The Supra Hero’s Rise

The Supra Hero’s Rise

To many of his customers, he’s known simply as ‘Mr Key Safe’. But this brand has seen David Ogden’s company, Supra UK, bring in £56m in sales since 1995. Frank Holwell reports
Nearly two decades ago, when David Ogden first established his company Supra UK, the phrase ‘key safe’ was unknown here in this country. The UK market simply did not exist; and so David created it from scratch.

Key safes – a small, secure, wall-mounted container with an alpha-numerical keypad – are an invaluable tool for local authorities, health and care professionals and housing associations, enabling them to securely access properties to deliver vital care services.

Since 1995, it is estimated that Supra key safes have saved UK organisations £1.6bn per annum in time that carers previously spent having to ‘run for keys’. Now celebrating its 18th birthday, David’s company, based in modest premises in Droitwich Spa, Worcestershire, employs 25 staff and has a multi-million pound turnover.

Not that his school exam results reflected his true potential, ability and acumen; he left Waseley Hills High School in Rubery, Birmingham, with three O-levels, in woodwork, metalwork and technical drawing.

“I remember the careers teacher passing me an application form for British Leyland, because that’s where everyone went,” recalls the 48-year-old father of three. “I said ‘no thanks, I’m going to work for myself.’”

While he turned down a job at Longbridge, cars have always played a big part in David’s life – whether racing them as a hobby, chauffeuring (one of his earliest jobs) or selling to the automotive trade through a successful Snap-On Tools business.

Selling this franchise in 1994, David searched for his next business opportunity, and discovered the world of key safes. When first contacting parent US company Supra in Oregon to enquire about a UK franchise. However, their response was a cautious one.

Supra still had £150,000 in outstanding debts from some of its continental European franchises, and so was reluctant to start another. What if, David suggested, he was to visit those other companies and collect the money owing? Supra agreed and, after travelling Europe and collecting the vast majority of the money, the button was pushed on Supra UK.

Commonplace in the US for 50 years, UK key safes had only been used primarily by fleet companies to securely store keys on the outside of their vehicles; British Car Auctions and Land Rover were two of David’s early customers.

Given David’s passion for cars, it’s fitting that it was at an automotive trade show at Silverstone in 1997 when he experienced the ‘light bulb moment’ that was to shape his business for the next 15 years – and  immerse him in the completely different world of domiciliary care.

“This gentleman came up to my stand who was a social services director of Leicestershire County Council looking for cars for his carers,” David recalls. “He looked at the back of the stand and said: ‘what’s that little box with the push button front?’

“I said: ‘Oh, that’s a little box that goes outside your house and stores your house keys’, and he just said: ‘Hmmm – would that be useful for my delivery of care? We have a nightmare managing house keys.’

“It was at that moment that the penny dropped both for him and for me. I’m very car orientated; I love cars, I race cars, they’re my passion – so to actually meet a man from a completely different world to mine, who had a use for a product I had not yet really taken anywhere. It was quite something.”

After trialling 20 key safes for a month, the Leicestershire client bought 50 more, then another 100 in month three. He has since continued to buy around 100 pieces a month for the last 15 years.

David recalls: “I thought ‘this has got legs’, but I had to go and learn a completely new market – research and understand it. Luckily, my mum was a care manager of an old people’s home, so I understood the mentality.

“I went from big, gruff, oily mechanics talking cars to 85-year-old Doris who finds she needs some care at home. I think I’m as compassionate as the next guy, in that I didn’t want to put that lady at any unnecessary
risk. The product had to be deployed and installed properly with the support from crime reduction officers.

“When I first started the business, I asked myself if it was going to be as easy finding other authorities who would accept it? Luckily they did. I did my research, found out who the influencers were, who I needed to go to see. I would need the finance manager, the care manager or the social care director, but also a police officer to oversee the way they were deployed.”

This consultative approach is at the heart of Supra UK’s philosophy today. While David employs a traditional team of regional ‘sales’ managers, that’s something of a misnomer; they are as much consultants, discussing customers’ needs with the likes of social services or occupational therapists. And if a key safe is not what they need, they won’t force the issue; after all, David insists, any bad advice will only reflect back onto the company.

“A key safe will not necessarily be good for everybody and if you feel that the product doesn’t suit, or you can’t fit it properly then find an alternative solution – it’s not a panacea,” says David.

Domiciliary care for the elderly is a hot topic, with the UK’s ageing society putting increasing pressures on local authorities’ budgets and time. It’s estimated that between now and 2030, the number of people over 85 will increase by 101%, while the over-75s will go up by 51%.

“When I saw just how many people were getting care delivered, I could see the volume opportunity,” says David. “Key safes have greatly increased the hours of care delivered; you can get straight in and out, you’ve not
got to run for keys, and so you have that
whole hour with the client, not leaving 10 minutes early to drop a key off at an office or family member.”

The figures speak for themselves: after achieving a decent enough first annual turnover of £66,000, within four years Supra UK had registered a £1.7m turnover. Since its creation in 1995, Supra UK has sold £56m of product.  Its success, however, has come from the owner generating what he calls his own ‘marketing dollars’ – funding the foundations and investing heavily in the company’s future.

“In the early days, the [US] manufacturer would not produce a rubber cover for me because they said the volumes weren’t there, so I spent my own £5,000 in Moseley with an injection-moulding company, who to this day still supplies us – I then sold the covers back to the States.

“One of my lines is ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you,’” says David. “Whatever I earned, I pumped back into the business every year. To me, it’s not about the bottom line, it’s about the end result. I want a long term, sustainable and secure business.”

That philosophy of investing and sustaining growth is played out by Supra UK’s flagship product, the C500 key safe. The first and
only police-approved key safe on the UK market, David invested $950,000 of his own money developing it, as he knew his customers wanted it.

“It’s called the C500 because we met 500 consumers and asked them what they wanted – it’s absolutely market-led,” he says. “You see the likes of Dragons’ Den and people have come up with an idea and they think it’s great, but they haven’t developed it specifically for
a need.

“With the C500, we developed a product that our customers absolutely wanted, and to take a product from a concept two-and-a-half years ago to hitting 80,000 pieces a year is astonishing. The pleasure of being able to develop it is our real success.”

Another key to Supra UK’s success is David’s insistence on the product being marketed, sold and fitted properly – an ethos which means that despite much advice and many offers, he will not take the C500 to retail. It is only sold direct to the end user through Supra UK.

“People ask: ‘Why don’t you fill your boots and take it to retail?’” says David. “No, because I’d lose control of how it’s deployed and fitted. I wouldn’t get feedback from my client, and  I need feedback from every single client to address any problems. I have listened to customers along the whole route.”

While he’s a shrewd businessman who invests wisely and listens to his customers, David Ogden is happy to share Supra UK’s success with others. Earlier this year, he launched a ‘Willy Wonka style’ 18th birthday Golden Key competition, where eight of his customers, chosen at random, will receive a special golden key enclosed with an order. Each will be asked to nominate a local community scheme or project. Visitors to Supra UK’s anniversary website, www.keysafebirthday.co.uk, will then be invited to vote for their favourite proposal, the winner receiving £18,000 to invest in their project.

“The other day I turned up at a customer I hadn’t seen for many years to do some research and someone said: ‘Oh, we’ve got royalty – Mr Key Safe’s come to see us,’” David smiles.  “That says I’ve had an impact on people’s lives. That’s not being big-headed – I’m proud that people want to work with me. Who can say they’ve built and affected a market in such a way? I get huge pleasure out of the fact.

“I’m still trying to understand what the next step is; I love change for the right reasons. I want to change the industry and I believe I’ve got the solutions.”

Fact File

David Ogden Fact file

Supra UK’s principal sector is care – to the elderly, disabled and housebound via social services, domiciliary care agencies, Lifeline services and health and care professionals. But its key safe range has a wide variety of uses.

The key safes are also popular with holiday home letting agents and families who want to have a spare set of keys stored securely for children arriving home from school early. Or simply a jogger who wants to go out not carrying keys.

Supra UK’s client list over the last 18 years is impressive one: in addition to the 86% of UK local authorities they service, they have worked with the likes of Virgin Atlantic, BMW, Travis Perkins, Age UK and Securitas.

Supra UK’s range includes independent living products and secure cabinets – but it is key safes which are at the heart of the business and its success, most notably the C500. In 2009, no key safe in the UK met police approval. In August 2010 the first, and only, police-approved key safe in the UK, the C500, was launched by Supra UK.

It has an ‘LPS 1175 level 1’ security rating – which means it’s as secure as a domestic front door. Made of heavy-gauge stainless steel and a thick zinc-alloy shell, it has a double wall construction, while a stainless plate around the buttons adds additional security. The heavy duty locking mechanism uses a long-travel bolt, making it extremely pry-resistant.

Frank Stott, a crime reduction officer, says: “Increasingly we are seeing more and more robust doors being installed and although this is what we’re seeking to achieve, it can become increasingly more difficult to gain access for legitimate reasons – even for the police.

“The C500 provides a secure means to safely store a key outside the premises. This provides an assurance to the occupier that, should they need help, access can be gained quickly without compromising security. This can be particularly comforting to elderly people or those living alone.”