BQ Yorkshire Editor Mike Hughes talks blood and glory with Steve Foster, MD at Vickers Laboratories Ltd.
Steve Foster likes blood. Particularly alien blood. That ‘thirst’ epitomises what must surely be the ultimate in diversification at Vickers Labs in Pudsey, where he is MD, from chemicals, packing and logistics to special effects.
“We’ve been around for 30 plus years,” said Steve, “and have moved from a specialist chemical company to one helping companies who aren’t chemicals companies but who use chemicals as part of their processes. So a contact lens manufacturer might take a certain mix of liquids and polymerize them into a plastic. The chemicals are central to their process, but their core product skills are in engineering, making the kit to form the lens.
“We try to get involved in their processes early on and work with them. Most want quality, delivery and a good price.”
That close working relationship seems to be a key reason for the Vickers success, leading to a turnover of just over £3million. For a chemicals-centric firm, they have discovered that a very human formula works with their customers. But that will always have to be backed by skills that can be trusted from the first contact and grown as the companies develop together.
“Skills are hugely important to us,” said Steve. “We are masters of a whole set of skills here. Because that enables us to produce a broad range of products. A customer might come to us for a bottle of something pretty straightforward, but then they will say ‘while we’re here... can you mix this, or make some of that for us...’
“A lot of what we do isn’t very technical, but it needs to be done correctly and be reproducible. We can deal with the small volume stuff that the bigger players aren’t interested in or aren’t set up to handle, which gives us more and more opportunities to develop those relationships,” said Steve.
So, what about the blood? And the snow? And the chocolate? Those particular relationships came when Vickers chemicals expertise was called on to make special effects blood (its a blend of what is essentially thickened water mixed with Steve’s former skills in the pigment industry) for Ridley Scott’s 2001 film Black Hawk Down.
Steve takes up the script from there: “Having made some good contacts from that project, in 2004 we got the job of supplying a million litres of chocolate river for Johnny Depp’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which obviously had to be safe for the environment and the actors.
“When that order landed, we set up shop in the car park at Pinewood Studios to keep the production line rolling. It turned out to be an astronomical quantity and was our big break.
“Since then we have done stuff for Snow White and the Huntsman, and we are now doing alien blood for film and TV projects.”
Alien blood, in case you were wondering, is blacker, which means that the PG certificate is easier to obtain. “You can slaughter as many things as you like, as long as there is black blood coming out of them,” says Steve, adding to my list of quotes I never thought I would hear. He then adds another gem...”We got the details on Monday and by Thursday it was being squirted into a famous actor’s face.”
Another day at the office for Steve and the Vickers team, but again, a reminder that there is no end to the skills and ingenuity on show across Yorkshire. Set a challenge, however wild you think you can go, and someone in Yorkshire can do it.
That’s a powerful mindset and if there is conviction behind it, the horizons are endless. But there is also a level-headed approach at Vickers and – making the most of their 30 staff – an agility that those larger firms will envy. The Vickers formula led to the firm having the confidence for bricks and mortar growth, which is where Santander got involved.
“Packaging can be the bane or our lives, so we needed more space and a building became available about 30 metres from us. We decided to have it and then decide what to do with it, perhaps just rack it out for storage.
In the end, they built a secure and clean building within the building and used it for production of the contact lens monomer as well as storage, with an inbuilt capacity for more of the year-on-year growth they have experienced since the MBO four years ago.
Steve says: “There comes a time when you have to spend a bit of money and take a few risks in life”. Coupled with a pro-active approach from Santander, the company is moving ahead again. And the strength of the region is helping.
Vickers was set up by a Yorkshire family and the continuing march of the manufacturing sector – particularly the smaller specialists – means more customers.
As this magazine is showing, Vickers Labs is a commander in an army of Yorkshire SMEs fighting for the county. Their battles, planned from boardroom bunkers in numerous business parks, are not only for customers and income and pride, but for the right to be recognised as worthy of global applause and success.