Manufacturing: One cut above in the garden: A mower maker has powered ahead after being forced to change direction

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EVERY company likes to think it is flexible. Countax, the mower maker based in Oxfordshire, is one that has proved it - otherwise it would not be around today.

Three years ago, Countax was a steadily expanding business, making trailers, sweepers and other equipment on a sub- contract basis for garden machinery companies. It employed 35 people and its turnover was approaching pounds 2m a year.

Encouraged by an increasing involvement with Westwood, the leading British producer of tractor mowers, Countax decided to build a 25,000 sq ft factory alongside its existing plant. Just four weeks after the building was opened by Michael Heseltine in June 1990, Westwood - which earlier in the year had been acquired by Ransomes, the farm machinery manufacturer - said it was cancelling a huge order for accessories. The work, which was to have begun on 1 September, represented six months' worth of production for Countax.

'Since this was to be our sole manufacturing activity for those months, it left us just six weeks to find a new commercial direction,' recalled Jeremy Saise, the company's marketing director.

That new direction was dictated by Harry Handkammer, the managing director. A former dealer and works director at Westwood, he saw a gap in the market for a high-specification, competitively priced, British-made product.

By the end of August, the company had developed a range of prototypes for display at the garden machinery industry's annual exhibition. Interest among dealers was such that by the beginning of October, Countax had pre-production orders for 1,000 tractors. By the start of the following year, it had begun making them.

Today it makes about 7,000 tractors a year, employs 100 people, and has seen turnover grow to more than pounds 7m. This made it the fastest-growing manufacturing company (and 43rd overall) in the survey of independent businesses carried out by the Independent on Sunday and Price Waterhouse. It claims margins of about 5 per cent and says it is able to invest upwards of pounds 1m a year in the latest plant and technology.

The change at Countax sounds a simple progression, but Mr Handkammer said: 'There are so many pitfalls. It's a very tough hurdling course.' Countax has also made life even harder for itself by opting to do nearly everything in- house, rather than assembling components made by a variety of companies.

However, this enables it to keep a closer eye on quality and price. Perhaps more important, it also means greater flexibility. Always responsive to the comments of dealers and customers, Countax staff can deal with problems by making quick adjustments to parts. Mr Handkammer says it is possible to hear of a problem one afternoon and have a modified part in production the following morning.

But it is not just at the beginning of the process that Countax differs from the norm. Once the tractor is made, staff do all the pre-delivery checks themselves - the dealer only has to fit the seat with one pin and the steering wheel with one bolt.

With the dealers on the company's side and the products offering more features (including equipment specially designed to meet the challenge of the British climate) at the same price, Countax is able to outstrip the competition, says Mr Handkammer.

The company has also paid great attention to marketing.

Each spring, before the grass-cutting season gets under way, it takes out advertisements in national newspapers asking those interested in its equipment to telephone its offices. A computer finds the closest dealer to the caller's address and the details are sent to the potential customer. Meanwhile, the dealer is being given the caller's address.

Dealers are required to call the enquirer within a few days to offer a free home demonstration. The thinking is that once callers have seen one of the Countax models, they will be unable to resist it.

Mr Handkammer admits to some of the financing problems suffered by other growing businesses, but says he has not been affected by the recession.

'Your garden tractor user doesn't hestitate to buy one if he needs it, because the garden quickly becomes a field if it is not cut,' he said, adding that the owner of a large house who falls on hard times sells out to somebody who can afford a tractor.

'It's not a gadget. It makes a morning's work an hour of pleasure. And it's cheaper than a gardener.'

(Photograph omitted)