Inventors let down by UK manufacturers?


Inventors need manufacturers, and for the sake of UK invention and the UK economy, it would help if more of those manufacturers were British. The shine is starting to wear off China as the default choice for getting things done cheaply, as costs rise and both performance and business ethics tend to be distinctly patchy.

But to put the shine back on UK manufacture, a few things need to change. One of them is the attitude of many UK companies to new business, some of which comes from inventors.

To be clear, we’re not talking here about inventors looking for companies to license their invention ideas. We’re talking about inventor-entrepreneurs looking for companies to manufacture their products in return for payment. In short, purchasers looking for suppliers.

And we’re mainly talking about SMEs, as they’re usually better suited to the relatively small initial volumes needed for a product new to the market.

There’s no doubt that UK manufacturing SMEs have the technical skills, care about quality and customer service, and are increasingly competitive on price. But too often, something equally important is missing. The testimony of UK inventor-entrepreneur Alan King (real words but not his real name, so don’t go Googling) speaks for itself.

Alan needed to find four suppliers for his product, aimed at the outdoor market. He wanted to use UK manufacturers and had £150,000 of his own money to spend.

‘Our greatest disappointment has been British manufacturers. In general, SMEs have reacted to a new business enquiry with a complete lack of enthusiasm and even apathy.

In 2010 we sent out over 200 new business enquiries. The rough breakdown is: 20 companies replied within a day, 20 within 3 days, 20 within a week, 20 within 2 weeks, 20 within a month. The remaining 100 never replied at all.

Of those who came back reasonably promptly, several backed off as soon as they found out we were a start-up – even though we had plenty of finance and knew how to present ourselves professionally. You don’t get this level of suspicion from most non-UK companies. 

In four months we visited over 40 manufacturers and to be fair we found a few who were professional, helpful and positive, but they were few and very far between.

A few examples: 

– One company agreed to see us but within minutes told us we’d have to pay for every single component before manufacture, which would then take at least three months and maybe longer at busy times. We already had a quote from a company in the Far East, who only wanted a small deposit and could deliver to the UK weeks earlier than the UK supplier, even with a month’s shipping.

– The CEO of a £7m turnover company spent nearly all our meeting moaning about his competition and how tough times were, and how his business only survived by making 200% profit from his best customer! We couldn’t get out fast enough.

– On the phone, the boss of a company that was a perfect match for our needs recommended two other companies instead. When we insisted, he said: ‘If you really want to see me, I may be able to meet you in a couple of weeks’. 

– Another company said they might be able to help us in their slow season, but couldn’t make any promises!

We eventually found three fab UK suppliers but still need one more to make our business work. We’d also prefer to have some back-up suppliers but that seems a forlorn hope.

So what’s wrong with UK SMEs?

I think most are too busy trying to deal with today’s clients to have time to look at new business, even if it knocks on their door. Most are dreadfully inefficient. Very few have dedicated new business staff, so new enquiries are dealt with by people who are too busy with other things to give you much attention.

You often have to deal with reps who appear to spend all day driving and don’t return calls or emails. Or if they do, you find they have little product or company knowledge. Busy fools comes to mind.

After months of trying to give UK manufacturers my business, I’m disappointed or disgusted with the majority of them and now fully understand why so many customers go overseas. The minute you do go overseas – even across the Channel – attitudes are very different. I just don’t understand why it should be so dreadfully difficult to get anything done in UK Plc.’

Unfortunately, Alan’s experience is not unusual. Nor are his complaints, or his analysis of the problem.  What makes him different is the scale of his search – 200 companies approached! Forty visited! Most inventor-entrepreneurs of our acquaintance would give up and source overseas much sooner.

So if UK manufacturers want to improve their prospects, they’ve got to improve their act when it comes to seeking and welcoming new business. The brick walls that Alan encountered don’t just affect inventor-entrepreneurs, but it’s probably at the interface between innovation and manufacture that SME failings are most exposed.

For what our opinion is worth, we think that one root cause of the problem is an inability of UK SMEs to think in terms of partnership. Elsewhere it’s taken for granted that a supply chain isn’t just a collection of disparate companies operating on ‘every man for himself’ lines. Elsewhere it’s also taken for granted that supply chains are international – something an insular culture like ours may still struggle with. It’s nothing to do with language – it’s a state of mind.

The fact remains though that new business is tomorrow’s business, whether it stems from invention or not. Whatever inventor-entrepreneurs like Alan can’t get in the UK, they can very quickly get elsewhere. A more positive attitude toward new customers should cost nothing. But if it isn’t there, it could end up costing UK manufacturers everything.


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