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Around the World in 80 Trades: JFD

Diversifying from the North Sea oil and gas sector to pursue export markets was vital for subsea operations and engineering company JFD. We caught up with them to find out more about their export journey.

What does your company do?

JFD is one of the world’s leading subsea operations and engineering companies providing complex diving and underwater systems to the commercial and defence industries.

Operating in more than 80 countries worldwide, the company is the world’s leading provider of submarine rescue capability and an established provider of submarine escape training. The company is at the forefront of Hyperbaric Rescue, along with being the leading supplier of diving equipment and saturation diving systems to the commercial and defence industries.

When was your company launched, who by and why?

JFD was created in 2014 through the merger of James Fisher Defence and Divex. In 2015 JFD acquired the National Hyperbaric Centre and in 2016, LEXMAR Engineering to further boost the services offered to its customers.

James Fisher Defence was formed in 1983 when it was then known as Rumic. Bought by James Fisher & Sons plc in 2002, and renamed James Fisher Defence in 2006, the company joined the team supporting the NATO Submarine Rescue System (NSRS) that year. In 2015 James Fisher Defence was awarded the contract to operate and maintain the system for another 10 years.

Divex was created through a series of acquisitions and mergers within the underwater industry, and was able to trace its pedigree back to 1790 as ‘Barry, Henry and Cook’, an iron foundry with its engineering works located in Aberdeen. The company moved on to become part of the Pressure Products Group (PPG) which was formed through a number of mergers within the industry.  In 1998 the company renamed to become Divex and in the years that followed established entities and joint venture globally.

National Hyperbaric Centre was originally built in 1987 sponsored by the UK Government to provide a research centre for the subsea industry as well as a provider of diver medical support and hyperbaric lifeboat reception. It has been a pioneering establishment and the centre of expertise for the subsea and diving industry ever since.

LEXMAR was formed in 1996 by Ms Marieke Barker and her late husband, Lex Barker.  The name itself means Ruler of the sea and successfully joins the first three letters of the two names. In the early days, LEXMAR operated as a service company to diving companies, gradually diversifying into refurbishment, and working towards eventually providing full refurbishment services for saturation diving systems.

How long has the company been exporting?

Each company which makes up JFD has been exporting for most of their trading history in various ways.

What do you currently export, and where to?

JFD exports most of its products and services on a daily basis around the world.

A couple of our largest most notable recent projects are:

  • In 2016 we secured the largest contract in the company’s history worth £193M for the provision and long term support of the Indian Navy’s submarine rescue capability.
  • Also in 2016, JFD announced that it has been awarded a major contract valued in the region of £35M with Shanghai Salvage, one of the biggest professional salvage companies in China for the design and build of a 24 man saturation dive system capable of diving to depths of 500m.
  • Only a few days ago JFD has been awarded through its Chinese joint venture a further relevant contract to manufacture a 12 men saturation diving system rated to 300m worth over £10milion

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

Being dependant on the North Sea oil & gas sector meant we had to diversify to provide stability and growth. As our products are pioneering within the industry it didn’t take long for us to recognise demand around the world.

JFD and all the group companies have been recognised for their quality and services quickly establishing themselves as preferred suppliers allowing our global footprint and growth to increase significantly in a short space of time.

What is the easiest part of exporting?

We provide a variety of very niche products and services for which we are world renowned. The easiest part of exporting is often the delivery. All the propaedeutic preparation work to this requires experienced resources, diligent execution and meticulous attention to detail.

And the most challenging part?

Risk is the biggest challenge. Risk is a cost and needs to be hedged. The unknown factors such as taxation, local regulations, local content and all the specifics of the region need to be taken into consideration.

Risk mitigation based only on the increase of margins in order to cover the unknown is not a winning theme when cost and price are the main drivers. For this reason JFD has invested in a strong bids team, a strong legal and commercial department that work together to mitigate risks, understand the uncertainties and offer to the market the best solution at the most competitive price.

Supplying systems to the defence industry is also a further challenge, the rules and the clearance required limits the number of employees that sometimes can have access to the documents creating a layer of procedures that makes the process more complicated and rigorous. 

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

Having many bases worldwide and having employed a number of resources from many countries allows us to rely on mother tongue translators. We are very accustomed to different cultures – within the 6 members of our senior leadership team we have English, Scottish, South African and Italians!

Did you get any support when you wanted to trade abroad? Who from, and was it helpful?

JFD has a number of agents and subcontractors that locally assist and facilitate the business development. The company regularly engages with embassies, consulates, the Department for International Trade, Defence & Security Organisation (DSO), attaches, Scottish Enterprise and other trade organisations.

We believe that engaging with these entities has a dual benefit; it allows them to grow their understanding on British international trade and on the other side, allows companies like JFD to engage at high level with delegates and decisions makers with sufficient gravitas and support.

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

Take the time to learn about the countries you are exporting to – do your homework on the country and their culture to help understand how they operate and think.

Take advice and guidance from the specific trade organisation, engage with them well prepared and with a sound business plan, do not go there seeking for answers, these companies are there to guide and assist, not to do business for you.

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

JFD has a three year plan objective that includes a constant growth of 20% year on year and beyond that. JFD has the financial backing of a PLC group able to sustain such growth and make it happen. The company is structured in a lean and effective way in order to be able to be profitable and effective.

We believe that unfortunately the North Sea will not be our main market in the next 3 years, however we intend to maintain a strong local presence with our experts, our technical authorities and our engineering capabilities in the UK in order to have the ability to provide the industry with an immediate reaction once the oil and gas industry regains momentum.

We are constantly monitoring the submarine interests of the leading navies in the world and provide them with expert advisory, piecemeal and ad-hoc solutions. This allows JFD to become close to their needs and requirements, and to understand the best model that the navy intends to pursue to attain their goals. JFD is then pre-positioned to provide the customer with the solution they require with a strategic insight and confidence.

Overall our aim is to enable our customers to have the availability of our services and our equipment.

JFD have been shortlisted in the Large Exporter of the Year category at the HSBC Scottish Export Awards 2017 in association with Scottish Enterprise. Join us on 22 March to celebrate international trade across Scotland.