The end of the financial boom and the slide in to the deepest recession in decades kicked off much soul searching – and more than a few headlines – about the sad state of manufacturing across these isles. But that narrative missed out companies like Umeco, which leads the way in making hi-tech materials for everything from aircraft, racing yachts and sporting goods to, most famously, Formula One racing cars.
The Warwickshire-based business puts a lie to the view that the UK produces little more than arcane, and sometimes shaky, financial instruments, supplying its composites, as the materials are known, to the likes of Boeing, Airbus and every team on the Formula One grid.
"If you go back 20 years, the guys involved in our business used to walk the pit lanes and persuade people like Ron Dennis to put composite parts on their cars and it's from that activity that we then migrated to become a materials provider around that sort of technology," Umeco chief executive, Andrew Moss, explains.
He's been at the helm since May, when the then chief executive Clive Snowdon and his finance director Douglas Robertson resigned. They left in wake of the sale of Pattonair, Umeco's supply chain arm; the two attempted to buy the business with private equity backing, but weren't able to come up with the best offer. In the end, Pattonair went to Exponent Private Equity, allowing the company to focus on growing its higher margin composites arm.
Early in our meeting, Mr Moss digs into his pocket to produce what looks like a triangle-shaped piece of plastic. It's made from carbon fire and, though sturdy, it's very light – an example of the kinds of that materials Umeco makes.
"One of our businesses manufactures materials that customers use to make the parts, and the other business manufactures the materials that customers use in the processing of those parts," Mr Moss said, adding that the know-how behind these materials was honed on the Formula One grid.
"You see the crashes that occasionally occur and the drivers usually escape unscathed – and that's not by accident. A lot of technology goes into that process," he explains. "And increasingly that technology is now being used in aerospace and wind energy and other market sectors, and I think over time, the automotive industry will generally use more lightweight, high-strength material."
"Lightweight means environmentally friendly, and actually makes electric vehicles more feasible because you can put more of the mass into batteries and get the range, rather than having to use fuel just to drive round a weighty structure."
Aerospace accounts for around a third of Umeco's business, reflecting the growing use of composites in new planes. Around half of the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350, for example, are made out of these materials, against around 20 per cent in older models.
Again, the driver is the combination of the strength and the lightness of composites. Lighter components – composites are applied in all manner of places, including overhead bins, panels and ducting – call for less fuel, making the aircraft more efficient.
Beyond aerospace, where Mr Moss is eyeing demand from China and other emerging markets, Umeco is also targeting growth in the car industry. "Cars is one of the most exciting segments," Mr Moss said.
"For us, it's only about 7 per cent of our revenue. Most of that is in high-end super cars because lightweight materials are either a marketing thing [in that] they look great but also, performance wise, lighter cars go faster," he explained.
"But now the industry is very seriously looking at how these materials can address the environmental agenda. There are two milestones at the moment – 2015 and 2020 – when the fleet carbon dioxide averages have to drop down to a lower level. And if they don't get those fleet averages then there is a financial penalty per vehicle, so it means they can equate the cost or the fine they would face to the kilograms of material."
The result, he said, is that car manufactures are now asking companies such as Umeco if they can produce materials that make the economics viable in light of the new norms. He concedes, however, that this is "not going to make a difference to Umeco in the next year or two" but it could be significant in the long term, as composites make inroads into the broader automotive market.
Then there's the wind energy sector, where Umeco, which in some quarters is being seen as possible takeover candidate after the Pattonair sale, makes things such as blades for wind turbines. This division has seen particularly strong growth from China, so much so that the company has entered into a joint venture to set up a plant in Shanghai.
"The centre of gravity of [the wind energy industry] has moved rapidly from Europe into China, and we've been in a very fortunate position ourselves alongside that, which is why we are in the process of establishing a manufacturing facility out there to support that," Mr Moss said.
Umeco, of course, isn't the only company eyeing China, which has quickly become the world's factory. The topic brings us back to the UK, and the Government's plans to to "rebalance" the economy by boosting its manufacturing might. So, when asked about the domestic backdrop, Mr Moss unsurprisingly draws on his experience in in the East.
"When you spend a bit of time in China, which I have recently, you realise how quick they can move compared to how slowly we move," he said. "And I'm not saying that we should be like China... but I think we do need to recognise that manufacturing has been important, should have been important and is now important. It's good to see that the Government is saying the right things and I hope it continues to back what [it says] with action."
He thinks what's needed is "an acceptance first of all that manufacturing is important".
"I think that's been neglected over the last twenty years – and the Government has set out its stall and said it is important, which is a big step forward," he said. "I think now we need to make sure we create the environment in which business is prepared to invest and that we can attract the right calibre of people with the right skills."
The CV: Andrew Moss
* A chartered mechanical engineer by training, Andrew Moss spent 14 years with BTR before arriving at Umeco in 1998 to run the company's chemicals arm. Over time, he helped to grow that into the composites business that is now the focus of the company's activities.
* He joined the Umeco board as chief operating officer in 2008 and was named chief executive earlier this year.
* When asked about his interests outside work, he said: "I'm a practical person. I like making things, fixing things. My history is in metalwork, woodwork, messing around with old motorbikes and Land Rovers and things like that."
* He's also a keen photographer, with a fondness for Nikon cameras.Reuse content