Manufacturing success stories are few and far between in the depths of the global recession. Tom Scotney visited Westfield Sportscars to see what it takes to be an automotive success in a financial meltdown.
These are grim times for manufacturing in the UK, according to the news bulletins. And the West Midlands, which was once the throbbing ferrous heart of Britain’s manufacturing industry, has copped some of the worst of it.
So when you find a genuine Midlands manufacturing success – a team of people in the Black Country producing world-beating products with their hands – it’s only natural to want to shout from the rooftops about it.
Custom sports car manufacturer Westfield has seen an 80 per cent rise in foreign orders, thanks to the plummeting value of sterling, among other factors. And the company has started to take on more people at its plant in Kingswinford as production expands.
Workers at the factory are now used to putting together the bespoke racing cars with a right-hand configuration after orders shot up from France, Holland and Germany. The company has also started putting together its first vehicle for the Middle East.
But even a successful niche carmaker with orders flooding in from across the globe can’t avoid the global problems in the automotive sector, and Westfield is starting to feel the pinch.
Managing director Justin Turner bought the family-owned sportscar maker in 2006 through his family investment vehicle, with the ultimate aim of conglomerating it with similar companies in the sector and floating the firm on the mini-stock market AIM. Mr Turner’s family has experience of doing the same with firms in the aerospace and pharmaceuticals sectors.
But Mr Turner said that, even though the firm had seen massive success at one of the hardest times for manufacturers in history, the company had still been hard-hit by the weakness in the supply chain caused by the faltering giants in the automotive sector.
He said the problems facing firms like Jaguar Land Rover had a knock-on effect on successful firms like Westfield because both relied on some of the same suppliers.
And he said while the firm might be able to recover from the collapse of a firm like Jaguar Land Rover, it would make it very difficult for Westfield and force the company to source more of its components from abroad because of the collapse in the supply chain.
He said: “We are a family investment company and we saw Westfield as an opportunity to take a company to a new level. We consolidate the industry through acquisitions. We have done it in other industries before.
“We have worked very closely with suppliers to get them to become partners. We have introduced new deals, we have engaged dealers and started to develop a dealership network. We have developed new products. But the supply business here isn’t particularly fantastic for a number of reasons.
“A lot of the suppliers are in financial trouble, we have got one going bankrupt every day, they are quite small, and the suppliers here aren’t geared up for large-scale delivery. A lot of the time suppliers let us down and that affects your production quite a lot.”
It used to be the proud boast of Westfield that everything was West Midland-made. From gas pedal to gear stick, every little bit and piece was manufactured within sight of a drinking establishment selling a pint of mild.
But the global recession has forced a change at Westfield in terms of the suppliers the firm relies on. Mr Turner said: “I’m not saying going abroad is the answer. But 99 per cent of our suppliers were domestic, and now it’s 95 per cent and I see that percentage increasing, because of the problems in the UK.
“The difference between us and the large manufacturers is they manufacture to stock; we manufacture to order. The supply business has diminished, many of them have gone down to a shorter week, which has caused mayhem for us.”
Westfield was recently singled out by UK Trade and Investment as an example of the kind of high-tech niche manufacturer that it wanted to promote abroad.
UKTI launched a new marketing campaign – UK Advanced Engineering – to make foreign countries more aware of the manufacturing success stories still going on in Britain.
Mr Turner said there was one important thing that he, and all manufacturers, were looking to the government for – help with keeping up volumes.
“It’s the same for all manufacturers, we need more volume,” he said. ”More money for training is helpful but it doesn’t solve the problems.
“Some sort of scrappage scheme like they have in Germany would be helpful, or any way they can just generally help stimulate investment and stability in the market. Spending across everywhere has dropped and people are nervous about what’s happening in the markets – it’s going to take a long time to give people that confidence.
“All the time I get people saying to me ‘are you going to be bankrupt next week? Can you guarantee us you will be able to give us a car next week?’.”