I've always been an audio fanatic. It comes from my father. He was a cabinet maker who moved into making speaker units and caught the hi-fi bug. He would bring speaker cabinets home and I would tinker with them. I was all set to follow my father into cabinet making, but I opted for engineering in the end. The prospects seemed better.
I did an engineering apprenticeship with Ford and spent a few years working in the industry. I got bored with it, though, and became a Bluecoat at Pontins. I did that for a couple of seasons, hosting the "Miss Lovely Legs" competition on numerous occasions. At around the same time, my father had pulled the plug on the audio shop he owned and was setting up a new handmade speaker business. I didn't fancy going back into engineering and I saw it as a great chance to combine business with pleasure, so I joined him and we set up Ruark in 1986.
After about a year things were developing nicely and my father invited Neil to join the business. I'd already known Neil for seven or eight years because he was married to my sister. But I wasn't entirely sure about him joining the company. My father and I were huge audio enthusiasts; it was our passion. Neil wasn't like that. I thought that could be a weakness. In fact, if anything it turned out to be a strength.
Neil joined to look after production, but over time he took over the financial management as well. Our first financial director was our bank manager. He retired early and became a director of the company. Neil gradually took over, learning from him as he went.
He is jokingly referred to as "the rock". He's always there when you need him and if you ask him to do something, you know it will get done.
Neil is very methodical. I'll come up with an idea and he will make it happen. My interest is more on the strategic side: the sales and marketing strategies; developing and sourcing new products; new partners. That's what keeps it interesting for me; being involved in so many different aspects.
Having Neil there gives me much more freedom. I'll be thinking about what new products we could develop. I'll do the costings and then hand it over to Neil and he will take it from there. He provides the method and the stability that has enabled us to develop from a couple of hi-fi buffs making speaker units to sell in the UK, to one that exports all over the world. I love the export side and the travel. While I'm away, Neil is the one back here making sure the business is running properly.
Our roles have developed quite naturally. If something needs doing, we'll sit down and talk about it, but we generally look after our own patch. The only down side, if any, is that being a family business you can never get away from it. Even at Christmas gatherings, you're always talking about it. You try not to, but it's always there. It's probably me more than Neil. He's better than me at switching off.
Ruark had been going for about a year when I joined. It was just Alan and his dad. They needed someone to help on production. I was working for Sainsbury's, but I had an electronic engineering background, so I joined the company. It was a risk: I was leaving a stable and secure job, but I saw that they had an excellent product with excellent potential for growth.
I didn't have any entrepreneurial ambitions. I just wanted to try something different and working with the family appealed to me. I knew Alan's personality pretty well already, but I was amazed at his knowledge and expertise. He has a tremendous technical knowledge of acoustics; how it works and how to develop speaker units that get the most from it. I was oblivious to all that.
Alan and his dad worked on the development side and I helped Alan with the production, actually putting the units together and testing them. Alan and I even built the workshop, put the roof on it, wired it, built the benches, just about everything you'd need in a small manufacturing business.
It was a totally different environment. In a large company there are procedures for absolutely everything. Coming in to a business that was one year old, it was a shock to realise that there weren't procedures for anything. You made them up as you went along. I'm good at that. Making sure that things are done in a certain way and that procedures are put in place.
My role has developed quite a lot as the company has grown. There's now eight staff, the majority on the production side. And when the financial director retired in the late 1990s, I took over as financial director. Alan is very good with people; good at building relationships. He's always out talking to customers, marketing the products. I prefer to be more factory-based. I'm quite happy to come into the factory five days a week, follow the same routine and look after the day-to-day tasks.
Managing people is one of the biggest challenges. Once you start employing staff, with their individual worries and concerns, you have to spend a lot of the time looking after them.
Alan and I have never really had a falling out. We've got different strengths and they work well for the business. We share a similar outlook and vision for the company; the same opinion on how things should be done. We are both big windsurfers. We have a beach hut at Southend. We do occasionally head down there together and we will discuss work, but as a rule we try and avoid taking the business home with us.