Managing director at 27 – good going that, particularly when the woman in view is driving her family’s firm in the macho world of excavators, cranes and other offroad vehicles. No sexist innuendo is intended there either, especially since Kate Wickham takes up her challenge – promotion from business development manager – just as the company distances itself from the recent recession.
Kate’s a highly personable hard and fast talker; boss in a business making good headway not only at home but also overseas – in the US, mainland Europe and Asia. She’s doesn’t spare herself either. She ran in her maiden Great North Run recently and set herself a target of two hours. She’s still disappointed as she recounts months later that she took two hours and five minutes.
“I think I started too fast,” she grumbles. As the Gateshead company’s name indicates, the family owning Gate 7 is very much sports motivated. Gate 7, we’re reliably informed, is the gate in whitewater canoe racing at which contestants start to acknowledge physically and mentally the immensity of the challenge they’ve set themselves.
It was certainly a challenge when Kate and her family set up the business in 2000 designing and manufacturing decals, corporate logos to adorn the vehicles and safety and instructional warnings that by now must have helped to safeguard countless lives.
“We began in the back garden at home at Whitburn,” Kate recalls. “There were four or five of us at the start. We established a niche market early on among the manufacturers of construction equipment.
“Our target was blue-chip firms which, in that sector, have their manufacturing plants widely scattered over many countries. This offered us organic growth through recommendation. It takes a lot of effort, though, to persuade companies like these to sever reliance on local service. For all of us it involved a lot of legwork.” What a client list now, though. They first made sure of their own ground, selling themselves locally. They captured Komatsu and Caterpillar in the North East and subsequently have made it up to the enviable hat-trick of hitters with JCB. The workforce now totals 45 in the UK, and in 2008 the firm opened a US branch in Pennsylvania, which Kate, a regular visitor, describes as a mirror image of their Team Valley operation.
Gate 7 has won the export class of the North East Business Awards and was named Export Business of the Year 2006 by the North East Chamber of Commerce. But it was winning the Queen’s Award within five years of start-up that worked wonders. Kate explains: “Americans are impressed by this award, just as they are impressed by the Royal Family. They loved it then and now that we have won the Queen’s Award.
To them it’s a national treasure, to us it’s a good opener. “They want to know: Do you know the Queen? Have you met her? What’s she like? American customers can be very tough to deal with but they do like the Brits, as do Indians to this day.
“In dealings, the Americans are very straight down the line, very blunt. But you enjoy a bit of an edge because there’s no language barrier and there is a ready welcome.” Kate’s father Keith, who has become chairman as Kate takes the md seat, is a leading UK exponent of silkscreen printing and well known in North East business circles.
He has an irrepressible optimism which Kate says is a perfect foil for her occasional mood of pessimism. He decided opportunely that the firm should risk a US opening. As Kate explains: “The US after 9/11 was looking at itself, going through a process of change. One of its inclinations was to seek greater self-reliance in its economy. So we were there, could pitch for business and be acceptable.
“During the recession also there has been a USpush to have the goods for its market made within the US. We had chosen America because we didn’t think we could serve it as well as we should from here anyway. It has proved a valuable foothold.” Now they’re pushing into India, where payments – as in the US – are made promptly.
Kate says: “Sales leads in Europe look positive too, because although there are many local suppliers in this established market they didn’t seem good enough to satisfy customer needs.” As recession took grip, making construction one of the worst hit sectors everywhere, Gate7 has entered additional markets abroad, including Japan, Brazil and Turkey, and is now looking at new sectors also, such as agriculture.
“It can be daunting going outside the EU – I’m not denying that,” Kate admits. “But in India, where you expect competition costs to be much cheaper, we won a couple of really big deals with JCB. And we have several more leads we’re pushing. It all looks very positive.
Firms there buy abroad when they can’t get a certain standard at home.” Without the support of UK Trade & Investment, the opening of foreign markets would be daunting, the firm agrees, warning that novices to exporting must be financially prepared.
“Mainly it’s the initial costs,” Kate elaborates. “The unavoidable such as air fares and hotel bills. We spent thousands sending a couple of our guys to the US, only to find that the businesswoman they were to meet couldn’t meet them because, unexpectedly, she had to take her daughter to school. Three thousand miles we’d travelled but, ‘sorry... I can’t make it today’. You get knockbacks like that. “You can invest money and not win the business. But when you do it’s worthwhile. We never gave up then. We never give up now. Then, so long as you supply the parts and keep the customers happy, there’s no reason for them to switch.” Kate isn’t simply stepping into her father’s shoes out of hereditary advantage – as happens in many family businesses – for he is only dedicating himself now to progressing US operations because he’s confident Kate has had the grounding and thus the skills to drive the UK business.
Her business acumen sharpened when she worked for six months in Belgium with Ingersoll Rand, the $13bn global and diversified industrial company with 100 years of technical innovation behind it. She also spent two weeks with world-class companies in Japan, visiting two factories a day to absorb principles of lean manufacturing – working better, faster and more efficiently.
“Japanese firms put so much thought, time and effort into every change and new development they make,” she says. “Everyone in the organisation has to be involved and know what’s happening so that everything moves flawlessly. We had heard all the theory about this, but to see it in practice is wonderful. “Here and in the US, no disrespect, we tend to be a lot more hands... suck it and see.
We make a change and monitor from there. We try to take these principles and make them work here. We’re under no illusion, though, that we can do it like the Japanese.” In Belgium, Kate developed insights into dealing with customers and raising relationships to higher levels.
“It’s always good to see how other companies work,” she says. She was only 11 or so, a pupil at King’s School, Tynemouth, when she found an appetite for business. Her father had allowed her a week’s work experience at an earlier Tyneside business of his, printing among other things, colourful posters which must have added millions to the sales of newspapers they advertised.
She was given her own little desk where she stuffed envelopes and walked to the tuckshop for chocolate bars.
“Everyone seemed to know my name and was nice to me,” she says, “and I was able to see a lot of what business entails. I remember thinking: ‘I could get used to this’. As you get older you realise what business really entails.” Later she continued to work in the family business when opportunity allowed.
Her business study gained academic dimension at Leeds Metropolitan University where her graduation after four years included a year out marketing at Arla Foods whose milk and dairy products include the Lurpak and Anchor brands.
“All along I wanted to get back and work at Gate 7,” she remembers. When she did get back, one of her first responsibilities was to organise a big celebration, marquee and all, marking the Queen’s Award win. She followed this up by preparing a welcome for an official visit by Prince Andrew.
“I started in a human resource role and in other aspects of the business saw I could put things into place and add a shine to the company,” she says.“I got involved in account management, which enabled me to work closely with customers; I spent evenings working with our production manager to gain shopfloor experience, joining the overtime team working from half past four till nine o’clock at night. I learned a lot from that, and today I wouldn’t like to ask people to do things I couldn’t do myself.
I think that’s quite important.” Kate hopes five years from now Gate 7 will be even mightier in Europe, maybe manufacturing in Belgium or France, and enjoying prosperous markets in the like of Brazil, South Africa, China and Turkey. In Britain no one company in Gate 7’s field dominates.
“They’ve all had a tough time recently and locally there have been casualties,” Kate says. “Among many companies in competition only ours is totally focused on our chosen markets, with everything geared to that.” The firm restructured, a challenge that fell to Kate, as product improvement and cost reduction was intensified.
Some redundancies had to be made during the worst of the recession - but staff have also been hired since to advance research and development. The turnover of around £5.6m is expected soon to regain a pre-recession level.
“I believe we’ve made it through the worst, fingers crossed,” she says. “Things are looking up. And, do you know, through all the recent difficulties we’ve never lost a customer.”