Everyday objects are being created with skill and timely precision, in the capable hands of the team at Contracts Engineering.
At the helm of this vibrant operation are Troy and Catherine Barratt, who bought the business in 2012. Under their pioneering and enthusiastic leadership, its turnover has tripled in the last six years and two months ago production moved to larger, more efficient premises on a trading estate in Sittingbourne, North Kent.
Catherine is almost evangelistic in her passion for the specialist sheet steel and aluminium engineering business, which creates a wide variety of objects for the construction, light infrastructure and street furniture industries. Examples include building cladding, benches, bike shelters, ducting equipment, commercial plants and retaining walls.
As she shows me around the 16,000sq ft warehouse which has been tailored to fit the needs of the finely tuned production line, Catherine points out the highlights – the mesmerising laser-cutter, the noisy punch machine and the welding corner, where finishing touches are put to the steel objects. The factory floor is run with two eight-hour shifts, split between 23 staff, as well as regular Saturday shifts. The laser cutter is frequently set to run for a third, unsupervised, shift when deadlines demand it.
I comment that it is heartening to see real engineering being done in a UK factory, when the common perception might be that the manufacturing sector has gone, or at the least is in decline. Catherine’s husband Troy – who hails from Indiana and speaks in an attractive slow North American accent – surprises me with the following statistic: “The UK is the eighth biggest manufacturer in the world.”
He adds: “It is relatively easy to hire and train staff here, machines are efficient, labour rates good and we can often manufacture to a higher standard and quicker than elsewhere.”
Under Troy and Catherine’s leadership, Contracts Engineering has built an enviable reputation for producing quality goods on time and at a competitive price. That doesn’t mean they are the cheapest by any means, Catherine hurries to assure me. Their strength is in expertise, quality, on-time delivery and efficiency “focusing on what we do well,” she explains. That is the innovation they have brought to the operation.
The couple’s business ethos is inclusion. They operate as a strong team and invite contributions from staff via regular monthly “town hall” meetings. The layout of the new factory was designed principally by the people who are to work in it and anyone who has a suggestion on how to improve workflow or efficiency is guaranteed a serious hearing from the bosses. Good ideas also result in bonuses calculated based on the estimated savings!
Catherine believes the company’s rise in orders and reputation comes from the belief that systems can always be improved. “We constantly look at how we work, we listen to staff and we use technology to our advantage,” she says. At the heart of this is a software program which allows anyone on the premises to monitor the production process, ensuring it keeps to promised delivery schedules. “This gives us the edge”, says Catherine. “It keeps us focused and it keeps the customer happy,” when the customer is happy, the business benefits. In turn, the 35 staff enjoy that success with a profit-share scheme. Troy and Catherine, who met at business school in New York where they were both studying for an MBA, now have two children aged six and eight. They clearly love their work and relish the challenges.
Before I go, I ask the inevitable question about Brexit and its possible impact on the business. Troy pauses a moment, then says: “Of course it’s on our mind, but we can’t let it get in the way of what we do. No one really knows what will happen, but I am reasonably optimistic. We can’t stockpile our raw materials. We get through our entire stock several times every month, so after Brexit we will remain reliant on getting steel and aluminium from the UK, Germany, Spain and Sweden, our main sources markets. However, this sort of challenge puts wind in our sails, makes us more cost-competitive and focuses the mind on how to work smarter for our customers.”
Catherine echoes his optimism. “UK manufacture can get through this. There could be massive opportunities in our industry,” she says with a smile.