Where the world comes calling

Where the world comes calling

The village of Rillington may not seem the most obvious location for an engineering firm trading right around the world, but it is, as Ellis MD Richard Shaw tells Andrew Mernin.

Straddling the road between the Scarborough seaside and the historic market town Malton is Rillington.

Home to little over 1,000 people, it has all the essentials of Yorkshire village life - a post office, a couple of pubs and an appreciation of cricket.

But unlike the many other tiny settlements which stand firm among the green and brown of North Yorkshire, this is also home to a global champion of business.

The high street diminishes into a single-lane track that disappears across a field between hedgerows and trees.

Follow it to the end and it is here that they make the products which the Chinese, Kazakhstanis, Czechs and Australians are all clamouring to get their hands on.

In humble surrounds it may be, but mention Ellis to the world's industrialists in the oil and gas and power sectors and they are certain to know of the Yorkshire firm.

Ellis makes cleats which secure industrial-sized cables safely in place even in the harshest environments.

The firm, which has 22 overseas distributors, is expected to grow its annual sales by around £1m to almost £7m in the year to February 2013, as it continues to outbid multinational firms for deals home and away.

In the longer term revenues are forecast to keep moving in the right direction, although managing director Richard Shaw is quick to point out that the days of five-year – or even three-year – budgetary plans are a thing of the past given the current unpredictable nature of the economy.

Richard Shaw INSET“We have a direction we follow to try and grow the business,” he says. “The competition will always nibble around your fringes and the more successful we’ve become, the more competition we’ve provoked but we are continuing to grow our export sales.”

Given the global nature of Ellis’s product portfolio, it’s fitting that the company’s leader is well versed in international relations.

After spending his early career as an engineer in the brick-making industry, Shaw, a graduate of what was then Leeds Polytechnic, eventually joined his family’s business in a role that would take him all over the globe.

Bradford-based Pinco – which is no longer run by the family – made steel pins used in the textiles industry and was started by his grandfather over a century ago.

“Every bit of wool or cotton that you buy has seen a pin at some point and we made the pins used for combing the fibre,” he says.

“I spent the next six years or so going round the world selling pin products to all the textile businesses around the globe and our business was 70 or 80% export at the time so it was a very interesting time.

“I have five brothers and at the time I joined there were three working in the business, me being the fourth to join up.” Like most family businesses it would seem that underlying tensions were never far away from rising to the surface however.

“It was, erm, interesting,” he says on working alongside his brothers. He eventually left the business in 1997 for another role which also boosted his knowledge of world economies and doing business abroad – particularly with the Americans.

“I reached that stage in my career where you have to make a decision. If you stay in a family business too long you become much less easy to employ and it’s more difficult to get a meaningful job.

“I was ready to leave the family business and if I wanted to pursue my own career in my own right I really felt I had to leave.”

It was at this point in his career that he experienced the glare of the media spotlight as he took up a post at the helm of a failing subsidiary of Severfield-Rowen.

The company, Manabo, made chainmail gloves for butchers – a niche selling space if ever there was one.

“The press at the time ran a story about a new director coming in to turn around this sickly business. People thought I was mad for taking the job and it was a really, really high risk decision. The business was making losses of around £2m a year and Severfield had to decide whether or not to continue the business or try to turn it round.”

Within three months of taking up the post, Shaw had made 30% of the workforce redundant and overseen the shifting of most of the production of the gloves from Thirsk to Hungary. He had also resuscitated the brand back to a breakeven point.

“Severfield were brilliant people to work with and they gave me lots of freedom and told me if I needed more money, let me know,” he says.

“We actually started to make a big impact in export markets particularly in America and we attracted the attention of some of our American competition.

“We then got an approach from another glove maker to buy us in the US. That was a brilliant exit route for the plc.”

In fact, Shaw’s leadership had helped the once ailing firm attract interest from three American parties and a bidding war then ensued.

But a key clause in the deal as insisted by the ultimately successful bidder was that, alongside IP and assets, the grandson of a Bradford textiles dynasty would also be thrown in for good measure.

“I was sold with the business so it was a bizarre situation negotiating round the table. When the deal was signed I transferred from one side of the table to the other.”

The Yorkshireman’s new employer, Wells Lamont Industry Group, appointed him director of operations and before long he was working in Chicago.

“I did a year and at the end of it I had to decide whether to relocate or not. I was still living in Rawdon and working in Chicago. I spent two weeks out of four out there and at factories from Canada down to Mexico and the Mississippi. I once did something like 23 flights in two weeks.

“The idea of relocating to the States when I knew I’d have to take my three children out of school was just a catastrophe waiting to happen and it just wasn’t going to work. I began looking for another job after nine months and found Ellis.”

That was 11 years ago and much has changed at the cable cleats business since then. The company was founded in York in the 1960s by a colourful character called Arthur Ellis who flew 99 Wellington bomber missions in the war and, as the factory floor legend goes, was so formal that even his wife had to call him Mr Ellis.

It wasn’t until 1987 that the firm began to grow significantly following a buy-out and since then has expanded considerably, with annual sales climbing from below the £500,000 mark to beyond £6m.

A major factor in the group’s growth in the current financial year can be attributed to a deal worth approximately £1.5m to supply parts to the National Grid.

The contract, which is classed as an export sale because it was ordered by a German firm, will see Ellis provide the components needed to carry vast power cables underground through parts of London.

Other notable recent contracts wins include work to supply cleats to a US$500m drill ship in China called the Dalian Developer, which is designed to drill wells at ultra-deep levels in harsh environments.

Ellis’s handiwork can also be seen in the foothills of the Krusne Mountains in the Czech Republic, thanks to an order for cable cleats to be used in a new power plant there.

Closer to home, this year has also seen Ellis products used on an offshore wind farm 20km off the Kent and Essex coast that will power over 470,000 homes once up and running.

In truth, because of the nature of Ellis’s core markets of oil and gas and power global territories in which the Yorkshire-made cable cleats cannot be found.

Orders can come from one continent, be shipped to another and used on a vessel or rig in an entirely different place.

Perhaps surprisingly, though, the company does all of its global trading from its village HQ via a network of distributors.

“We’re too small to have overseas offices at the moment,” Shaw says. “We would consider it but right now it’s not appropriate. The two sectors we operate in are oil and gas and power generation and distribution. Every country generates power, so every country potentially is a customer.

“Australia is our biggest export market because of the oil and gas projects on the West coast,” he adds.

Much of the Rillington firm’s success overseas can be attributed to its ability to think and act big when bidding for work in foreign fields.

“The publicity that we get makes us look bigger than we are. When we are chasing very big contracts you need to look like a meaningful player in the field. If they think you’re a back street operation they’ll struggle to take you seriously,” he says.

The presence in our interview room of a public relations prompter – something usually deployed, in this interviewer’s experience, by global brands akin to GE or Coca-Cola – perhaps highlights the company’s close attention to its public image.

Not to detract from the group’s standpoint as the market leader in its field though. While Shaw says the company’s “next most serious competitors” are in Norway and Malaysia, no firm comes close to its specialist capabilities in cable cleat-making.

Increasingly Shaw is seeing more and more multinationals trying to impinge on his markets, but the firm remains the world expert in its very niche field.

“We are so far ahead of the field it’s untrue,” he says. “We’ve done over 300 short circuit tests while our next nearest competitor has probably done six to ten.

“Everyone else is doing cable cleats as an add-on product to others in their range and we are the only specialist.

“There are other companies busily trying to develop their own cable cleats based on the success that we’ve had.”

Since the cleat-maker’s growth shows no sign of slowing, it is fortunate that Mr Ellis built his empire on the expansive patch of North Yorkshire that he did, with more than adequate room for expansion.

As the world’s industrialists continue to beat a path for the Rillington firm, however, caution will be needed to continually grow without upsetting the ambience of village life.