For one marine company, the world really is their oyster
With offices in four countries and customers all over the globe, Bangor firm Whale Engineering is proving the value of an export-driven strategy. Clare Weir reports
It may not be a household name, but one Co Down company with a proud 200-year history is leading the way in its field and heading into an even brighter future.
Whale, also known as Munster Simms Engineering Ltd, can trace its origins back to 1810 and celebrated its 200th anniversary last summer and is yet another manufacturing success story for Northern Ireland.
Whale supplies the marine, recreational vehicle, caravan and domestic shower drainage and industrial industries around the world with pump systems.
The company designs, manufactures and exports its own goods - a rarity in the sector - into more than 48 countries around the world from a factory in Bangor.
The firm also has sales offices in England, North America, and most recently Sweden and France, and a customer service team based in both Northern Ireland and North America.
It was during the Second World War that the business started making brass pumps on which today's company was founded.
Whale now has a design team including 29 engineers and employs around 149 people.
In the marine industry, the Whale IC range of electronically controlled pump systems for freshwater and waste management has won armfuls of awards and in the caravan and RV market, the new range of heating products has been adopted by many of the major manufacturers.
Recent successes include being named in the Best Companies Accreditation and Sunday Times 100 Best Small Companies to Work For, for the third consecutive year running and increasing their position by 19 places in 2012.
Whale have also been the proud winners of a number of industry awards over the last few years including the IBEX award and special mention at the DAME awards, two of the most important accolades in the marine industry, given at the IBEX (International Boatbuilders Exhibition) and METS - some of the world's biggest marine equipment trade shows.
Four years ago, the company was successfully brought back into local ownership after a period of 18 years of various shareholders and since then, 15 world-wide design patents have been registered.
In those four years, the business has grown significantly beyond its traditional products and on average, 70% of the Whale product offering today is new to the marketplace compared to four years ago.
The production facility in Bangor is organised into "cell areas" dedicated to each product group, and manned by self-managed teams.
All products are 100% tested as part of the build, and then batch tested, while the production department runs a "supermarket safety" stock system to ensure prompt delivery of customer orders.
This year, 99% of orders have been shipped on time, a great achievement considering the current unpredictability of the market.
The latest advancement at Whale's manufacturing facility in Bangor is the implementation of touch screen technology and the company has recently secured a second factory in the town which it plans to fully occupy by the middle of 2012.
Managing director James Hurst said that a focus on innovation and employee satisfaction was keeping the company buoyant amid severe contraction in some of the firm's biggest target markets.
"In 2006 we decided to rejuvenate the company via a number of initiatives and our main goal was product development and to engage with staff and make them feel part of the company's future," he said.
"Happy staff bring benefits like improved efficiency and production - we really do view our employees as our most valuable resource.
"We initially went for the Sunday Times awards scheme to see what our employees thought of us and how we could make things better for them and we could not be more pleased with the results.
"In the last three years alone our employee figures and in turn, our turnover, has doubled.
"In some ways in terms of production, we have benefited from the misfortune of other manufacturing companies who have closed, we have been able to attract an excellent calibre of production operatives who have fitted very well into our business.
"On the other hand, while engineering is well supplied with people at the moment, in the future we would have a concern about IT and software engineering operatives as I am not sure there are enough people coming up through the academic system, especially those who are willing to stay in Northern Ireland."
Mr Hurst said that staying ahead of much-larger global rivals was a priority.
"All our competitors are a lot bigger," he said.
"There would be around 10 firms larger than us and located primarily in the USA or Germany and often they base their manufacturing in low cost economies like China, Malaysia, and other areas of the Far East.
"We are very focussed on making our Bangor plant as efficient as we can to compete against global competition.
"We have thee core markets. The marine industry has shrunk by around 70-80%. The motorhome and caravan markets have shrunk by 25% and healthcare has only shrunk by around 10%.
"How we have managed to grow through this period when our main markets are contracting, is through rapid product development, not just to replace existing product, but by product extension and we have added to product range including a range of wireless control panels targeted at the caravan and motorhome market.
"In the marine market, despite difficulties, we still have a significant market share and the majority of our product range is technically more advanced than those supplied by our competitors.
"In the immediate future, we have big plans for our new factory and hope to take on an additional 60-70 staff in the next three years."
Mr Hurst said that for Northern Ireland to succeed, manufacturing firms like Whale have to keep thinking big.
"I personally am passionate about manufacturing and am please to see it is becoming more talked about," added Mr Hurst.
"Especially at Government level and especially the potential for the sector to have a hand in rebuilding the economy.
"Northern Ireland has a fantastic manufacturing heritage and when you look at Harland and Wolff and the vision that they had, the things that they were able to build and deliver - Belfast had the largest dry dock in the world - why can't Northern Ireland have that vision and drive to be the best in the world again?"
1810 - 2012: more than 200 years at the top
1810: Munster Simms Engineering established as a petroleum company.
1939: Royal Navy commissioned brass bilge pumps.
1940s: Commercial fishing sector requires manual bilge pumps.
1950s: Launched pumps to marine leisure market - Brand names Whale and Gusher established.
1975: Purchased Henderson Pumps & Equip. Ltd.
1988: Purchased Denton Greenwood, RV pumps & taps.
1990s: Expansion of Global Whale distributor network.
1998: Established US Subsidiary - Whale Water Systems.
2008: Management buy-out, Patrick Hurst becomes managing director.
2010: 200 years since company originated.
2011: Whale wins Northern Ireland Quality Award.
2012: Company appears in Sunday Times Top 100 Best Small Companies to Work For list for third year running.
A local business... a worldwide brand
- Privately owned company
- Employs 149 people
- Products are designed and manufactured in the UK
- Global distribution network - 48 countries, sales offices UK, France, Sweden, USA
- Core to the business is innovation and its people
- Quality - ISO Certified - 9001, 14001, 18001
- Investor in People Accredited - 10 year certificate
- 15 world patents registered in last 36 months
- Won DAME and IBEX awards