28 September 2017 Interview

Survitec Group: Survival of the fittest

“We hope you never get to use our products.” It’s an odd thing for anyone in business to say, but for Brian Stringer, chief executive of Survitec Group, survival is all that matters

“If you use our equipment, you’re having a bad day,” Stringer elaborates. “But, the good news is, we’ll save your life.”

Survitec Group is one of those manufacturing success stories that the UK seems so good at hiding. With more than 1,000 employees in the UK, the company is a world leader in survival technology in the marine and defence sectors. Its products include lifejackets and fire suppression equipment for everything from fishing boats and super yachts to super tankers and cruise ships; immersion suits worn by those in the oil and gas industry; anti-G suits worn by fighter pilots; and submarine escape equipment.

70 per cent of the products it makes in the UK – from facilities in Belfast, Gosport and Birkenhead – are exported, and 80 per cent of what it sells is based on its own intellectual property.

Widening the safety net

The company can trace its history back to the safety measures brought in after the sinking of the Titanic and provision of the first inflatable life rafts and jackets to servicemen in World War II. But it has slowly grown with the market and through acquisitions. More recently, an eight-year acquisition spree has helped turnover to quadruple to around £450m, double that of its nearest competitor. And a year on from its biggest merger to date – with Wilhelmsen Maritime Services Safety Business – it now has operations in 30 countries and a presence in more than 100.

“We not only manufacture our products, we design them and then we service them as well,” explains Stringer. “Our strategy for the past eight years has been to grow our after-market business. And we’ve been acquiring businesses that have been in adjacent markets to ourselves to give us the full suite of products.”

We not only manufacture our products, we design them and then we service them as well

As market leader in fire suppression products, Wilhelmsen plugged the last significant hole in Survitec’s marine line-up.

“No one else in the world has the capability, in-house, to be able to manufacture, service, replace and upgrade all the regulated equipment on board a vessel,” he says.

Control and innovation

As it operates in a highly regulated market, Stringer draws a lot of confidence from the fact Survitec has control of the complete lifecycle of the products it sells, and doesn’t sub-contract.

“The consistency and quality of lifesaving equipment is absolutely critical. We need to guarantee that when you pull that cord, it works – every single time. Our business is all about trust.”

Heritage helps, he says. But it’s also about having the expertise – and the engineers – to back it all up.

A reputation for innovation is important for Stringer, as it means the company can “sell solutions” rather than products or services. The American Department of Defence, for example, asked Survitec to solve the problem of pilots in its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme being subjected to 8G forces – rather than buying from a catalogue. Likewise, an Augusta Westland aircraft used by the offshore industry needed a life raft to fit into a relatively small space and asked Survitec to help.

At other times, rapid innovation might be required to meet a regulatory change – and Stringer is proud that the company will respond and bring new, approved products to market in about six months. And with the foot easing on the M&A pedal, innovation will remain one of the most important ways to open up new market segments, he says, hinting at a new launch in the lifeboat industry in the coming months.

But getting the right people to enable the business to do this has been a challenge for at least the last decade, he says. It is why Survitec runs school projects – to enthuse kids about the prospect of a career in engineering – and apprenticeships. It also runs graduate programmes to get the good, commercial, senior people that Stringer says the company is currently struggling to find.

Arguably the situation over the past year has been even more critical – the move on Wilhelmsen grew the workforce by a third. But Stringer emphasises that with each acquisition the company has learnt and improved how it merges company cultures and minimises staff upset and uncertainty. “Communication is very important,” he says.  

Braving the storm

That’s more than can be said for Brexit. Although movement in currency has had a mixed impact on the business, and Survitec’s global scale and product range – as well as their regulatory servicing requirements –  make the business “pretty resilient”, uncertainty is having an effect on getting things done.

“Making an investment decision when there is uncertainty is a bold decision,” he says.

“Ultimately I think what we can achieve globally from the UK base will not be affected by Brexit, but some of our customers are waiting to see what happens. The quicker we can invest, the better the opportunity we’ll have to get things back onto a path of rapid expansion.

Making an investment decision when there is uncertainty is a bold decision

“And the better the UK economy, the better we feel about being able to invest in the UK bases that we have.”

Away from current EU negotiations, Stringer also calls on government to be more supportive of innovation in the UK, and how it funds research and development in particular.

“We’re in a market where things can move pretty rapidly. Having a bureaucratic process to apply for some R&D funding, which takes two years, is not necessarily great for us,” he says. “R&D funding support that was rapid, targeted and was at least as good as the best country in the world would give us the opportunity to move quicker. As a relatively small business, these are big cheques for us to write out.”

He argues the pay-off would then come in greater access to overseas markets with UK technology. In other words, more exports and more jobs.

In the meantime, Survitec has got form in performing well in a slow market: just under 20 per cent of its business is in oil and gas, for example, where it has gained market share despite the fall in new build activity. And as the company switches its focus to organic growth and delivering more global solutions for all its customers, Stringer is hopeful of achieving more years of strong performance. 

“If we focus on just three or four things, we should be able to achieve our aims… with a little bit of luck.”

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