After bespoke engineering business Hooton Engineering had gone bust twice and been sold on, five of the engineers who had been employed there at the time decided they wanted to take the company, and the future of their employment, into their own hands.
They bought the business in 2001, investing hundreds of thousands of pounds in equipment and new ideas to help the company grow, but they were engineers by trade with no experience in running a company.
When Richard Marshall joined the company in 2010 for one day a week as a business consultant, he saw the huge potential the company had. Already during his career he had grown and sold on two businesses within Lincolnshire and he was able to help guide the team until he bought into the business becoming Managing Director in 2012.
“I’m not an engineer by trade, I’m a banker, but what attracted me to engineering was what arrives in the car park are flat pieces of steel and what goes out are fantastic fabricated items that at one point were in somebody’s head. They then managed to get them onto a drawing, the drawing got into the workshop, but it was the skill of the fabricators here that turned it into something that was world class.”
Richard has now helped grow the company, along with his team, to have a turnover of between £1.8 and £2 million.
Finding a new path
Having spent most of his working life climbing up the career ladder at Lloyds TSB, becoming the branch manager in Lincoln as well as being responsible for five other branches in the county, Richard realised that he needed a change.
“I thought, ‘Well what else can I do?’ I joined an engineering company in Hull as a finance manager and we serviced gas turbines. Whilst I was completely lost for a year and didn’t understand any of the terminology, but understood the money, the engineering side of that business was really attractive to me.”
Richard ended up being one of four that bought that company and continued to grow it until it was ready to be sold it on. Three years later he bought into another engineering company in Scunthorpe, which again he grew and sold on.
By this time he had begun to create a name for himself in both the financial and engineering industry as a man who was able to ‘translate’ what each side needed from the other. He was recommended by Lloyds, Natwest, Clydesdale, Yorkshire and other banks to go and help their customers to understand the connection between engineering and finance.
A unique perspective
Having been founded 55 years ago by Ron Hooton, the company has been divided into various companies, eventually moving to Gainsborough 25 years ago and becoming Hooton Engineering. After it went bust for the second time, five of the staff wanted to make sure that they secured their future.
“It was difficult from a standing start in 2001. When the five guys bought the business, they knew nothing about business. They were very good welders, they were very good fabricators and suddenly they were tasked with running their own business.
“To get from there to where we are now, is a lovely story and that involves making some very, very brave decisions. In 2005, they bought a water jet cutter here, investing £120,000 that they didn’t have and made the business. They turned it into something that was different from all of the other businesses and then moved into this building in 2007.”
However it reached a point where they needed help in running the company. “They had no training in business,” Richard explained. “I was all business without the engineering, so the MD role is trying to hold it all together. The finances are important but the engineering is more important. There were five of them and only one of me and they were very grateful for passing the role on.”
For a company that has no products of its own, Hooton Engineering counts on its customer base of 200 – 300 to need bespoke items once in a while, but it’s the relationships that are built that Richard believes is the reason why he has so many returning customers from across the UK.
“One of my firm beliefs is that you don’t have a relationship with a business, you have a relationship with a person in the business. A lot of what we do, is make sure that we talk to the people within those businesses and make sure that they are getting what they want from us at Hooton Engineering. So there is a personal relationship being built up. By doing that, when unusual circumstances come around, and you can’t buy [a product] off the shelf, we would help design it, build it and make it work.”
Not only do the team work to make new unique ideas from a clients head into reality, they have also become a saving grace for anyone that has specialised machinery which is no longer in production.
“We have a local farmer here who bought his potato picking machine in 1955 and the rubber drive sprocket collapsed two years ago. He brought in three pieces and said, ‘Does anybody know where I can buy one of these?’
“What we ended up doing was assembling it, talking to him and then making him another one. We will probably only ever make one, because there aren’t many 1955 potato picking machines, but that enabled him to continue using that piece of machinery. Without that, you throw the whole lot away. I think Lincolnshire and farmers understand that process very well.”
Richard has also helped the company to become the first to be awarded the ISOBS:EN 1090 with zero recommendations for improvement by ISOQAR, meaning that it is recognised as working to the highest standards.
“When an outside accreditation comes in and gives you that, it’s an acknowledgment that you’re on the right lines.
“For any business to make a structure, you now need that accreditation. So if someone wants to make a step to go up to a building, not so long ago, anybody could have made that step. They could have made it in their garage, welded a few bits of metal together and said, ‘There you go.’ but for that to be a legal step, you need this accreditation.
“We worked hard to make sure that we were one of the first in the county.”
‘Made in Gainsborough’
Richard is a firm believer in gaining the best staff to produce the best produce, but with an ever growing skill gap, it is becoming more and more difficult to gain the skilled talent they need.
“When I arrived, the average age of a Hooton employee was in the 60s. That would be very typical for engineering in Gainsborough and probably in the UK. What I realised very quickly is, unless you start training some school leavers and some people in their 30s to learn from the 60-year-olds, you have got a ten year business at most.
“What we have done here is invest in youth. We have much, much younger supervisors here. We’ve given people responsibilities and they’ve grasp it with both hands. The older guys have been more than willing, and I thank them for it, for passing those experiences on.”
Richard tries to take on four apprentices at any one time, one from each year on a four year course, but at the moment he is having to scour the whole of Lincolnshire for the right talent.
“It’s a big step for the company and it’s a big step for those individuals but sadly we probably only have a 50% success rate. I think it’s probably a bit of a learning curve, for both us and for the 17 year old that’s joining us, that a four year commitment at that age is a huge commitment.
“My difficulty here is that an engineering apprentice that I have found in Scunthorpe will ultimately want to go to Scunthorpe. Equally, the one that I had in Grimsby went to Grimsby. If I’m not careful, I have a four year apprenticeship scheme for creating excellent apprentices that go somewhere else, so I need and want to drive that to be Gainsborough apprentices.”
He has taken matters into his own hands, along with the help of Gainsborough College, in order to create a Gainsborough Engineering Apprenticeship, which will be starting later this year.
“It’ll start with Gainsborough youths, picked from Gainsborough schools, going to Gainsborough colleges and be employed by Gainsborough engineering companies. We are hopefully starting with six apprentices this year, of which I will take between one and two.
“Home grown Gainsborough, made in Gainsborough. I want that to mean something to the next generation. I want the apprentices in Gainsborough today, whether that’s with myself or Eminox or AMP Rose, to understand that they’re carrying this for the future.”
This feature interview was first published in issue 84 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.