Geoff Underwood, IFPL, Calbourne
“Start Small!” advises Geoff Underwood.
“I went back to riding my bike – I gave up the car – to put everything I had into my start-up.
“I had always wanted to be in charge of my own destiny but I didn't know what I wanted to do. After years at Plessey and then Marconi, I got the chance to build my own business as part of a severance deal. It came at a good time for me as I had found the area of engineering design I was interested in – inflight entertainment systems.
“Even so, I had to deal with the airline industry procurement cycle, which is typically 7 years. If you miss the boat, you have to wait that long for your chance. You need a lot of patience, especially from your family. New product ideas would only be successful if the timing was right.
“When I got my first order of 300 headset sockets, I persuaded my Mum, Dad and Son to help me build them in the garage. By the fourth order, I realised I had to get more people and that meant bigger premises. And bigger costs in wages and rent...”
as published by IW County Press, Column by Dave Simon, continues below.
Work Less and Earn More
Commentary by Dave Simon
The ‘work smarter not harder’ idea can be difficult to develop, but it is a useful truth.
Teamwork is the oldest method of multiplying effect.
Any method of improving efficiency may help both the business and its employees. If a task can be done simpler, faster or cheaper, that can improve the competitive edge that business has when tendering for work.
As well as helping staff do their job, it can also lead to more job security, new jobs and a better reputation for all.
The person doing the work is usually the expert who can suggest better ways to do it. Staff Suggestion Schemes are not a new idea. One of the first is said to been in the Royal Navy in 1772 – perhaps in Portsmouth?
These Schemes usually burn out or rust out. The art is in managing them thoughtfully. (For ideas on how to do that, find the newest InfoSheet here.)
The effort can be very worthwhile – small ideas can bring large savings. And often much cheaper and quicker than using outside experts.
Like delegating and mentoring, this is part of productive teamworking. Build your team to be the best.
Geoff Underwood continues:
"My original plan had been to focus on designing new products for other people. But I realised that manufacturing was profitable and the combination was very valuable to the customer airlines. It meant that I could design new products, ensure their quality, warranty them, repair or replace them and so on. All the knowledge was under one roof, which reassured customers a lot, and was a better value proposition.
My vision from quite early on was to be a problem-solver. I would talk to anyone in the industry and find out what the problems were and then find a way to solve them. Then I found the managers who understood those problems and had some idea of how important it could be to solve them. Then I knew how to convince them that my solution was worth buying.
And that way, over ten years, I have now developed over fifty different products. And we are about to ship our two-millionth item!
At first, I had to do everything. I hadn't got the money to employ staff, so I was the catch-all. I had to 'make it happen' as they say, but also sweep up and make tea. But as the company designer, I also had to focus on creating new products. I was using my training in engineering and my knowledge of the industry.
As the business grew, I realised that I would have to work my way off the shop floor. As the main researcher, salesman and designer – as well as the people-manager and finance director – I had to find thinking time. Some of that was in the office, but I also needed to be out and about meeting people.
My years working in the Inflight Entertainment (IFE) industry before I started my own company helped me find customers in the USA, which is the home of IFE. Most of my customers are now American. So, the cross-Atlantic flights became valuable by allowing me creativity time so I could work on designs. I call it “bath-time thinking”.
I've always been pretty good at delegating. You've got to be, especially as your business grows. There's just too much to do otherwise. I like giving people permission to use their initiative. And they like it too. It works.
I delegated the Quality Assurance and then the production work. I now have a General Manager. And I've got over 50 employees – and still growing! I've had to separate myself quite a lot. It has to be done in a controlled manner.
Nowadays, I am at the factory much less, working at home a lot of the time. I've stepped back quite a long way.
My job now is to strategise and think about the future of my industry so we are not caught out by shifts in technology. And if I predict right, maybe I can get ahead of the game. So what I do with the factory is a bit like steering a narrow-boat: lots of little inputs. It gives me a lot of freedom, but on the down side, it also keeps me away from the team spirit that we used to have as a small business.
Profit From Experience
I'm scared by very little now. I've learned that you can take risks thoughtfully and get it right. We spend a great deal of time looking at risk management. So really, it's only the 'bolt of lightning', the big unexpected loss of control, that worries me now. Much of our relationship with our customers is well defined in the contract. So things like price changes and dollars to pounds exchange rates are controlled and predictable.
But the global finance fluctuations are outside that – and I got caught out once. I'd seen our accounts show payments by customers, but I suddenly realised that the bank account was not going up. When I checked, it was because the dollar had dipped in value against the pound. So we had to persuade one customer to pay in sterling instead of dollars and then the exchange rate worked the other way round for them and that balanced things up a bit.
I need to make sure we are making a profit, because that is what pays for my research and development work. I need to create the next product that allows us to stay in business next year. That takes a lot longer than most people imagine – and more money too! I also need it to pay for Quality Assurance, warranty costs, support and customer care and staff holidays... Without profit, you just have a hobby – and not for long, either!
I've had lots of advice along the way. In my early days, a senior engineer at Plessey took me under his wing, and I'm still grateful. At IFPL, we have a mentoring scheme – we say 'you never stop learning'. And that's true of the Boss too! Or maybe it's even truer to say: especially the Boss!
There is a difficult issue in many smaller business: can Bosses be challenged ? I want to learn about any bad news at the factory, because that's the stuff I have to fix. When a Boss is feather-bedded – and everyone pretends everything's alright – it can result in serious problems, because things do not get nipped in the bud. So I'd rather be challenged early on, to give me the chance to sort things out.
And looking at other Island business-people, I do admire Steve Porter for the challenge he took on building up his business. He is a large employer with thin margins in a competitive industry. I've done my best to borrow as little as possible, but I imagine he must go the bank every time he buys a new truck. He has worked hard, taken risks and done well!
I think the future of the Island lies in making it a place where people want to live. It’s one of the most beautiful places on the planet, but there are issues that need fixing. Get this right, and people will really want to come here to live and to work.
This means small businesses and start-ups - not multi-nationals. We should encourage knowledge-based and high tech businesses to come here. All they need is good connectivity! The Island has 40 technology companies and they employ five thousand people. That proves it can be done!
One of our biggest issues for our technology sector on the Island is attracting highly talented people. There are two barriers: the first being the Solent, which is largely a psychological barrier; the second is the schools.
Professional people generally want to know that there are good schools for their children (well, everyone wants that really!). I know a couple who have LEFT the Island and moved to Winchester just so that their Son could go to a decent school there. Without a high performing state school on the Island, then we will never make progress.
The Island is a stunning place to live, but we can't rely on that for our future.