Not everyone is perturbed by the present economic climate. Ross Reyburn meets a woman who has staked her money in a Midland manufacturing firm.
The lady drives a Jaguar XK Convertible, she’s committed her money to a firm making parts for prestige British car marques and she is working out the cost of opening a factory in Hungary.
Vicki White, a 32-year-old accountant, doesn’t match people’s usual perceptions of the world of accountancy. At the end of last summer, she left her job as company secretary and company accountant for Frank Dudley, the independent presswork company based in Ladywood, Birmingham, to enter entrepreneurial territory.
She joined forces with Martin Hinkley, operations manager for Frank Dudley, and business development consultant Andrew Payne. And on August 31, 2007, the trio bought the shares of Panel Technology, an engineering components company serving the car industry based just outside the Leicestershire town of Hinckley less than a mile over the Warwickshire border.
On paper, the acquisition might seem an over-ambitious attempt to buck the current trend in a declining engineering/automobile industry but on the plus side the firm originally known as Hinckley Pressings was producing some 80 components all told for a trio of prestigious names in the world of cars, Aston Martin, Jaguar and Land Rover.
“We were all looking for opportunities to further our own careers,” recalls White, who lives in Aldridge, Walsall, with her husband Daniel, who teaches RE, philosophy and ethics at Plantsbrook School, Sutton Coldfield, and their three-year-old son, Benjamin.
“It was an exciting acquisition opportunity. Panel Technology used to be a 100 per cent owned subsidiary of Surtec, the West Midlands company very much looking after the high volume end of the car market.
“But Panel Technology is involved in a niche market for low to medium volume car manufacturers – it was available because it didn’t fit in with the group’s strategic profile.
“Andy, myself and Martin bought the entire share capital via a holding company
“Many people have said to me ‘Why on earth would you want to put your own money into the automotive industry?’ If we were competing with the Fords of the world it might have been a different picture but the low volume end of the market is growing.
“Obviously we are very aware of the present credit crunch. While we have to keep up to speed with what is going on in the economy, if our end customers are going to spend £100,000 on a car they are less affected than Joe Bloggs who is worried about his mortgage.
“There are more and more people who want prestige cars, the Aston Martins, the Jaguars, the Land Rovers, not just in the UK but across the world.”
When the trio acquired the firm last August, the business had a turnover of £3.3 million. By March 2008, this figure has risen to £3.6 million with a net profit of around £180,000. Currently the turnover figure is an estimated £4 million.
White’s main project in the pipeline as the firm’s finance director involves Panel Technology’s first move into mainland Europe opening a factory in Hungary to link with production of Aston Martin’s new Rapide model.
Demand for its current models, the DB9, the V8 Vantage and the DBS, meant Aston Martin’s headquarters at Gaydon in Warwickshire was fast approaching its 8,000-cars-a-year full capacity. So the company in March announced its decision to build the new Rapide in the Magna Steyr plant in Graz in Austria.
“We are going to have our own plant in Hungary to support Aston Martin in the building of the Rapide,” says White.
“It is a completely new car we got the parts nomination for. The majority of 25 paired parts we will be supplying are in the actual frame of the car. We will be doing everything from the large floor panels to the engine cover components to the small fuel filler caps.
“The surface panels we produce are made of aluminium. Obviously there is a risk of damage and the cost of transport is high with the way we have to pack our parts.
“One of the reasons we are going to Hungary is logistics. We went over there for four days and met the Hungarian development agency looking at investment in the country.
“Graz is very close to the Hungarian border and the town we are looking at to put our plant is not too far into Hungary.
“We have been looking at where the Aston Martin supply chain will come from as we need to position ourselves in a place near key suppliers so the logistics chain can work.
“The initial investment we would envisage to be around the £1 million mark.”
As well as an exciting business opportunity for a lady with visions of significant future expansion, the Rapide represents a significant new concept for one of Britain’s most famous car marques.
“The Rapide is Aston Martin’s first true four-seater designed to get four adults in a car,” says White. “My favourite holiday destination is Cannes. Probably my ideal way of getting there is to get in one of these prestige cars and drive down to Mediterranean. It would be fabulous. With the Rapide, you could get into the car with two friends or children in the back and drive down to the south coast of France.”
With her cheerful personality and appealing looks, outsiders would have a problem guessing Vicki White was an accountant. But you could say it was her destiny.
“As a child I never wanted to be an accountant,” she says. “However I think it is almost genetic. Mum was a finance director for a small manufacturing firm, my uncle is a retired accountant and my aunt is a retired accountant.
“You can never say life’s boring. It’s busy, it’s hard work, it’s absolutely fascinating. The big venture we are looking at is Hungary, the next step for me is really to do some detailed research and detailed costings on the project.”
It isn’t difficult to discover she has a sense of humour and she isn’t fazed by awkward questions.
How much money has she personally invested into Panel Technology? Ask the question and the lady who deals in money figures replies diplomatically with a smile: “We have put in an amount that means we are determined to make it work.”
Neither is she short of enthusiasm for what is happening on the factory floor.
“The laser machine is terribly exciting,” she says referring to the state-of-the-art £500,000 German Trumf 7040 laser cutting machine produced in Germany.
The new machine is neatly housed in its own windowed room and represents an important financial opportunity for the company.
“It is the latest generation of cutting equipment,” explains White. “There are I believe only five in the UK.
“It involves plasma technology using ionized gas enabling us to pierce and trim the product without having to hard tool it. There is a cost saving to the customer and it is an efficient way of trimming a part.
“We are hoping to be 30 per cent quicker than the present plasma cutting machinery we have. With plasma cutting, there can sometimes be a burr, a rough edge, with aluminium that needs to be reworked. This laser machine leaves the edge perfectly cut.
We are looking at a two to three-year payback. We spend around £30,000 a month on laser cutting with an out-of-contract supplier. That figure will vanish in the coming months because we will do that operation in-house with the new machine.”
The acquisition has meant no dramatic changes for the workforce.
“Surtec left a happy workforce behind and we want to maintain that,” says White. “We have a lot of longstanding employees – there are one or two people on the shop floor who have been working here longer than I have been alive.
“We currently have 40 employees. We set up this works committee so they could tell us what they think. They wanted improved canteen facilities. Now we have a better seating area, a new fridge and a new microwave.
“We had a salary review to make sure everyone was paid fairly. We had to do some fine tuning that involved salary increases,”
Her faith in the firm’s future is infectious.
“It is high quality engineering – there is a level of engineering expertise in everything we do, “she says. “ It is quite incredible the attention that goes into the construction of these vehicle parts. With laser scanning, you can scan the dimensions.
“We believe the way to secure our future is to support our clients in every way we can. Our commercial department is very much working in line with Aston Martin. We can show them the stresses and strains a press would have on a piece of metal. We can advise whether a part is suitable to be moulded in the way that they originally designed.
“It is exciting. I have always loved cars. When I was younger, my friends used to buy girly magazines but I tended to buy Top Gear. Being in the industry is absolutely fascinating. We are dealing with fantastic cars.”
Born in 1975, White is the daughter of a retired purchasing director. She attended Blue Coat C of E Comprehensive School in Walsall and went on to study accountancy at Staffordshire University.
After graduating, her first job was working as a trainee accountant for Sutton Coldfield chartered accountants, Hazelhurst, Jackson & Gough and later she moved to another firm in the same field, Mazars in Dudley, as a management consultant.
Her first car was a Fiat Uno given as an 18th birthday present and fittingly her present car, a Jaguar XK convertible, contains components made in the factory unit where she is based.
It’s an absolutely superb car, “she says. “It looks fantastic, it is very well designed, it drives magnificently. I have the convertible version, which is just great.
“You can open or close the roof in 18 seconds and apparently it can go from 0-62 mph in 6.2 seconds.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly her favourite television programmes are Top Gear and Dragons’ Den match her lifestyle and ambitious nature. What does she think of that well-known friend of Birmingham, admirer of the pound shops in Kings Heath High Street and gas guzzler supremo Jeremy Clarkson, Top Gear’s main presenter?
“Sometimes he says things that make you dislike him intensely but you still listen to him,” she says.
Some of her time is spent in the corporate hospitality box the company has at Villa Park and she claims to know the offside rule.
“I can’t say I would go to anywhere else than Aston Villa to watch a football game but I do enjoy going to Villa Park.”
Despite the present downbeat economic climate, White and her fellow directors have every reason to be happy with progress since they bought Panel Technology less than a year ago.
“We are very much into British manufacturing.
“All our company cars are UK manufactured cars. Taking it beyond the world of cars, all three of us really do believe passionately in British manufacturing. Our firm’s vehicles are all British. Anything we do buy, we try to ensure it is British manufactured.
“We can see there is an opportunity for growth and development especially within the low to medium volume car manufacturing industry in the UK. There is a great skill base in the Midlands and the larger car manufacturers seem to be wanting low volume derivatives.
“The evidence has been there – we have come into this business, we have seen growth, there are lots of opportunities we can look at.
“People like to be different. They like their car to be different from somebody else’s.”