Moon Consulting Director Vanessa Moon meets with Peter Slabbert, the former Chief Executive of Avon Rubber PLC. Peter tells us all about the transformation of Avon Rubber PLC from a traditional manufacturer to global success story, the risks and rewards of the emerging global markets, the importance of research and development, and getting the right talent for your business.
I met with Peter at the Group’s impressive state-of-the-art facility in Melksham, Wiltshire. It’s not the first time I have met Peter, but it is my first experience of seeing Avon Rubber PLC in its modern form: a business with a 130 year pedigree now on the cutting edge of industry with a high-tech factory of shining steel and black rubber.
“We are a very well established Wiltshire company with a long history,” says Peter. “Our background is automotive, but we have changed our focus massively to protection, defence and the dairy sector.” I ask how Avon Rubber PLC has managed such a dramatic transformation into the business we know today, one that has posted increasingly impressive financials over the last year. “We have transformed the business from a manufacturer that makes things for other people, where margins are extremely small, to a company that has direct access to the market,” he explains: “We have invested heavily in research and development to create our own products to our own specifications. We have also developed a trusted brand presence such as Avon Protection Systems for our safety products and Milkrite for dairy. We have a sales department to develop our own channels and routes to market. It’s an investment that has yielded real dividends.”
Some of the most profitable routes to market that Avon Rubber PLC has established are international. The company is one of the biggest export businesses in the South West, with the majority of its production in the USA and significant facilities in the EU, Brazil and China. “India is next,” smiles Peter, “though it’s a few years away from being a truly viable market for us in terms of milking on an industrial scale. There are 20 million cows in the EU, 10 million in the US but over 100 million in the emerging economies.”
With UKTI and other industry bodies trying to close the UK’s widening trade deficit, I ask Peter if he has any advice on exporting for companies trying to emulate his success. “I would advise any business to make sure that they have maximised their local market before looking abroad,” cautions Peter, “don’t ignore the opportunities on your doorstep. We started in the UK, then made the most of Europe and America before we considered going further afield into BRIC markets.” Peter also advises business owners to keep control by having your own people on the ground in a target market.
But finding the right talent with the language skills, business acumen and connections for overseas markets is becoming increasingly expensive, and it’s a similar story at home for finding the engineers needed to power Avon Rubber PLC’s impressive R&D program. “Competition for engineers is fierce,” nods Peter, “especially for rubber specialists. There are only so many graduates in the field and it’s a tight knit global community. What Avon Rubber PLC does to attract this talent is offer them an in-house research facility where they will have the freedom and resources to do the best work they can. We know how long it takes to build a good talent base and we value the loyalty of our staff. We have some workers that have been with us for generations.” It’s a challenge I empathise with, as Moon Consulting have been increasingly tasked with complex searches for senior R&D professionals and Product Designers with international experience and language skills, particularly Mandarin and Spanish / Portuguese.
As an executive recruiter, I ask Peter what kind of talent he is looking for at board level: “I don’t have a template as such, when I am looking for an executive it is important that they have a complimentary skill set to the other directors I already have on my board and that they fit into the company culture. A good leader should see the big picture, not get bogged down in the day to day. They need to identify the ideas and opportunities available to keep the business moving in the right direction.”
It is the valuable talent base that Peter cites as a major reason for Avon Rubber’s continued presence in the South West, despite having the majority of operations overseas: “200 of our 800 people are in the South West, but they are the people with the knowledge and skills that drive the business. We also have a legacy in Wiltshire that is important to continue. Avon Rubber PLC is listed in the UK and has a great relationship with its investors, whom I wouldn’t want to change by moving to the US. The South West is also a great place for work life balance.”
Peter compliments Moon Consulting on our similar commitment to the South West: “I’m always impressed by how active Moon Consulting is in the local business community, you are a permanent presence and your connections to the market make you very strong in the executive search and recruitment industry.”
I thank Peter for his time and walk once more through the impressive facility, the branding prized by the company even more apparent this time as I browse colourful posters advertising their ever increasing product range. This wise investment in product development and emphasis on retaining control of processes puts the business on excellent footing for even greater accomplishments. Avon Rubber PLC is a true success story of our region, a business with an extensive heritage in the South West that has transformed itself into a prosperous international company while still staying true to its roots.
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