SJC Hutchinson Engineering provide a complete metal manufacturing solution through laser cutting, folding, fabrication, kitting and state-of-the-art 3D design services.
At the age of 18, Mark left school and began to work in the family business started by his father Creighton Hutchinson in 1971. Now 36, Mark has been at the helm of a successful manufacturing organisation for some 16 years. Under his leadership, the company has developed into one of Northern Ireland’s leading sub-contract laser cutting manufacturing companies, growing the company from four employees to 85. As Managing Director, Mark is responsible for the day-to-day running of the business with a particular emphasis on sales and business development as well as ensuring that the business continues to grow by way of developing new clients whilst maintaining its existing customer base.
SJC Hutchinson Engineering Ltd, founded in 1971 in Klirea, is a leading sub-contract laser cutting manufacturing company, providing the complete metal manufacturing solution through laser cutting, folding, fabrication, kitting and state-of-the-art 3D design services. They work in the following sectors: coach building, materials handling, road transport, agricultural, medical and, more recently, aerospace. Customers include WrightBus, McCloskey International, James Leckey Design, Bombardier, Gardner Denver and Sumo. Significant investment in state-of-the-art technology has allowed them to become specialist laser cutting sub-contractors with significant expertise in the fabrication of high quality metal components. Part of the Hutchinson Group, H360 Ltd, was formed to directly address the needs of customers looking to design, develop or enhance products. This innovative, full-service engineering design company offers in-house design, prototyping and full-scale production services. Hutchinson Engineering has taken a strategic approach to investing in their plant with the highest level of automation to give the company a competitive edge and enable them to diversify into new sectors. The recently launched Hutchinson AeroTech operation focuses on bringing manufacturing and engineering solutions to the aerospace industry. Building any company is difficult let alone during a recession, improving internal efficiencies by indoctrinating lean techniques throughout the workforce has allowed the company to reduce raw material stock levels and improve internal efficiencies. However, their commitment to delivering quality products for clients and making strategic investments that reap dividends is evidenced in their 51% increase in turnover in the last three years. The company aims to exceed the expectations of clients, which is reinforced by their attainment of the internationally recognised standards for quality management, health & safety and environmental compliance – ISO 9001, ISO 14001 and OHSAS 18001 accreditations. The recent award of the international NADCAP and AS9100 in addition to the Investors in People Bronze accreditation in their first year is a true reflection of the company and its employees. The company prioritises staff development and has invested in leadership programmes such as the InvestNI Leadership Programme, MAP (DEL) and The Export Leadership Programme for Senior Management. Well aware of the limited size of the Northern Ireland market, Hutchinson Engineering has invested time and resources in business development on a global scale. Aligning themselves with large export OEM’s has allowed them to grow whilst the UK has been in recession. The company now employs 85 people (there were four in 1997) across two sites in Kilrea and Antrim and are a high quality supplier of laser cutting, folding, fabrication, kitting and design services to the aerospace, agriculture, construction, energy, materials handling, medical, and transport sectors across Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Great Britain. Through their increasing network of global customers, they are now providing laser cut components that are utilised across Europe, The Middle East, The Far East, and Australia. They look beyond Northern Ireland’s shores because they know that they have the skills, technology and products to deliver on a global stage.
– ENTREPRENEURIAL INSIGHT –
What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start-up in business?
I didn’t have a lightbulb moment per se as this is a family business, but as a young boy I would go to work with my father whenever I could. I knew from an early age that I would go into the business. I joined at the age of 18 after my ‘A’ Levels and haven’t looked back since.
How did you secure your first investment?
Our first investment was for laser cutting technology in 1997. To my father, it was an eye watering £300k which was bought on hire purchase.
What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?
The ‘back to the wall’ moment was in 2009 when competition was fierce in the laser cutting industry and I realised that the company needed to diversify if it was to survive. We invested in a tube laser which was new technology. We either had to take a calculated risk and look at new sectors or see if we could weather the recesssion when the order book wasn’t looking as good as it should have been.
What moment/deal would you cite as the “game changer” or turning point for the company?
Making the decision to move into new sectors and bringing with us both InvestNI and a local bank that had agreed to back us with a considerable investment. This allowed the company to invest in bespoke engineering equipment and thus the future of SJC Huthcinson Engineering and its employees.
Were there any interesting or unusual circumstances surrounding the inception of the company or its evolution?
Probably taking that leap of faith to invest in laser equipment when we didn’t have any orders in 1999.
What are the biggest challenges you face now?
Building up a good team and bringing them with you. It is important to empower and engage your people and the process of Investors in People (IIP) has helped tremendously. Plus, I’d say time and using it wisely. I still find that there are not enough hours in the day. Leaping into the aerospace industry has also been daunting but I’m loving the challenge and the industry.
What is your biggest business achievement to date?
Launching Hutchinson AeroTech and continuing to build SJC Hutchinson Engineering during a recession. We’ve completely restructured the company over the last two years and I have to say it is finally paying off.
What were the best & the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
Best: Always pay your bills and listen to your customers. Reputation is key in any industry so if you are known for not paying your bills that can do untold damage.
Worst: Take each day as it comes. It is vital to plan and have a business strategy otherwise you’ve nothing to aim for. You have to spend as much time on the business as in it.
What top tips would you give entrepreneurs starting out today?
Ensure you know your end goal, have clear objectives, ie. a business strategy. Ensure you have a great team around you and know when to take advice, but most of all, go with your gut or instinct.
Has anyone acted as a mentor to you?
Several people have acted as mentors, in particular my father. Also of late, Jim Collins, who is the ex manager or Visteon (Ford) has been a great source of advice. Jim has a vast range of experience in managing a large company. His expertise and knowledge is second to none and very pertinent to an SME.
Has your “Irish-ness” contributed to your success?
I think that my upbringing in Co. Derry in a family business lended itself to me having a similar ethos to many businessmen across this country: hard working, proud of our achievements but, most of all, proud of our family.
How do you generate new ideas to stay ahead of the curve?
I’m passionate about technology and all things new, so I’m the first to be looking at how technology can enhance my company and ensure a great product for my customers.
When making a new hire, what key characteristics do you look for?
A can-do, will-do attitude. Hiring engineering people has had its problems and getting the right people with the right qualifications can prove challenging to say the least. I’m now finding that working with local colleges can be a great win-win but I also like to give people a chance. If they have the wherewithal and commitment, then I’m willing to train them accordingly.
Have you started to feel the effects of the economic upturn within your sector/industry?
Hutchinson Engineering was lucky enough to do well throughout the recession but, without a doubt, I’ve seen a further uplift since the beginning of 2014.
What do you believe it takes to be a successful entrepreneur?
I’m not sure I know the answer to that. I wouldn’t necessarily refer to myself as an entrepreneur, but I think if you strive to do well, do something different, go against the grain and still succeed, regardless of the chance of failure, then you are an entrepreneur.
If you were to invest in a sector, what would you consider the next “big thing”?
I would have to say the aerospace sector. Northern Ireland, in particular, has a thriving sector. It directly employs over 8,000 people, generates annual revenues of close to £1billion and contributes greatly to our exports. The Aerospace Growth Partnership (AGP) industrial strategy is to further grow this high value, high technology sector.
What do you believe is your company’s competitive advantage?
It is probably three things: technology, good people and the fact that we are a family business.
What sacrifices have you had to make to get your business where it is today?
I think you might have to ask my wife, Helen, that one, but I’m sure she’ll say too many late nights and too many working weekends.
How do you recharge your batteries?
When I can, I like to get away with the family and just enjoy the time I have to spend with them whether that is skiing or just getting away from it for a weekend in one of Ireland’s beautiful villages or towns.