Still living life in the fast lane

Still living life in the fast lane

After a career measured in bomb disposals and bob skeleton races, Mike Maddock’s path crossed that of long-serving F1 engineer Dan Fleetcroft. They conspired to create and grow a business which, they tell Andrew Mernin, is now just as relentlessly exciting as their previous undertakings.

“I was blown up twice and drowned three times,” says Mike Maddock over coffee at the Advanced Manufacturing Park near Sheffield.

“My nickname was ‘nine lives’ Maddock but I’d used them all up so I thought I best  leave,” he adds of his 13 years as a Navy explosives clearance diver.

As if keeping British and allied waters clear of explosives wasn’t dangerous enough, he also spent seven years hurtling down bob skeleton tracks for Team GB.

For all the death-defying moments he faced, however, and his later role in charge of 5000 staff in the pub trade, he still believes starting a business is the toughest thing he’s ever done.

His business partner Dan Fleetcroft is equally appreciative of just what it takes to turn a start-up into a successful business.

And this is from someone who spent 15 years working in the intensity of Formula One racing. Mentored and trusted by one of the sport’s most renowned innovators, he was locked in a constant battle to find infinitesimal gains for the likes of Alesi, Berger, Schumacher and Irvine from 1992 to 2007.

“The beautiful thing about motorsport is the teamwork,” he says. “You really have this Dunkirk spirit. It could be three in the morning, the race is tomorrow but the driver’s stuffed the car into the tyre wall during qualifying and you’ve got to rebuild it. But that’s what we did because we wanted to win that race on the Sunday.”

The qualified aerospace engineer started his career at Ferrari under technical director John Barnard. John, the legendary F1 engineer, is credited with introducing semi-automatic gearboxes and the carbon fibre composite chassis into F1 amongst other game-changing additions. Dan spent 15 years working in multiple F1 teams, Kenny Roberts’ MotoGP team and Barnard’s B3 Technologies business.

Today he and Mike – both with CVs plucked straight from a Boy’s Own comic strip – are well underway on a new pulse-raising adventure.

Their business, Performance Engineered Solutions (PES) Ltd, does exactly as its name suggests – engineer ways to boost performance, as well as solve problems.

And its fingerprints can be found in a seemingly endless list of sectors. Bike parts for Team GB, the development of the longest driver in golfing history and decoy systems for fighter jets are just a fraction of the projects on PES’s plate currently.

Then there’s the Porsche across the pond. “We’ve got a client in New York who over the last 10 years has been working with engineering firms to light-weight his Porsche,” says Dan. “It’s a bit of an odyssey. We’ve managed to take over 600kg out of it and I reckon he’s spent more than US$4m.

“Nearly everything on the car has been light-weighted, with changes made through new manufacturing techniques and material selection, including the extensive use of composites. Some parts have been remade again as technology has evolved over the last decade. His aim is to explore advanced engineering techniques and how and where they can be applied to deliver performance gains. He’s just a very wealthy individual, who’s very well connected in the US. We can’t say any more than that.”

PES was launched as a standalone business in 2010, having originally started life as a division of a South Yorkshire-based BT Ltd, an SME which produces Olympic winter sports equipment including bobsleighs and other sliding sports products. It was here where Dan and Mike’s paths first crossed.

Mike, the winter sports athlete, and Dan, the engineer working to create the fastest sleds in the world, had set up a performance engineering division within the firm alongside its niche bobsled work. But with the BT team remaining focused on winter sports, the pair eventually took what became PES amicably out of the business.

The company now has a handful of staff, including another ex-F1 engineer, and expects to grow this to 10 in the coming months, with several major contracts likely to land.

Eventually the company hopes to turn some of its creations, perhaps including its currently-being-developed carbon road bike, into products that it will sell under its own brand or in collaboration. Its global client base covers organisations working in aerospace, defence, elite and motor sports, energy, marine, medical and manufacturing industries.

Recent projects include the new Ribble 883 Aero bike, which was designed, modelled and tested in conjunction with PES through hours of advanced computer simulations to produce the frame’s varying aerodynamic profiles. PES was also involved in defining the composites specification for the bike.

It also worked on the composite and aerodynamics design of the DR-Moto GP Track Bike – a MotoGP eligible specification bike built to give the enthusiast rider access to Grand Prix level technology and performance. PES is also assisting the restoration of a 100-year-old rollercoaster through reverse engineering techniques. And several supercars of various badges are also lined up for clever modifications by the firm.

“A high proportion of our work is exported. We can just pick up the phone and say ‘yes’ and it doesn’t matter whether you’re in Malaysia, Australia or Canada,” says Mike.

But business wasn’t always so brisk, with the pair enduring a tough start-up period before finding commercial success.

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Surely their experience of risk-taking, through handling bombs, bob skeletons and race cars, carried them through those early days though?

“For me it’s been about taking calculated risks,” says Mike. “When I was in the Navy I developed a bit of OCD in terms of my systematic approach. People say ‘you must be brave’ but it was more about knowledge and preparation. And anyway I can’t be that brave as I’m scared of spiders.”

Mike, who left a high-flying career as operations director of brewery giant Punch Taverns to eventually pursue entrepreneurialism, says: “I started to get that itch to do my own thing. You spend your life thinking, ‘there’s got to be an opportunity to take things forward’. I’d bitterly love to own my own Spitfire but you’re never going to achieve that in employment, so you either accept that or you make that step forward, take a risk and take yourself from a big salary onto minimum wage and you go from there.”

Dan adds: “This is our fourth year in business, but our journey started in 2008 as the recession hit. It was absolutely a struggle and we funded it through our savings and houses. We are fully committed having both made significant investments into the business.”

PES’s first major contract was won under tragic circumstances.

The death of 21-year-old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics prompted an investigation into the track on Whistler Mountain.

Dan says: “We got a call on Christmas Eve 2010 to say ‘this is happening, can you throw some costs in?”

The call was from the head of engineering at the South Alberta Institute of Technology in Canada, and the work was ultimately worth US$250,000.

“We won the contract alongside a collaboration of 11 other global companies,” says Dan. “Our involvement was to take scanned data of the track and create a mathematical model to simulate particles which had the characteristics of sleds running down the track, enabling us to evaluate the corner where the luger died.”

From here PES began to pick up more global contracts and now, says Mike, “there are two or three contracts in the pipeline which will be transformational”.

He reflects: “I’d certainly say starting up is the biggest challenge I’ve ever had. It was a breeze operating a business turning over £150m compared to starting out with just two of us. It was a massive learning curve from a business perspective in terms of my arrogance in thinking that I could just waltz into an SME, which is a completely different environment. When you take on your first employee that is 100% of your workforce, so dealing with challenges like that was tough.”
A looming challenge Dan has faced since start-up has been adjusting to the dynamics of the wider world of engineering.

“When you look at British bob skeleton, for example, a lot of engineering is learned from F1. The margins for victory are so small and to be on the top step of the podium you have to be the very best. And that’s everyone’s mentality behind the scenes. But coming into the bigger engineering world, sometimes you see some amazingly successful products and businesses and you just wonder ‘how did that ever go together?’

“It’s amazing what works in the engineering world but sometimes you think ‘that really shouldn’t be happening’. I worked in such a precision environment where nothing was left to chance, however not all industries have the luxury of the budgets and technologies of motorsport for example.”

This experience at the pinnacle of engineering, and the vast facilities at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) which PES has access to, are central to the firm’s success, says Mike.

For all the stellar organisations, like F1 firms and defence giants working with PES, the business also takes small, ad hoc requests from individuals and local SMEs.
“Because we’ve always worked at the forefront of emerging technology, we can basically deliver solutions to people which, when we explain them, they think they’re magic. They just think you’re crazy because they’ve been working on a particular technology which they think is cutting edge but which actually might be 20 years old.”

Anything from a reverse engineered gearbox on a vintage motor to the local chap who recently needed a particularly tricky borehole put into a piece of wood, can be handled by the firm.

Not every request is met, however.

Dan says: “We get people coming to us with some of the craziest ideas who ask us ‘is this possible?’ Sometimes they’re written on the back of an envelope, sometimes they’ve got legs and some are real opportunities. But you also get things that just aren’t viable. For example we’ve had a perpetual motion machine related to energy storage. Essentially the rationale behind it was really sound but unfortunately it broke one of the fundamental laws of thermodynamics. The guy wanted to spend his money but we just had to tell them it wasn’t going to work.”

The company’s own innovations include a new road bicycle which uses emerging manufacturing methods and draws from its experience in aerodynamics.

Mike says: “We’re looking to use the project as an expedition into new technologies and different composites. We previously did a bio-composite skateboard just to see how it would perform. These type of projects grow our profile but also get our engineers learning about new areas – which is great since true engineers crave variety.

“Where we want to be as a business eventually is selling our own products instead of just designing or optimising something for someone else who goes on to make significant returns from selling the product we created or improved.”

PES works collaboratively too, sometimes integrating staff into large organisations, or on joint-venture projects like The Bloodhound Golf Driver.

This initiative sees Dan working with fellow engineering luminaries, including the team behind the Bloodhound SCC bid to achieve a 1,000 mph land speed record, to create the world’s longest golf driver.

Not that Dan’s a golfing fan, sharing Mark Twain’s opinion that  “golf is a good walk spoiled”.

His real interest in the project stems from a desire to push the boundaries of performance engineering.

Initially the product will not be restricted by golfing regulations and therefore not usable in official tournaments. But its development will be used as a starting point to work backwards into the confines of legal club requirements. It might also have commercial potential in certain Asian markets such as Japan where driving is all important among amateur players.

“Our idea is if we focus on the attempt to beat the world record and don’t restrict the technology or materials we use, we can really evaluate and optimise the performance of the golf driver and how it interacts with the player. This gives us the ability to implement some of that technology into something that will be legal and be able to be used by pro players. This is similar to the way that F1 technologies and the pursuit of performance-driving innovation, eventually seeps its way down into road cars.”

Involvement in such projects is part of PES’s long-term goal of developing “branded” performance improvement innovations. Mike says: “If there’s a client selling skis that wants to optimise what they’ve got and improve performance, for example, they could be developed by us and branded as a PES version, like AMG Mercedes, to reflect our level of high quality and performance.”

In all of Dan and Mike’s projects, the capabilities of the people who will ultimately use the product must be factored in.

“Everything comes down to that grey matter between the ears,” says Mike. “On the bob skeleton we did a development programme on the aerodynamics leading up to the Olympics at Whistler. We developed new belly pans to go on the sleds and there were definitely measurable gains. But the guys hadn’t really spent a lot of time using them. By the time they had run them during training in Canada, they decided they would not complete on them for the games.. You can argue the point that the loss in confidence in the athlete far outweighs the advantages gained by using the latest design or technology, so you might as well stay with what you’ve got. And it’s the same on other projects. Across sport, business and commercial sectors, it’s about the interaction of a human being with equipment or a piece of technology.”

And Dan agrees that the quirks of people involved in each project are a crucial consideration in performance engineering.

“In my Formula One days, we used to do seat fits for the drivers. Schumacher was the most successful driver I worked with and he was completely focused on getting the maximum performance from every aspect of the car and team. He was a bright guy with the ability to forge his team around him but also have the car developed to his requirements. The team always felt valued by him. We did seat fits for him and he was always totally professional and understood the importance of optimising his driving position. In contrast other drivers, wouldn’t sit still so we would end up doing the seat fit twice. They were all talented drivers but it highlights differences between the people we work with in performance engineering and the difference between a great driver or athlete and a true legend.”

Away from performance sports, PES is also involved in the arts and recently helped artist Steve Mehdi create a sculpture of a steel woman that was recently installed in Sheffield city centre.

The sculpture is called Tall Dreams – a fitting title for PES given Mike’s affirmation that: “Our applications are almost limitless”.