Belfast Telegraph

SOS! How one firm fights to save lives

By Clare Weir

The cruise liner Costa Concordia ran into huge difficulties when it attempted to launch its lifeboats. One company in Dunmurry, Co Antrim, may just have the answer

With the tragic events of the Costa Concordia disaster fresh in people's minds and a high-profile passenger ship safety conference taking place in London last week, the issue of marine safety is certainly in the headlines.

While the name may not roll off the tongue in the same way as the likes of Wrightbus or Bombardier, one of the market leaders in the sector is in Co Antrim - a facility that HRH Princess Anne remarked during a site visit last November was 'Northern Ireland's best kept secret'.

RFD Beaufort Limited, in Dunmurry, is part of the Survitec Group of companies.

Described as the company's 'jewel in the crown' by Survitec chief executive Doug Baxter, the plant acts as one of the two joint headquarters of the firm and manufactures safety and survival products for the marine, defence and aviation industries.

It supplies some of the world's biggest navies - including the German and South Korean forces - airlines and large cruise and shipping operators.

A recent new contract was awarded from the Austal group for four Survitec Zodiac small inflatable slides, developed specifically for fast ferries, on two of its vessels.

The company was established in 1920, manufacturing began in Dunmurry in 1952 and company turnover has increased by 40% in the last three years to £43m.

In the past year Survitec acquired a number of businesses including the Zodiac SOLAS commercial life raft business - which added 500 staff and a turnover of £70m to the group - and the Cosalt marine business.

Cosalt supplies liferafts, lifejackets and immersion suits and the firm's marine products are well known in their respective sectors, ranging from industrial and commercial to surfing, kayaking and other leisure pursuits.

Cosalt's clients include RNLI, P&O Ferries and Caledonian MacBrayne.

More than 450 transferred to Survitec, along with key members of the management team.

The business has turnover in excess of £57m.

Overall, Survitec employs 2,000 people - 280 of those jobs are based in Northern Ireland - and has eight manufacturing facilities and 600 service stations.

Survitec is the sole provider of safety equipment on the Eurofighter and Joint Strike fighter aircraft and once supplied products to Concorde.

British Airways almost exclusively uses Survitec lifejackets.

The firm's chief executive Doug Baxter told the Business Telegraph that despite a downturn that is impacting on all sectors worldwide, the company is continuing to look at new opportunities.

"RFD Beaufort is our jewel in the crown, our biggest manufacturing site and one we have developed as a model for all our manufacturing sites around the world.

"It is a first-class factory. Princess Anne herself said it was one of the best kept secrets in Northern Ireland.

"It has been a difficult time for everyone in this economic climate and we are not immune to that," he said.

"Notably in defence - budgets are being cut all over the world and in the home markets defence budgets have been cut back significantly. However, rather than cut back, we are investing and strengthening our sales team. We are looking for export opportunities in countries where we have traditionally been under-represented.

"From first contact to first contract can take around two years and we are looking forward to building relationships in the Middle East and places like India, where people have money and are looking to invest."

"The year ends on March 31, which is not far away and we are forecasting another record year.

"We have experienced records for the last six or seven years and despite the difficult times we have been able to grow the business at top and bottom levels."

While the Costa Concordia sinking has dominated the news in recent days, marine disasters are nothing new - Mr Baxter revealed that the Estonia and Zebrugge tragedies were catalysts for Survitec to bring new marine evacuation products and strategies to market.

"The strategy is simple - get a large number of people off a vessel, very quickly," he said. "Many companies are now looking at reducing the numbers of lifeboats their vessels are carrying and replacing them with products like those we produce.

"As has been seen with the tragic case of the Costa Concordia, lifeboats can be very difficult to launch, when the ship starts to list, then they become impossible.

"More companies are looking at new types of equipment which are lighter and easier to launch - the type we manufacture in Dunmurry."

Private equity ownership means Survitec is able to aggressively pursue acquisition opportunities and there are plans for further development in the coming year.

The Survitec Group was formerly known as the Inflatable Systems Division of Wardle Storey's Ltd, which was sold to private equity firm Alchemy in 2000.

American private equity house Warburg Pincus backed a buy-out of the company for £280m in January 2010, following a 2004 buy-out for £146m by Montagu Private Equity.

"We have a good buy and build programme," said Mr Baxter.

"We pay sensible prices for businesses which can benefit our overall business and we have a good record of acquiring smaller regional businesses which gives them a chance to become part of a global leader and we have a good track record of this type of acquisition."

Award-winning manufacturer is world leader in marine safety products

Moya Johnston, managing director of RFD Beaufort, has been with the company for over 20 years and said the factory in Dunmurry is yet more proof - if proof were needed - of Northern Ireland's proud manufacturing heritage.

In November, Beaufort picked up the accolade for 'most improved company' award at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers' Manufacturing Excellence Awards after big increases in productivity and project delivery.

"We react to demands in the market and demands by customers, it is a very fast-paced industry," she said.

"Northern Ireland is well known for its skills base - we have a very high skills base and a very low rate of staff turnover, which speaks for itself.

"Our products are a product of last resort - they need to be of the highest possible quality as God forbid, if you need to use them, they have to be able to work," she said.

More than 90 years of innovation by firm dedicated to preserving life when disaster strikes wessels on the world's deadly seas

1920 Reginald Foster Dagnall formed RFD Ltd to manufacture liferafts and soon became famous for dinghies and barrage balloons.

1932 RFD Ltd launched the first automatic inflatable liferaft system, a single-seater liferaft which was subsequently adopted by the Royal Air Force.

1954 RFD liferafts were awarded the first liferaft approvals.

1965 RFD liferafts were first to be approved for commercial vessels.

1976 The first welded liferaft was launched, which was significantly stronger than the competition due to its rugged construction.

1979 RFD developed a marine evacuation system, which was a keystone in the development of the Marin Ark evacuation system we know today.

1997 RFD launched Marin Ark, the first dry shod evacuation system designed for passenger ships.

1999 RFD received the prestigious Millennium award for innovation.

2003 RFD merged with Beaufort Air and Sea Systems to form RFD Beaufort Ltd.

2009 The new generation Marin Ark 632 attained MED approval, making it the world's largest fully enclosed marine evacuation system in the world.

2010 Warburg Pincus acquires Survitec Group. Survitec Group acquires Revere Supply (USA) and Seaweather Holdings (UK).

2011 Survitec Group acquires marine division of Cosalt PLC and commercial Solas business of Zodiac. Launch of the 1000 series passenger suit and the Armoured Air Crew life preserver.