Small business profile: Running like clockwork

A former computer salesman has helped revive the fortunes of a business from another era. Kate Hilpern reports
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The Independent Online

When Bob Betts used to tell people what he did for a living, he'd be met with a stifled yawn or, on a good day, a polite smile. But in November 2006, he threw in the towel, waving goodbye to his 15-year career as a computer salesman for IBM. "Now, when I say I'm a clockmaker, I don't meet anyone who doesn't want to talk about it," he says. "Sometimes it comes from people loving anything to do with watches and sometimes they're just enthralled with the romance of time."

Betts made the business move because he felt out of touch with his three sons and he wanted to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. "My long hours meant I had missed out on real family time and also I was starting to like the idea of making a genuine difference to a small local firm. I wanted to get immersed in an exciting challenge, but be home by tea-time," he explains.

Tasked with turning round a very traditional, 150-year-old business to survive and prosper in today's market, Betts has had his work cut out. Smith of Derby is a fifth-generation family business that began in 1856. Since then the company has become responsible for more than 5,000 clocks, including St Paul's Cathedral, New York Grand Central Station, and Shanghai Customs House. "This is a business that grew up with the explosion of the railways and the British Empire," explains Betts, who adds that there are still 24 engineers on the road servicing three clocks each day.

The problem facing Smith of Derby was that the bulk of its work – the care and maintenance of important clocks – was no longer enough to see it thrive. Even with the new orders they were getting, it was touch and go whether the business could survive at all.

"The family had a choice – either to get the business ready for sale or grow it with a completely new slant," says Betts. Having opted for the latter, it faced a further dilemma – getting a finance-driven managing director on board, or one from a sales and marketing background. Again, they chose the latter and Betts joined the company in January 2007. Under his leadership, Smith of Derby has recently announced plans to double the size of the business in the next four years. In 2006 total revenue was £3.2m and last year it reached £3.8m.

"My first job was to peel back the onion of the business to see how we could move with the times," says Betts.

He had in his favour the facts that there aren't many large clockmakers left in the UK – so competition wasn't much of an issue – and that the company has an excellent reputation. But going against him was the fact that the company wasn't "outbound."

"The company wasn't chasing any new ventures because they didn't have the ideas or marketing awareness," he explains.

Betts saw his role as turning clock making into creative engineering. "I realised there's a fine line between clocks in the public realm and public art. I saw this as an opportunity to put a contemporary spin on what we do," he says.

And so began the radical shift of Smith of Derby diversifying into new areas, including architectural features and a range of metalwork, street furniture and GRP structures. Betts provides an example in Nottingham, where the company is working with some local artists who have created a piece of public art that celebrates the history of the lace market. "Our role was in the design and fabrication of the steel mesh they needed," he says.

Other examples include the London Coliseum Globe – the focal point of a £41m restoration project of a London theatre. The four-metre diameter globe, driveshaft and mechanism weighs five tons, with a variable rotation speed. Then there's the eight-metre-high animated feature based on Mozart's Magic Flute, in the Stuttgart Entertainment Centre. The dial, four metres in diameter, has figures and animal sculptures which have timed movements accompanied by authentic digitised sound.

Smith of Derby hasn't turned its back on clocks altogether, though. Far from it: the portrayal of time in the public space is still a major focus, with recent examples including a huge timepiece that the Queen unveiled at St Pancras station and another time piece in the atrium of the new Queen Victoria Liner. In both cases, Smith of Derby partner was the fabrication partner for the watch-makers Dents.

In addition, Smith of Derby is soon to launch a unique private client service, which will provide a bespoke clock-making service to interior designers, boutique hotels and wealthy individuals. "Many of these people want a unique timepiece, created perhaps in partnership with a world-class designer and we've brought the first one to a boutique hotel in Derby called the Cathedral Quarter Hotel," says Betts.

Betts wants to see an end to the days of Smith being commissioned purely to make clock. He says he wants architects and designers to stop thinking, "We'll do the designing bit and we'll call Bob when we want the bit he's doing."

"I've been trying to persuade them to work with us much more closely because we might come up with another way of thinking about it," he says.

It's been an uphill struggle, he admits. "They have been slow to grasp the fact that it's worth listening to a small firm that might have some quirky ideas. They have a perception of us that no longer fits our skills set."

It's not just outsiders that Betts has had trouble persuading about the new-look business. "I have 70 people working here and when you bring about the pace of change that I have – driving innovation into their product at a radical speed – it has the effect of first creating enthusiasm but then some trepidation. Inevitably, there have been some casualties and I've had to take new blood on board too. But it is working – the order book is very comfortable and exciting and I think we have woken, if not a sleeping giant, then an entity that was a bit quiet and we are turning it into something very creative."