An inflatable opinion of success

The founder of a growing raft company tells Midge Todhunter how to keep new businesses afloat
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The Independent Online

Chris Burrows, managing director of Eurocraft (GB) Ltd, reckons there are three prerequisites for budding entrepreneurs if they are to attain success in business: resilience - there will be many setbacks but you've got to keep going; energy - the road to success is ultra-demanding; and, most importantly, family support - a business with family focus spreads the load. And, he adds, a company should never be without risk-takers.

Chris Burrows, managing director of Eurocraft (GB) Ltd, reckons there are three prerequisites for budding entrepreneurs if they are to attain success in business: resilience - there will be many setbacks but you've got to keep going; energy - the road to success is ultra-demanding; and, most importantly, family support - a business with family focus spreads the load. And, he adds, a company should never be without risk-takers.

On 1 April 1990, Burrows and his now financial director Dave Rees both sunk their redundancy money into Eurocraft GB Ltd, a company that would make inflatable rafts for the growing leisure businesses that take thrill-seekers white-water rafting down torrential rivers of the world.

Both had previously worked for a large but similar company where they were marketing director and financial director respectively. But they both felt they could do it better. When voluntary redundancy came knocking, they raised their hands and took the money.

"It was absolutely terrifying," says Burrows. "There we were on April Fools' Day 1990, with one order for a white-water raft for a Scandinavian client, but no premises; we made the first craft in a big empty room in a newly completed extension of a friend's house.

"There were so many things of which we had no experience: insurance, health and safety, sales and publicity, dealings with the local council: it all looked so boring and an absolute minefield. We'd been cushioned from all this when working for a larger company.

"But we firmly believed that if we put effort and faith into our business, we could do more than the old lumbering companies we used to work for, which had too many restrictions and boxes to tick. We also knew there was a pool of the right experienced labour in our area."

Eurocraft now has a 10,000 sq ft premises on a Lancashire industrial estate. Their first year's turnover of £120,000 has risen to £1.3m last year. They now have 27 employees.

Their manufacturing base is very capital light in terms of machinery and equipment, and they haven't needed overdraft facilities for some years. At the outset, they looked at four banks and chose the last of the four, but say they have changed accountants "quite a few times" and stress it's essential to fight your corner.

Burrows says avoiding sizeable debt in the early years pays dividends and could well make the difference between success and failure two years down the road - the milestone where, according to statistics, new companies are most vulnerable.

Their order books now include inflatable boats for sea rescue, diving and leisure (boats for theme parks), which they supply to Europe, Scandinavia and Canada. They also make bespoke heavy industrial items such as seals for aircraft wind tunnels and barge separators.

Another idea to hit their drawing board is giant inflatable lifting pads for aircraft that have strayed off the runway and sunk into the mud. Eurocraft's lifting bags are on stand-by at all British military airports, and most of the major civil terminals in Britain and Europe. They have also supplied the aircraft lifting gear to the Philippines, Taiwan, Korea, Indonesia, Egypt and Australia.

"Some of the airlines bought lifting kit direct from us, as an aircraft clogging up a runway can be a very expensive business. We manufacture to customers' requirements as the bags have to be designed in harmony with the correct load per square inch of the flying surfaces of the aircraft," Burrows explains.

"We had a very stable period of 10 years and prided ourselves that our staff were very happy, and we thought that was great. But somehow without us realising, everybody was growing old together, and there was no fresh blood coming in. So we've had to look recently and make some critical changes."

Burrows says being hands-on in the manufacturing is important and it breeds confidence in the work place, but admits he does not delegate enough, although he reckons this style of management has served him well up to now. He's looking for a manager who could eventually take over the running of the business, adding fresh ideas and innovation. He is 62 and, given a reasonable handover period, would like to retire soon. So looking back, what would he have done differently?

"We started with almost nothing, and we didn't realise the value and absolute necessity of pensions. By the time we started thinking about it, it was almost too late - I would urge younger people to look at pensions as early as possible. Pension planning is definitely something that should not be neglected - right from the outset."

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