Ronald Whyte of Schoolhill Engineering
A 4th generation family business, Schoolhill Engineering has diversified from supporting the oil and gas industry to provide equipment for the booming drinks market. We caught up with them to find out more about where they export and why.
What does your company do?
We design and manufacture hydraulic powered machinery and specialist hydraulic cylinders into 2 very diverse industry sectors - mechanical handling machinery for all types of wooden barrel operations (alcoholic drinks industry) and oil and gas (some pipe working equipment but mainly subsea hydraulic tooling).
When was your company launched, who by and why?
4th generation family business started in 1948, currently run by myself (Ronald Whyte - 3rd generation) and supported by my son who works within our design team.
How long has the company been exporting?
Started exporting by default in the 80s as some of our local customers belonged to international groups who seemed to like our products and passed on our details to their colleagues abroad.
What do you currently export, and where to?
Our oil industry subsea products had previously done reasonably well abroad but this current upsurge in our barrel machinery export has been a surprising game changer.
We're currently mainly exporting to USA and Central America but equipment has been supplied to around 25 other countries, including Guatemala, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Trinidad, Venezuela, Brazil, France, Spain, Egypt, Nigeria, Syria, Oman, UAE, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, Korea and Australia.
What motivated you to start selling overseas, and how long did it take?
We began proactively focusing on exporting our wooden barrel operations equipment 2 years ago when the downturn in the oil and gas business pushed us to look seriously at diversification.
Considering our long standing association with the Scotch whisky business, it looked like a natural progressive step to try taking this barrel machinery abroad.
We have been lucky enough to tap into an emerging craft distilling and brewing industry located mainly in Eastern USA. Success here happened pretty quickly when new start-up customers began to see we could provide in depth technical support on operational efficiencies for their businesses.
Around 15 years ago I had been travelling to USA to attend barrel and drinks exhibitions for 5 years before we won a reasonable order.
What is the easiest part of exporting?
I don’t think there is one – originally it was all hard grind and very time consuming, but now we have a very good reputation for this equipment and are fairly well known, which makes it a lot easier to make contact with potential customers.
And the most challenging part?
For me that is handling the jet lag after coming home from a 6-8 hour time change after visiting an export customer or carrying out installation training.
Have language barriers, currency changes, etiquette and culture ever caused you any difficulties? How did you overcome them?
We have found etiquette and culture to be the most significant barriers, even between different areas of the USA.
Understanding small differences with people supposedly speaking the same language (or nearly the same) can cause uncomfortable issues if you get this wrong. For example we have found most Americans are incredibly patriotic and loyal to their employer’s brands. They are also very defensive regarding any internal issues they may have.
Language has not been any problem for us so far but we are now beginning to look at some countries where not much English is spoken and expect this to be much more challenging.
Did you get any support when you wanted to trade abroad? Who from, and was it helpful?
We have travelled as part of a number of official UK trade missions and received some financial support and advice from the Department for International Trade (DIT) and Scottish Enterprise, with whom we are a managed company, having been identified with “potential for growth”.
What advice would you give to someone just starting to explore overseas markets?
Make sure you understand the market and culture. If you believe there is a market, be prepared to persevere.
Where next? What markets are you looking into and where do you see the company in 5 years time?
We're looking at Mexico and Brazil for oil and gas, and the Far East for barrel machinery – India, China, Japan.
It’s very hard to predict. Our markets are pretty niche but assuming the alcoholic drinks business remains buoyant with large emerging markets, I believe we should be able to double the size of our business over next few years.
Schoolhill Engineering have been shortlisted in the Most Entrepreneurial and Micro Exporter of the Year categories at the HSBC Scottish Export Awards 2017 in association with Scottish Enterprise. Join us on 22 March to celebrate international trade across Scotland.