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A Yorkshire Oak in the making - Northern Precision


  Oak: a slow growing tree of impressive stature, maturing to produce a wood of such toughness and durability to make it practically indestructible.   There is a brightly polished brass plaque alongside the entrance to Northern Precision’s brand new building on the outskirts of Doncaster, in South Yorkshire. Its dedication to John and Ivy Mortlock concludes, ‘From little acorns…’   It’s easy to hurry straight past, particularly on a cold December day, and perhaps for some, easy to dismiss this as a curious piece of schmaltz for a business with a reputation for Yorkshire directness. Apart from the fact such a dismissal would risk offending a trio of directors who could probably do an able job as the front row for any rugby team, it would also be to miss a genuine insight into the heart of Northern Precision.   “We wanted it out there,” explains Managing Director Tony Mortlock, “so that we don’t ever forget were we have come from.” Quite literally, in 1996, that was the back bedroom of his grandmother’s house in the Hyde Park district of Doncaster, from which he and co-director Arthur Smith incorporated the business. “There were two desks squeezed in there and a combined phone/fax,” recalls Arthur. “We started trading in January 1997. The stock was in another room in the house, with no handling equipment. You would have to say we were enthusiastic, if pretty naïve, at that stage.”   Originally the pair set out to develop sales of the turned parts and specials, in which they had built a strong technical understanding. It proved an uncomfortable start. A visceral reaction from their previous employer culminated in a barrage of largely unsuccessful legal actions that did, however, result in an order constraining Northern Precision from approaching its customers. “It probably did us a big favour,” says Steve Smith, the third director who joined the business later in 1997. “If we had succeeded in winning that kind of volume of business, it would probably have sunk us. We just were not ready for it.”   By Easter 1997 they had found their first commercial premises. “A 977 square feet brick-built industrial unit in Kirk Sandall,” recalls Steve. “It was long and narrow, and we could just get four desks in there, though we had to take turns breathing.”   “When we started we were playing a game in business, I suppose,” reflects Steve Smith. “Every day we would say to ourselves, ‘Are we doing this right?’” It was a game, though, played with real commitment and if there was luck, as all three directors imply when they recall the early days, there is little doubt most of it was self- made. “We had a knack of knocking on the right door at the right time – contacting people just at the time they were getting disillusioned with their existing supplier,” says Steve. More importantly they had persistence – a characteristic all three directors continue to cite as crucial.   In 1999 Northern Precision gained ISO 9002 accreditation, easily remembered because it appears on the front cover of their fourth catalogue – a copy of each version is framed and hung on the meeting room wall. The 36- page 11th revision has just been launched, a far cry from the days when they photocopied 25 at a time before going out and finding customers to give them to. The latest version, nine months in the making, is full colour throughout and packed with technical diagrams and application guides. It clearly identifies Northern Precision’s expertise in “specialist fasteners for sheet metal.” Each page also has a link address to the appropriate page of providing even more comprehensive coverage of the range.   “We don’t take on product lines that we don’t know,” stresses Arthur Smith. “We don’t want to dilute what we are.” Steve builds on the theme, echoing the commitment made in the new catalogue, “Any company with enough money could replicate the kind of stock we have here. What they can’t buy is the attitude and knowledge of all our people.”   In the UK that has included developing a solid reputation for not ‘running with the hare and the hounds”. The company services both end user and distribution accounts. “We don’t have the capability to service a just-in- time account,” says Steve Smith who takes the lead responsibility for sales. “We would not bring anything to the market trying to supply products we don’t understand.” Instead Northern Precision reaches agreement with distributors that they will not intentionally approach their known customers. “We regularly, now, talk to the end customer to provide technical assistance, or even visit with the distributor, but will not talk price.”   On the export front virtually all sales are through distributors. Sales outside the UK started in 2000 through Northern Precision’s partnership with Italy’s MMA. “They wanted us to sell their rivet products and in return develop clinch sales in Italy,” explains Steve Smith. “We worked on their stand at Cologne and also started talking to non-Italian distributors about what we could offer.” That started a largely unexpected chain of events. “We needed to go and see these companies. In our naïve enthusiasm we thought we’d be able to do business the same way as in the UK. As it turned out we were more or less right!”   The point adds Arthur is that “people in business are basically the same world over. We came back and, with the potential we could now see, set about improving our supply base and our pricing.” From a standing start five years ago Northern Precision now has approaching fifty export customers contributing over a quarter of sales. “You just have to get out there, do the exhibitions, go see the people,” emphasises Steve Smith, “and establish the trust.”   It is another key value instilled in all of the fifteen strong Northern Precision team. “We’ve taken everyone working here out to customers,” says Tony Mortlock, “so they understand, first hand, why it matters for even just twenty or thirty pounds worth of fasteners to arrive on time and correct to order. We’ve steadily built our professionalism, with the catalogues and website, with our supplier relationships and quality control, and through being financially sensible. In the end it comes full circle to never forgetting where we came from – that direct contact and trust with the customer that is the one thing we never joke about.”   “This building,” he continues, “is like the last piece in the jigsaw. Now we have somewhere that, as well as taking our functionality leaps forward, gives us an image that really matches our capabilities.” Externally a standard business unit, the interior reflects both clear forward planning and an absolute commitment to banishing the memories of cramped worked conditions in a series of claustrophobic premises. Offices are light and airy, with most definite space to breathe, and there is a good relaxation and canteen area. The warehouse is well laid out, with pallet storage on two walls and excellent height to get packaging materials and other bulk stocks well out of the way. Day-to-day stocks are well located for picking, with a spacious packing and assembly area one side. An enclosed incoming goods area is in the process of being fully kitted to carry out inspections according to Northern Precision’s supplier categorisation.   So how has the acorn grown? No doubt the bark of this maturing tree bears a few scars. It’s tough-talking exterior, though, is often softened by self-deprecating humour - strip it away and a close-grained heartwood grows true, solid and strong. These are self-taught businessmen, undaunted by the inevitable mistakes of that hard school, who show all the signs of having carved out a very firm understanding of what it takes to continue making a success of their business.   Taken from an article printed in Fixing and Fastener Review Feb 2006. Issued February 2006 on behalf of: Northern Precision Ltd, Unit 3 Durham Lane, Armthorpe, Doncaster DN3 3FE Tel: 01302 836010 Fax: 01302 836012 Web site: Contact: Mr. Steve Smith, Director of Sales & Marketing Editorial enquiries: Read other news from 2006
Specialist Fasteners for Sheet Metal
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Accreditations Northern Precision Ltd operate a quality management system in accordance with ISO 9001. The ISO 9001 standard is recognised worldwide and you can be assured of the benefits of working with a certified company knowing that our management systems are constantly assessed and approved.
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