The art of keeping focus

The art of keeping focus

Would you take on running another business if your existing one was already struggling? Mark Nelson has, with great success, as he tells BQ Yorkshire's Peter Baber.

If you are wont to take the dog for a walk anywhere around Blubberhouses Moor this winter
you might just come across a solitary runner, pacing hard, keeping his focus on the road ahead, no matter how foggy or chilly the weather. Mark J Nelson, aged 44, says he still manages six-mile runs like this most nights. He uses the running time to think.

“I always go,” he says, “even if it’s a foggy night. I live in the country and run four
miles over the moor with a torch. My friends and family think I’m crazy, but it is a really good way of thinking. I keep a scratchpad in my bag and note everything down that I have thought about at the end of the run so I don’t forget it.”

These aren’t just random thoughts either – a good many of them are likely to be winning business ideas. This is a man who, after a spell in motorbike racing, joined the family firm at the age of 16 and helped grow it from a turnover of £350,000 to one nearing £70m. Five years ago he also set up another business – pilot training firm CRM Aviation Europe– two thirds of which he successfully sold on to a management team earlier this year. His latest focus, however, is on Heatshot, a Yeadon-based start-up manufacturing what it claims is a revolutionary windscreen-clearing device.

Nelson’s co-investor in this latest venture is none other than Gordon Black, the entrepreneur behind Peter Black, the fashion logistics company he helped turn around. Although Nelson won’t say how much they have invested, he insists he and Black have now
contributed equally – although unlike Black, he is taking an active role in running the business, working there two to three days a week. Having initially been appointed as nonexecutive chairman, he has subsequently become executive chairman and attends all meetings with the sales director.

He says the benefits of the Heatshot system are clear. It is easy to retrofit to any vehicle, comes in 12v and 24v versions (the latter used mainly in the logistic truck haulage and bus sector), and does not need to be connected to the vehicle’s internal wiring. Yet, within 30 seconds it can heat the fluid in your screenwash holder up to 60°C; hot enough to penetrate even thick frost and ice. Although it can be used with any screen-wash fluid, the company has also specifically designed its own iClear liquid that comes with a citrus scent and is effective at temperatures as low as -46°C.

Although Heatshot is primarily marketing the device as something car dealers can offer their customers as part of a winter service, Nelson insists that it is easy to fit. “I installed it on my car myself,” he says. Up until now, perhaps the best known innovation in car windscreen cleaning systems was the front windscreen heating wires Ford patented and introduced on many of its models. That patent is due to run out in 2014, but Nelson says Heatshot has been proven to be more effective anyway.

“There’s a huge difference in efficiency,” he says. The company trialled both systems at a
special test centre in the UK. “In our first test, the vehicle was soaked for 12 hours at a temperature of -19°C, then we tried to clear the windscreen at a temperature of -16°C,” he says. “With Heatshot it took eight minutes to do. The heated screen, by comparison, took 21 minutes. We were a bit apprehensive, but the test clearly worked. And we brought our American partners over to witness it.”

Heatshot is more economical too, says Nelson. “The heated screen runs at 70A per hour. Our system uses 50A for the first 30 seconds, then 1.5A per hour thereafter. The system
will easily pay for itself within 45 days if you run a truck, when you consider the time you spend idling and wasting fuel. And remember that diesel engines are not meant to be left idling.” There’s another hidden advantage to the product, he says – it can kill off the legionella virus. Windscreen systems that deliver their wash at a lukewarm temperature have in the past been identified as a key culprit for spreading this potentially fatal respiratory virus, but Nelson claims 60°C is hot enough to kill off any bugs that may be in there. The feedback so far, he admits, has been overwhelming.

“We have the unit on trial with various bus companies and police forces,” he says. “We have 16 units installed as a trial with Tesco Home Delivery in Inverness. If that trial succeeds, they intend to roll out into their fleet – which is potentially thousands of vehicles. The Ambulance Service in the North West has taken 180 units from our distributor VUE CCTV for some new Mercedes Sprinter ambulances. We also have the system on trial in South Africa, Mexico, Canada, Australia and Asia. The American division I created is currently trialling units, for example, with the Colorado Department of Transport and the Nebraska Sheriff’s Department. We are also speaking to a specialist company that transports US missiles, and to the kinds of delivery drivers you might see featured on Ice Road Truckers on the TV. In fact, we are speaking to a gas company in the US with more than 76,000 vehicles.”

Dealers and middle men have seen the advantages too – so much so, in fact, that Nelson
claims that for the next year Heatshot does not need to sell any more units within the UK, because it has already well surpassed its target. “But I have companies fighting over territories in Europe,” he says. “We have three companies which want Scandinavia, two which want Germany, and another one that wants Poland. I even have two distributors in Italy.”

The product is equally good at wiping away bugs and screen glare during the summer months – something Nelson has witnessed when driving near Geneva in the summer.

Such enthusiasm has, says Nelson, meant it is “now time to take a step back and think about the most appropriate route to market which will benefit the product”. At the moment, sponsorship deals are something he is working on. Heatshot has just signed a three-year sponsorship with Leeds Rhinos. “We held a Heatshot festive challenge on Boxing Day,” he says. And the company is taking on sponsorship with the San Carlo Honda Gresini Moto GP team – people Nelson knows very well – in the new year. Such growth is very similar to the success Nelson had with CRM Aviation, building it up to be one of the UK’s largest providers
of Jet Orientation Course (JOC) and Multi-Crew Co-operation (MCC) training – essentially the first steps in becoming a commercial pilot.

Nelson developed a cockpit simulator based on the A319 Airbus in conjunction with Alsim, an aerospace manufacturer based in Nantes in France. But he says it took “four years of pain” to get the simulator approved by UK authorities.  “Our courses are now fully booked until March 2012,” he says.

But it is amazing to think that all this has been achieved while Nelson is still running another company. He is still managing director of Airedale Mechanical & Electrical, the family-owned mechanical and electrical contractor he helped to grow over the past 29 years. And he has no intention of stepping down.

“Airedale is my baby and it always will be, he says. “It supports a lot of people, including my family.” However, parts of Airedale are not exactly performing well in the current climate, although the maintenance division, which looks after building services requirements of such places as The Light shopping centre in Leeds, is doing very well – but it adds only £3.6m to the company’s total turnover figure. The main contracting business has been struggling in a market that Nelson says is "extremely stressed" everywhere in the UK except London. “The investment attitude is not good,” he says.

“Most of our clients cannot get funding in place. The coalition government has drastically cut back on public spending. Further and higher education projects have dried up, and Building Schools for the Future stopped overnight. There are some signs of life, but everybody is chasing the same work at negative margins.”

The company’s 175-odd workforce is currently going through the second tier of redundancies. “We have tried to cut back on everything we can think of as a way of reducing the overheads,” he says.

It was such issues at his main company that first caused him to turn down an offer to invest and assist in Heatshot when Gordon Black approached him through a mutual acquaintance in January. He changed his mind when he was approached again in March, because by that time the really crucial issues at Airedale had been resolved, he says. But most people would run away aghast at the idea of such multi-tasking.

How does he do it? “I just plan myself well,” he says. “I open a drawer up and it’s Airedale, and I spend four to five hours on that, then I shut the door and do Heatshot. I will not be interrupted by one when I am busy with the other. I have three separate email accounts.” He is glad he did decide to go into Heatshot, he says, because like all start-up companies, it too had issues. “Initially it had no backbone to it. You knew you had to sell, but who to? But we went to our first trade show and came back buzzing.” And now the experience has opened up yet another opportunity. On a trip to Malaysia in October he was introduced
to one of the production crew for Dorna, a Spanish company which has broadcast
rights for Moto GP all around the world.

Subsequently, he met the TV production director for the same company at a trade show in
Valencia. He also met representatives from a company that is developing first person vision (FPV) technology that uses a tiny camera in, for example, a rider’s helmet to relay back to an audience – with only a 0.3 second delay – HD footage of what the rider can see. He is now helping in negotiations to roll this technology out. “NASCAR (the organisation behind stock car racing in the US) has already signed a contract to roll out FPV from March 2012,” he says. “A colleague is also talking to representatives from Formula 1 and to NBC Baseball. The potential is huge.” He admits that being able to “see” what a rider or driver can see with such a short time delay might lead to distasteful footage of fatal accidents.

But he insists FPV can have a role improving safety too. And he should know: the San Carlo Honda Gresini team’s riders included Marco Simoncelli, who was killed in race in October at the tragically young age of 24. “When we have been talking to Dorna, we discovered that when Moto GP riders are set to go around a track where Formula 1 has been, sometimes race organisers have to review and change parts of track in the off-season for rider safety. At the moment they can only find out what to do through forums with the riders. But if they had FPV, they would be able to see what the riders mean.”

So, turning a company around, selling another off, launching a new product and helping improve motorbike racer safety at the same time, does Mark J Nelson never feel he is doing enough? It seems not.