Dundonald-based Sepha Ltd manufactures packaging machines used by the pharmaceutical industry for blister packing and detecting leaks in blister pack of drugs and tablets.
It exports to a customer base throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas. Its chief executive Aubrey Sayers tells Business Telegraph how it is getting through the recession.
What has been the highlight for the business to date?
I think that managing to grow the business by 33% last year during one of the deepest recessions I can remember.
How has the recession affected Sepha’s business — have your clients in the pharmaceutical industry emerged relatively unscathed?
To a large extent, yes. The demand for pharmaceuticals is fairly constant and even maybe higher in a severe recession, although the customers’ appetite for large capital projects has been curbed due to the lack of available funds.
Turning a negative into a positive, the recession has made our customers look closer at their costs and our products help reduce waste and drive costs down.
How has Sepha managed a sales increase when other manufacturers have suffered so badly?
I think our success is due to a number of factors.
We have invested heavily in sales and marketing over the last 18 months — a completely redesigned website; attendance at major exhibitions and |the recruitment of three new sales people.
You already do business with some of the world’s biggest pharma companies. What are the long term hopes for the company?
Long term, we aim to grow the company substantially from where it is today.
There are further niches in the global pharma-market to explore and develop new products for, and we anticipate developing a suite of products to help move us into other sectors as well.
What is the scope for further growth in production and employment?
As we enter new markets with our existing products and launch innovative new products for new sectors our aim is to have the company grow substantially over the next four to five years.
This will require additional production capacity and skilled staff.
How do you think Northern Ireland-based firms like yourselves can successfully compete in export markets?
Our ability to innovate and offer our customers true cost-saving solutions and alternatives to existing processes is vital.
Identifying a customer need, meeting that need and solving their problem at an acceptable price/performance point is the key to performing locally and internationally.
How has developing new technology helped you improve sales?
It has helped immensely and will continue to do so. Innovation is key.
If you are selling a product that is basically the same as everyone else’s then it’s hard to differentiate yourself and someone will always be able to do it cheaper than you.
Our most profitable products are the ones which lead the market in technology and innovation and provide our customers with a true alternative to old, ‘me-too’ technology.
You work with clients in numerous countries. Are there any big international markets you would still like to crack?
Quite a lot of pharmaceutical packaging is moving to low cost economies such as India and China. While we have been successful in selling a few machines into this market we certainly haven’t cracked it and that is something we would like to do.
How could the Government provide more support for specialist high tech companies like Sepha?
I think the Government has been trying to focus help towards research and development and I think that is a good thing,. We have benefited from several R&D grant packages.
People development is also key. As the company grows and the level of innovation in our products develops we will need to increase the skill level of existing employees.
How has backing from a private equity firm helped the company’s development?
Our private equity partners, who are the Belfast fund management firm, Enterprise Equity has helped the company in a number of ways.
They bring useful expertise to the table as they have met most of the problems we encounter before so can give direction or make contacts for us through their extensive network.
What has been the highlight of your own career to date?
In a previous life the company I was running won the Queen’s Award for Export and the Queen’s Award for Innovation.
As a result a delegation from the company went to the ceremony in Buckingham Palace and the Queen met with us and chatted for five minutes.
What is the best bit of advice you have ever been given?
Be true to yourself — in other words, stick to what you believe and practice what you preach. There is no substitute for peace of mind and integrity can’t be bought.