Forging the links that count

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TWO years ago, Seco Aluminium was what managing director David Beale calls "a very sleepy part" of a larger organisation. Then in May 1996 it was sold off and Mr Beale, who had previously run a Midlands company with a similar product range, bought the Essex-based operation and immediately set about turning it round.

With the help of Business Link Essex, the Witham company has introduced a variety of management and production improvements that have combined to reduce delivery times by 20 per cent - making the supplier of products used in furniture and display equipment "a true Just-In-Time supplier", says Mr Beale.

Turnover has risen from pounds 8m to pounds 13m, although the number of employees has risen by only 14, to 106. Moreover, profitability is up 300 per cent.

It is a performance that has made the company this year's winner of the top prize in the Business Link Making the Difference Awards. The judges included Owen Rout, a former director of Barclays Bank and Tron Endresen, finance director of Shell UK, which - with the Department of Trade and Industry - sponsors the awards aimed at demonstrating the potential of the Business Link network. They were particularly impressed by Mr Beale's cutting-edge thinking, but also noted the company's innovative business development and use of advice from the Business Link, one of a network of one-stop advice centres set up around the country under DTI's aegis.

Mr Beale, who pointed out that the company's products were being used in the construction of display cases for the Millennium Dome, said part of the pounds 10,000 cash prize would go on treating the employees for their part in the success. But he added: "The remaining money will be put towards the development of a new product we have so far not had the opportunity or the finance to pursue. We are aiming to be the number one in the industry by 2000."

The two runners-up - The Cottage-in-the-Wood Hotel and Wire Fittings - were each awarded pounds 1,000 by Barbara Roche, small-firms minister, and Chris Fay, chairman and chief executive of Shell UK, at a ceremony at London's Natural History Museum last Tuesday. Mrs Roche said the awards showed "just how good our smaller companies can become with the right drive and the best business advice".

John Pattin, of the Cottage-in-the-Wood Hotel in Malvern, Worcestershire, said the value of the advice he received from the local Business Link was such that it enabled him to regain his vision of what he wanted to do with the business. He had previously found himself sucked into the day-to-day pressures and spending insufficient time on looking at the company.

For Martin Cree, managing director of Wire Fittings, a 40-strong company based in Swanage, Dorset, that makes wire stands for card and gift displays, the importance of the Business Link had been apparent from the start. The organisation introduced him to the business, which had previously been successfully owned by a family.

Since purchasing the operation in July 1996, Mr Cree has worked with the Link on staff training and improving customer service. But the real value, he said, comes in having a source of advice that a small company would not otherwise be able to afford.