20 June 2016

Flexibility helps drive solid growth

Having shifted its product focus early on South Wales manufacturer Concrete Canvas is now exporting its ingenious fabric that hardens when sprayed with water to 50 countries.

International Festival for Business 2016

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Concrete Canvas owes much of its survival in the early days to the success of its founders - William Crawford and Peter Brewin - in the design and business plan competitions they entered while studying for an Industrial Design Engineering postgraduate degree.

With the prize money and some hard-earned investor funding, the company was originally set up to commercialise the inflatable concrete shelter they had designed for a competition.

Changing direction

However, in developing the concrete-impregnated canvas that was vital to the success of the shelters, Crawford and Brewin found that there were greater and more immediate commercial applications for the canvas itself.

The material is supplied in a roll and can be unrolled over the area that needs to be concreted, sprayed with water and be hardened within 24 hours.

"Our initial aim was to commercialise the shelter but in the early days of a business you're in a race against time with a limited pot of money to achieve turnover and cover your overheads," says Crawford.

"So the business changed quite a lot from the initial concept and we've had to adapt and be flexible to make a real success of it," says Crawford.

First break

The pair initially looked at applications for their new material technology within the defence and civil engineering sectors and it was a contract with the British Army to provide a solid covering for sandbag walls in Afghanistan that represented Concrete Canvas' big break.

"That was our first major sale - there's 5,500 square metres of the material being used out in Afghanistan - and it was a big boost to the business," says Crawford.

"It was really the turning point where we focused our sales resource on promoting the concrete fabric rather than the shelter. It means we had a much more scalable business in terms of the manufacturing process and the multiple applications."

Global focus

The material is now being used in major infrastructure projects and petrochemical facilities in markets all over the world. Exports account for 80% of sales with markets ranging all the way from Chile and Brazil to the Middle East, Australia, Indonesia and Russia.

"Our biggest markets tend to be places where there's a lot of petrochemicals or mining activity and countries where the economies are growing quickly," explains Crawford.

It has been an impressive growth story over the last 10 years as Crawford and Brewin explore further applications and international markets for their material but it was not an easy start.

Cutting costs

"In a start-up business you're trying to cut costs wherever you can. So we started production in a fairly dilapidated warehouse where the rent was free," explains Crawford.

"But it was free for a reason and after about a year we had to move out because the building was condemned."

With no home for the business, Concrete Canvas moved to its current location in South Wales, attracted by the potential of low overheads in terms of rental space and staffing costs, along with good incentives at the time to set up business in that part of the world.

It was from that base in Wales that the company won a second round of funding from business angels and the Welsh government and set about building the production line for the shelters and the Concrete Canvas material that would become its main focus.

"It was certainly not an easy beginning and it takes a lot of passion and determination to keep going when you're under a huge amount of pressure to deliver profit within a finite period," says Crawford.

"But I feel very privileged to be in this position. To have commercialised our own idea and built a business that is providing employment and growing strongly is immensely satisfying.

Our initial aim was to commercialise the shelter but in the early days of a business you’re in a race against time with a limited pot of money to achieve turnover and cover your overheads

William Crawford, Co-founder, Concrete Canvas

Key takeaways

  • A willingness to change direction gave Concrete Canvas the impetus growth
  • International sales have allowed the company to develop their products
  • Passion and determination were the key's to surviving the challenging early days of launching a business

For further information about trading internationally, visit the HSBC Connections Lounge at the International Festival of Business in Liverpool where an HSBC Trade Specialist will be on hand to answer your questions or call +44 (0)800 78 31 300.

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