Wired and wonderful

Wired and wonderful

Stephen Coomes was an engineering sales manager who set up his small Scottish business in 1978 – he is still at the helm today. Meantime, SDC Industries has built a reputation for designing and manufacturing energy efficiency and power supply products now going around the world.

The switchgear that keeps the lights and heating on – and vital life-support equipment whirring – is a critical part of our modern hospitals in Scotland. But they often need upgrading. When it comes to replacing and switching over a specialist electrical power system, a small firm in East Kilbride has the expertise to help keep everything running smoothly without missing a heartbeat.

SDC Industries is one of Scotland’s little industrial gems: a company where the knowledge and expertise of its founder Stephen Coomes is matched by the loyalty and commitment of the workforce. While the company has won Best Small Company in the Lanarkshire Business Excellence Awards and Best Green Business, it has been modestly minding its own business.

It is deeply heartening to know that companies, such as SDC Industries, tucked away neatly in the corner of a Lanarkshire industrial estate, still exist. They are the only power factor and voltage optimisation manufacturing company in Scotland – and have been the sole business in this field for the past 25 years.

This is a business where you can sense that a family spirit prevails and where long service is a factor in the company’s 36-year longevity. In all those years, no one has ever been made redundant or paid-off. That’s quite an incredible position.

SDC Industries is owned and run by the quietly spoken and exceptionally polite Mr Coomes. Now in his 60s, he’s a modest and cautious businessman who has ploughed his own furrow. He is an engineer’s engineer to his bone marrow. He retains that wonderful sense of curiosity about how things work. He admits that even around his Lanarkshire home, he will repair a broken kettle or radio, fix a blocked pipe and even undertake minor car repairs. He does, however, draw the line at dabbling in the complex mechanics of the commercial helicopter that he has flown since 1993.

“You look at something and you analyse how it is put together. Then you look at what you need to repair it when it goes wrong. And you just do it,” he says.

SDC Industries employs 25 people in East Kilbride with a turnover of £3.5 million and has recently taken on a new engineer and two electricians. This might appear modest by comparison to other major firms, yet it is a market leader in its sphere. “Our growth has never been meteoric. It has always been gradual. Over our history, we’ve had several recessions. It has plateaued and dipped and then grown again. We dipped during the recent recession but it is growing back again. If I stay doing this for the next 10 years, I think we could get our turnover up to £10 million. The reason it hasn’t been meteoric, is that it is my money. It has been hard enough to earn and I’m not going to risk it unduly. It is hard to earn and easy to lose.”

Stephen Coomes, in his quiet and measured way – with a touch of impish wit – has inspired his work colleagues to join him on his journey.
“The people I have are loyal and very hard-working. They have helped grow the business.  I feel a commitment to them,” he says.

How does he maintain his enthusiasm for his business?

“We are always busy here. There is no point in me being at work unless I do it well. There is no alternative. It’s not fair to anyone and I must do it to the best of my ability. We never forget that the customer pays everyone’s wages.”

Jacqueline McShane, the marketing manager, interjected and said that regular customers have come to expect Stephen Coomes’s involvement and a rub of his wealth of knowledge about power systems. He nods his head in agreement.

“People don’t just phone up and say: ‘We want one of those’. They phone up with a particular problem associated with electrical power, what do we do? Our advice is paramount to our sales, we offer a complete package. The product is where we make the money but we give the advice as part and parcel of our service. I believe a lot of companies don’t have the knowledge and they want the customer to take the risk from them. We’ve taken that on our shoulders comfortably over the years.” he says.

Apart from hospitals, SDC Industries designs energy efficient schemes for new installations in factories, saw mills, various local authorities across the UK, the NHS in Edinburgh, Lanarkshire, Newcastle and Swindon, the Scottish prison Service and even Wynn’s Casino in Las Vegas and the Old Bailey in London. They advise the customer and if they accept what SDC says, they are sold the equipment, which is then installed by SDC’s technicians.

“It is our own design. Through the years we  have amalgamated, modified and improved them. There are very few people who can have original thought in the sphere of electrical systems. I think it is a question of seeing how things are, how they can be fitted to what is needed, and modify them. That’s essentially what we do. We undertake all of our own electrical design now.”

So how did Mr Coomes create this business gem in East Kilbride? “When I was at school I developed the hobby of repairing televisions and valves and then transistor radios. I started to get interested in engineering when people started throwing them out – and I could fix them.”

Born in Enfield, Steven came up to Scotland with his parents, via Sheffield. He attended the red sandstone Spier’s School in Beith in North Ayrshire, now defunct, whose motto was ‘What is true is right’.

In the early 1970s, he was accepted at Strathclyde University studying for an electrical and electronics degree.

“I went to get the qualification to get a job. I think if I had gone in later years I would have got a lot more out of it intellectually,” he said.

But his enthusiasm for engineering – which he still maintains – was sated by his time in Glasgow. In his fourth year, he specialised in electronics, although he has ended up as an electrical engineer.

“Electrical engineering has not changed as rapidly as electronics but heavy electrical power is needed to operate everything in life. Over the years it has changed, but not dramatically. I’m very pleased I chose this path now.”

As a future graduate, he wanted two things: a car and an expense account. So he applied for sales jobs with big companies on the graduate milk run.

“I’d had old bangers all the way through university which I had to fix. I remember lying on the hill at Rottenrow, where you could park, underneath my car, trying to fix it because it wouldn’t start. I had an old Ford Classic and then an Austin Westminster, with its leather upholstery.”

“As soon as I graduated, I said I’ve had enough of this, I wanted a car provided. So I got a job with BICC [British Insulated Callender’s Cables, and now part of Balfour Beatty], the largest cable making-company in the world.”

As a graduate trainee, he moved to Wrexham to work in the power cable division, manufacturing 11kb cables, where he was on the management sales programme. Like so many of these Great British businesses, it was a solid learning ground. And he also got his new car too.

“This started me off on the road to where we are now as a business. BICC was a phenomenal company with factories all over the world. Back then, I was told that people are the most important asset that any company has. When I look at some large companies today, I wonder if they subscribe to that view.”

He undertook day-release to Liverpool Polytechnic, completing a diploma in management studies, which also took him to management courses in France and Belgium. It was on that sought-after expense account that he first got his glimpses of Paris and Brussels.

“They educated me and made me feel I was going places. This was a whole different world for me. My upbringing hadn’t been poor, but my parents certainly didn’t have a lot of money to lavish about.”

However, Stephen Coomes witnessed first-hand a root cause of Britain’s industrial decline.  “Looking back, it really shows me how much business has changed over the years, because when I was taken on in sales, I went out with the existing sales engineers in Birmingham. One guy, called ‘The Trainer’, would sit in the office in the morning and wait for the phone to ring. There was no pre-planning or pro-active sales pitch. Then, at lunch, he took us to the pub. Every lunchtime we ended up in the pub for several hours. It is different days now.”

He showed promise and was transferred to Leicester selling a whole range of general cables, with wholesalers, and manufacturers such as Marshall Amplifiers, the essential back-line gear for any self-respecting rock band.

“Marshall Amps have done very well. It shows that if you’ve got a product in a niche market that becomes the best, then it builds a long-term value.”

He continued with BICC in computer stock control in Prescott, finished off his management diploma in Leicester, then moved to Stevenage as a qualified sales manager, where he was given sales targets.

“I was young and didn’t have the confidence

I have now. I was all right with sales but I didn’t set the heather alight,” he admits.
In 1975, he was given the opportunity to become a capacitor sales engineer, which was a step up the ladder, and a job in Glasgow, based in Helen Street, now an ASDA store. By now, he had married first wife, May, and they were able to move to a modern detached house in Lanark. Life was good.

“My beat included the National Coal Board, and British Steel at Ravenscraig. I went down many Scottish mines to look at their electrical cabling and work out their requirements. I
was selling energy-saving capacitors which brought me on to what we are doing now with SDC,” he says.

Then BICC delivered a shock: they decided to amalgamate two sales forces and asked Stephen Coomes to re-apply for his job.

“There were three people for two jobs, and they interviewed me for my own job and
that really upset me. I thought I was being groomed for bigger and better things. I thought ‘blow this’ and I left.”

In 1977, he left, confident he would get a job.

“We sold our house in Lanark and May and I bought an old nursery at Overtown, Wishaw, that was rundown at the time. The Good Life was on the telly,” he laughs. “We thought we’d try doing this and grow raspberries and damsons.”

But money was tight. He was approached by Rectiphase, a capacitor components competitor, and part of Schneider group, who offered him a job as an agent for its brand.
“I wasn’t making much growing things. I took on the job as an agent and it was quite traumatic because there was no money coming in. I had to sell to survive and that’s the way it has been ever since.”

He worked with Rectiphase until 1988 and was the top sales performer, earning reasonable money on commission. Unfortunately, the rasps and damsons were turned into lawn. Stephen worked as an agent, while May answered telephone enquiries and helped with the invoicing in what became SDC Industries.

“It started to take off and it was good. We became SDC Industries and then made it
a limited company in 1988, moving to East Kilbride.”

He moved over to work with ABB, the merged Asea and Brown Boveri, and SDC began manufacturing their own capacitors and products, using basic components. This was the Power Factor Correction Capacitor, the bedrock of the business today. These are high voltage capacitors which have been installed in electrical installations around the world. At times, Steven Coomes was making the products and then going out and installing them.

“I remember doing a job for Tate & Lyle when they had a sugar refinery at Greenock and we promised the factory would not be off-line for electricity. We had to work all day and night through the weekend to ensure its installation on time,” he says.

Working with ABB was mutually beneficial and the Powerfactor Correction Capacitor was doing well while other products were added to the range. The company was growing, required bigger premises, and started taking on electrical engineering recruits such as David Sullivan, the technical manager, who is a key part of the team. Peter Higgins, the production manager, who is responsible for assembly, joined 18 years ago.

Most of the team is long-serving with many nearly 20 years with the firm. While Jacqueline McShane, head of administration and marketing, has been with the company for 11 years.
East Kilbride Development Corporation sold them the ground lease and a 7,000 sq ft factory, which has been a boon, because it later allowed SDC to double its size, adding another factory building.

“It was a good move buying the ground lease and the land next to us. It has given us the room to expand. We’ve now plenty of room to develop our factories and do more. We have limited machine tools because most of our work is in assembly. Our expertise is in putting together all the components in a safe and effective way. We make some of the components ourselves. In our market, to compete against China, you have to be in a niche market with a high technical content and knowledge. In terms of manufacturing costs, China is cheaper but we normally buy our components from North America and the EU.”

“The modern products are concerned with voltage optimisation. Back in 1988 the average value of order was £5,000 and now it is £100,000. We do some really big jobs.”

SDC’s clients are national and international with a customer list that most engineering businesses would die for. Many are repeat customers since 1978.

“For example, the Tullis Russell paper mill has just put in a new power station to get energy from renewable wind sources and they needed an upgrade of their power factor correction systems. So they gave us the order.”

“We have customers of 30 years standing but we’re also gaining new customers too. We are well aware we have to keep finding new customers all the time. We have been reducing carbon emissions for 30-odd years but it hasn’t been the flavour of the month until the past five years. To try and get people to buy our products in the early days because they were greener and cleaner, well, that was unheard of!” he says.

Power Factor Correction does reduce Co2 emissions, but few people were interested until a few years ago.

His only blip was starting a manufacturing company in Kingussie. They began manufacturing transformers in Scotland and won some orders but he found it difficult getting the right people working in this Highland factory.

“The transformer is a basic building block and the UK imports a lot of them. We got some reasonable orders. We were ahead of the time and found it hard to give the workforce enough work, so in the end we decided to shut. If we’d been a year or two later it would have been a lot better.”

The closure of the Kingussie factory was a hiccough, but Stephen kept his spirits up by concentrating on re-organising the East Kilbride factory. With his wife, Valerie, who is the managing director of her own fencing company in Hamilton, the household talk often turned to their shared business interests.

“My wife Valerie runs her own successful business. She shares my understanding of how business operates, and together we try to work out the way to find the solution to common, everyday work problems,” he says.

Stephen Coomes is positive about the assistance he has received from Scottish Enterprise, who have helped in specialised areas of exporting and in marketing, such
as the development of the website. In 2014, 20% of SDC’s work was being exported
from Scotland.

“Scottish Enterprise have liaised very closely with us over a number of years,” he says.
For about 15 years, the company has exported to Africa, including Ghana, and the Philippines. There are tremendous opportunities for us to export more, but we need to take on an export sales manager. The costs associated with that have made me slow down on this route.”

So what does he reckon on small engineering companies in Scotland? “What I can’t understand is that there are thousands of smaller engineering companies in Germany. Yes, there are certain small differences between our countries, but if the Germans can do it, there is no reason why it can’t be done in Scotland. Engineering is the fundamental building block for everything. I think here we think doing the dirty jobs is a bit beneath us, which it is not.”

Stephen Coomes remains familiar to many in Scotland’s electrical industry, but he has quietly and methodically built a great business that is wired for success.