Fathom Systems: Around the world in 80 trades

Fathom Systems: Around the world in 80 trades

Aberdeen-based Fathom Systems is an award winning manufacturer of diver voice communications systems exporting worldwide. BQ caught up with the team to see how they got started exporting and what challenges they have faced since.

What does your company do?

Fathom Systems is an award winning specialist technology products company based in Badentoy Park, Aberdeen, currently at the forefront of new build Saturation Dive System projects worldwide.

Firmly established as a top industry supplier of fully compliant high-end products and services to both the Commercial Diving and Remote Intervention Tooling (RIT) sectors, we provide a ‘one stop shop’ for Diver Monitoring, Digital Diver Communications, and Gas Analysis systems and products. Fathom Systems products also include ROV Tooling control systems, ROV navigation sensors and Bell Thru-water Communications Systems.

In addition to supplying market-leading equipment, we often provide clients with turnkey engineered solutions including specifications, preliminary and detailed design, manufacture, certification, and installationcommissioning.

The Fathom portfolio of products is widely recognised in the industry as ‘best in class’. We have competitors across all of our different product offerings, but the strength of the Fathom brand is in the reliability, quality and support of these products and systems. By offering clients a fully integrated, connected and cooperative system rather than a disparate set of discrete products also sets us apart from other in our market sector.

 

How long has the company been exporting?

Fathom Systems have been exporting products and services for around 8 years. Working primarily in the very tight knit commercial diving industry has allowed us to build up a strong client base out with the UK.

It’s all about building a reputation on good foundation and making sure it remains intact. We don’t stop at anything to keep our Client’s happy and pride ourselves in delivering ‘above and beyond’ expectation.

This attitude has allowed us to build such a reputation and subsequently by far the majority of our sales are reactive to our good name.

 

What do you export, and where to?

Over the last 12 months we have continued to build on our successful relationship with one key Singapore based client in the provision of a range of products for new build Saturation Dive Systems. We have now completed delivery of hardware for three contracts with a sales order value worth in excess of £1.8m to Fathom Systems. In Q2-16, we will start to be actively engaged in the commissioning of new build dive systems in Shipyards in China, Singapore and South Korea. This will see a number of key Fathom personnel travelling overseas to assist with this important phase of the project.

Through our success in Singapore, we have now established a business relationship with two other key clients. One project with a sales order value of around £130,000 is for the supply of Diver Monitoring hardware & software, Diver Voice Communications and Gas Analysis equipment to be installed on the largest ship in the world – the new Shell Prelude FLNG (Floating Liquid Natural Gas) that will operate off the Western Coast of Australia. This is a high profile supply that will be complete in April 2016, followed by Fathom personnel being required for commissioning services.

Our current major success is in securing the provision of products and services to another Singapore based client who is currently committed to the construction of 4 new build Dive Support Vessels in China.

We may have all seen the downturn in the Chinese economy in recent months and with a huge surplus stock of steel, however their Shipyards, along with South Korea have attracted business in the high tech market of Dive Support Vessels – allegedly the most complex vessel to construct aside a Warship and with a 2 year manufacturing schedule from cutting steel to final commissioning, certification and hand over.

We are currently contracted to supply equipment with a sales order value of around £1m to their first vessel. This will be ex-works from our Badentoy premises in March after which it will be exported to Singapore for further test and integration before transfer to the Shipyard in China. We are currently waiting to complete the contract for supply of goods to the 2nd and 3rd vessels which have a combined sales order value of around £2.4m. We anticipate this as being finalised in early February with a fast track delivery set for late August, early September.

2016 will also see Fathom Systems engaging in the turnkey supply of products and services to a shore based client in Norway. The project which is worth about £270,000, plus a further £50,000 of personnel services is high profile as it is at the onshore hyperbaric reception facility in Bergen. Primarily used as a standby facility in the event of Saturation divers having to abandon a vessel, they arrive at the facility in their own self-propelled hyperbaric lifeboat and then transferred to the onshore facility to safely decompress. The facility is also used for hyperbaric medical treatment and will be another ‘showcase’ portal for our equipment. Once complete, we plan to use this in our sales and marketing efforts by commissioning a promotional video to be viewed on our website.

We are also engaging with SDI and UKTI on establishing permanent representation in Singapore which will also allow is to identify further opportunities not only in Singapore but other territories such as Malaysia and Indonesia where we have a number of interested parties.

 

What motivated you to start selling overseas, and how long did it take?

The motivation was created by the realisation that our revolutionary products were gaining an instant recognition in the industry. In the early days of 2005 & 2006, Fathom Systems were extremely fortunate to have the support of two key clients in Subsea 7 & Technip to whom we are indebted to this day. Both companies invested in our innovative products which helped significantly in providing Fathom Systems with the required leverage at the time. We have always been a team of highly motivated people bringing our innovation to market and with the opportunities provided by these clients, helped to open doors for us further afield in the industry. By 2008, we were receiving enquiries directly into our small office in Stonehaven from the likes of Thailand, Singapore, Italy, Norway and The Netherlands. Since then, we haven’t looked back.

 

What is the easiest part of exporting?

The easiest part of exporting is undoubtedly processing the Client Purchase Order. This also brings a certain level of satisfaction once a contract is fully signed perhaps after months of negotiation and the job in hand commences in anger.

 

And the most challenging part?

The most challenging part of exporting tends to be experienced in getting bogged down with bureaucratic ‘red tape’ – the small print in other words.

My advice is – if you don’t understand it, pass it to someone who is qualified to understand it as that’s wat they’re paid for. We are an SME who don’t have the luxury of a Contracts Engineer or Legal Advisor, however we do at least have access to such persons which is very important.

This can consume a lot of time and effort and often a degree of patience is required. Other challenging parts may include the shipping and insurance, particularly of high value and often fragile electronic products that we supply.

If we didn’t have the challenges it would be boring!

 

Have language barriers, currency changes, etiquette and culture ever caused you any difficulties? How did you overcome them?

We have been very fortunate in this respect, however we live in a modern world where English is a desired language to learn and is therefore spoken more widely than ever before.

We are of course a rather lethargic nation when it comes to learning languages and perhaps doesn’t appreciate just how lucky we are.

Business etiquette, combined with the social culture of territories into which we have exported is an interesting subject, however in the Commercial Diving sector, experienced UK ex-pats (usually ex-Diver’s) are fairly widespread.

This has undoubtedly been an advantage and made it slightly easier during times of negotiation.

 

What advice would you give to someone just starting to explore overseas markets?

Set yourself apart from the competition by building the best possible reputation with all prospective clients as ‘being best in class’ and make every effort to surpass your competitive suppliers by providing goods and services that exceed the clients expectations from the outset.

 

Any regrets?

I would interpret ‘regret’ in this instance as ‘hindsight’ as we certainly don’t have any regrets, other than perhaps not having the realisation that we were growing as quickly as we did. We moved to new premises in 2010 and no sooner had we settled in when we thought ‘this is too small’!

Other than that, life will always feature those hindsight moments and as a team of engineers, a considerable amount of time and effort is placed in doing things with the utmost accuracy. However, there will always be the inevitable ‘perhaps we should have done it that way’ or ‘I wish we’d thought of that’.

From a BD perspective, we can often be too hard on ourselves as what we produce is highly technical, often used in critical applications to enhance Diver safety and provide life support during their times in Saturation.

 

Where next? What markets are you looking into and where do you see the company in 5 years time?

Fathom Systems is currently shifting its business focus from the UK and Norway sectors to South East Asia (principally Singapore). This has been led by the need to continue to grow the business and enter new markets during the local downturn in the UK. So far we have been successful in this strategy with three new DSV projects underway in China, one in Singapore and a fifth in South Korea. Three further DSV contract awards are expected early 2016 – all being built in China for a Singapore based Client.

2016 will also see Fathom Systems engage in the turnkey supply of products and services to a shore based client in Norway. The project which is worth about £270k, plus a further £50k of personnel services is high profile as it is at the onshore hyperbaric reception facility in Bergen. Primarily used as a standby facility in the event of Saturation divers having to abandon a vessel, they arrive at the facility in their own self-propelled hyperbaric lifeboat and then transferred to the onshore facility to safely decompress. The facility is also used for hyperbaric medical treatment and will be another ‘showcase’ portal for our equipment. Once complete, we plan to use this in our sales and marketing efforts by commissioning a promotional video to be viewed on our website.

We are also engaging with SDI and UKTI on establishing permanent representation in Singapore which will also allow is to identify further opportunities not only in Singapore but other territories such as Malaysia and Indonesia where we have a number of interested parties.

So where do we see ourselves in 5 years’ time? Certainly this year is all about survival and at present I can’t recall having seen the industry in a worse state in the 25 years I have worked in it. Fathom Systems seem to be ‘bucking the trend’ at present and with our exported goods to South East Asia keeping us going. There are too many contributing factors surrounding what dictates the price of a barrel of oil, when a steady recovery will begin and at what point in value will it settle. Currently every penny in the industry is being counted and we like many other SME’s are being squeezed by ‘the big boys’ on cost saving and initiative. With that comes the desire for innovation and we’re pretty good at that. With a 10 year pedigree and the backing of our investors Maven Capital Partners, we have our sights set on other potential markets which at least provide us with a firm long term plan. We have a considerable volume of equipment to support in the field and by the end of this year, Fathom Systems will have £20m + worth of equipment on 29 Dive Support Vessels. That is testament to all our hard work, however all I can say at present is ‘watch this space’.

 

Fathom Systems recently won two Subsea UK Awards for ‘Best Small Company of the Year’ and ‘Innovation for Safety’ for our intelligent Gas Analysis equipment and was shortlisted for the HSBC Scottish Export Awards in two categories – ‘Small Exporter of the Year’ and ‘Export Team of the Year’.