Company with designs on improving lives of disabled people launches spin-out business
James Leckey Design is celebrating 30 years in business, during which time it has made a real difference to children and adults with disabilities. The Lisburn company develops and manufactures products that help people with disabilities to improve the quality of their lives.
Not only does it do good work, but the business is also highly successful, with nearly 140 staff and a turnover that has increased by 20% in each of the last two years, and which is set for further growth.
Back in 1983, James Leckey was motivated by his determination to help people. He was assisted by his skills as a mechanical engineer and his involvement in the family florist business, which gave him a strong interest in design.
When Mr Leckey did a fundraising run for Mencap and gave the money to the charity, he saw the products they were using. He knew he could produce better ones himself. He gave them an offer the charity could not refuse – he promised to produce them free of charge.
Initially working part-time on the design and manufacture, Mr Leckey gradually realised that he needed to charge for materials and then, as the project became full-time, for labour.
However, working closely with therapists, Mr Leckey was still able to produce items that were cheaper, as well as better than other products on the market. "I just loved it," Mr Leckey said. "It's a rewarding industry to be involved in, ensuring that disabled kids are supported."
The key moment for the business's expansion was attending the Naidex exhibition in 1988 at Alexandra Palace in London. "Then it just took off," said Mr Leckey. "Within two or three years we were the UK market leader."
In the early 1990s, Mr Leckey started hitting the international markets, using a distributor based in Boston in the United States.
As international trade increased, Mr Leckey obtained a new partnership deal in the US and an international distribution arrangement with the German company Ottobock, one of the world's largest manufacturers and distributors of prosthetic products. The UK remains Leckey's core market.
As commercial growth continued, the business moved from Mr Leckey's garden shed, to a unit in Kilwee, which then became two units, then three and eventually four.
But operating across several adjacent premises constrained the company's development. It has now acquired a new factory in Lisburn, opened earlier this month by Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster.
Mr Leckey, who remains the company's chief executive and majority shareholder, is generous in his praise of his staff. "The key factors for growth were getting good staff, both in production and management," he says. "We work really hard on team building, ensuring everyone knows where they are going. I have 14 KPIs (key performance indicators), including customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction. Management are bonused against those."
However, the company is now hitting its growth ceiling in terms of staff numbers, though not on turnover.
Mr Leckey is an advocate of anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who argues that no person can have a meaningful relationship with more than 150 people.
As James Leckey Design is now close to that number, the business is looking to create a spin-out business to siphon off some of the growth and additional employment.
The new spin-out will be an internet business, marketing products to individuals – whereas James Leckey Design sells mostly to institutions, such as healthcare organisations and schools. Mr Leckey says that he and his generation are not sufficiently "in touch" with web enterprises for them to lead the spin-out.
"A new, young, team will be pulled together to develop that business," he said.
Despite this, the core business will continue to grow revenues. Part of the future development of the business is to further strengthen ties with the charitable sector and the local community, which can help build the profile of the company and assist with future staff recruitment.
Even at 30 years of age, James Leckey Design remains a dynamic and innovative business. It should be an example to many younger firms that aspire to be enterprising and long-lasting.