufacture with minimal amounts of paperwork.

“We knew current levels of business could not be sustained and decided we had to bring in other customers from the oil and gas industry.” This was an important landmark in the company’s history, with global sourcing more popular, orders were decreasing and, for Hyspec, oil and gas was clearly going to take it forward. In 2000, Jigs & Fixtures secured its first oil and gas customer, a large multi-national oilfield services company making down-hole tooling and completion equipment for wells. This opened the doors to other operators, all well-known multi-national blue chip companies.

Recently, Hyspec completed the manufacture of critical subsea equipment used in BP’s offshore work in Angola. Craig explains: “As the years went on, we kept breaking into more companies as they heard about us and saw what we could do and the high standard of our work.

“We’ve always re-invested in the business. My father says, ‘We don’t have a holiday home abroad or yachts in the Firth of Clyde to show for our efforts – everything we’ve made, we put back into the business’. Although, I say to him it would be nice to have a holiday home.” Instead the money has been spent on the latest cutting-edge machine tools.

In 2005, the firm took a deep breath and invested £4.75m on four Yamazaki Mazak Mill/Turn, Japanese-made, multi-tasking machines, with only a handful operated in the UK. They were delivered in 2006 and added to 11 Daewoo Puma Mill/Turn CNC (computer numerically controlled) machines. These new machines complemented the existing toolmaking machinery but more room was needed and a major extension was added beside the station.

“It was a huge investment for a small firm like us,” says Craig. “The learning curve on these multi-axis machining centres was immense. But the investment has paid dividends, thenew machine tools have improved our competitiveness.

It’s also allowed us to undertake machining of larger diameter parts and more complex work to an even higher standard. Our multi-axis capability differentiates us from our competition.” Hyspec Engineering has a day and night shift, running five days a week, but there is only weekend working if a major contract needs to be completed, although the firm has an exemplary record for delivering on time, and on budget.

“We’ve got seven apprentices at the moment, out of 103 people,” Craig declares before making a very valid point. “Twenty per cent of our workforce is lads we have trained ourselves. We’re committed to training and developing our own people, it’s the only way forward and we will be recruiting two more apprentices this year.” Hyspec Engineering now has account managers who are all time-served engineers having worked on the machines.

“They have an engineering background, so they can talk to the customers about what we do and how we do it,” says Craig. “They know the job inside out.” Craig Hyslop says he has increased this department to support new business from the nuclear and aerospace industries.

“The account managers are the point of contact for our customers, through this channel we offer continual communications, co-operation and the kind of flexibility that makes things work well. Our ethos is: Right first time. On time.” The company is certified to ISO 9001:2008, the quality standard for components in the oil and gas sector and, in January 2011, it attained AS9100C accreditation, which for Hyspec means that quality management, rather than purely the machine tools capability, will be the driver of growth. But running the company day-to-day, Craig could see that the business required some external help.

He found Investors in People in Scotland an invaluable starting point in developing his own skills as a manager and that of the workforce. Further development came with a joint venture between Hyspec and Strathclyde University, along with management training firm Moonbeam.

Becoming members of Scottish Engineering has also opened doors and Craig acknowledges that chief executive Peter Hughes has provided fantastic support.

“The levels of enthusiasm and motivation gained through working with Peter have been highly uplifting for all of us,” says Craig. To enhance knowledge and expertise, Hyspec recently recruited two outstanding Indian nationals from an MBA programme at Strathclyde. Surendra Phatak and Sundeep Ammineni – soon dubbed Sandy by Ayrshire colleagues – joined the business to help develop a new corporate identity and assist in putting together a strategic plan to help diversify further into the aerospace and nuclear markets. Both are now a central part of this firm – and enjoying the local banter.

“What Surendra has done is give us a mission statement and help us through a re-branding that has shown we can be a global player – winning overseas work for Scotland,” says Craig. So this little gem of business is doing well – in a very tough climate. It is currently expanding its 40,000sq ft factory again, re-investing another £1.5m on an extension, and stands out as a company committed to its long-term future. So remember, Hyspec Engineering; you read about it here first.