Building a world-beater

Cooper Research Technology has grown from a one-man operation to a global leader in its field. MD Peter Grafton explains how it was achieved.

"For me, it's about money, not satisfaction," says Peter Grafton candidly.

The former coal miner was keen to maintain his lifestyle after the pits closed. After gaining qualifications and experience in other industries, he contacted Cooper Research Technology.

Founder Keith Cooper had built testing machines for use in civil engineering. He passed the business to his son, who recruited Grafton as Managing Director.

Ten years on, Cooper turns over GBP6m and sells around the world. It has around 50 employees at its manufacturing plants in Derbyshire, Chesterfield and Colfax, California. The firm has just been sold, while the management team remains in place.

Peter Grafton shares some of the principles of turning a modest enterprise into a world-leading business.

1 – Go for growth

You need to decide that business growth is for you. We wanted to grow, and we knew we ultimately wanted to sell the business.

We put together a strategic plan. At the time, we didn't even know what strategic meant! We are a niche business and we had only a few customers in this country, so we knew growth had to be international.

2 – Don't fear exporting

It's easy to be scared by tariffs, and whether or not international customers will pay. But in fact, our domestic engineering business has experienced more bad debt than our main business, which trades internationally.

I was in Kenya recently. Sometimes it can be hard to find products in the UK: imagine how difficult it can be in Africa, lacking the same supply chain and reliable internet. Going out there and introducing yourself can win you business.

We have over 70 international agents around the world, and we now have a business in California. Not every venture has been successful: we focused on China and India for a while, but decided they weren't for us.

There's stacks of support for exporters. HSBC has helped us with letters of credit, bonds and securities.

3 – Build from within

Finding the right people has been the hardest thing. Not many people want to come to Ripley, and graduates normally want to work in big business.

We've gone for aptitude and attitude over skills. We look for people who are willing horses, and if they haven't got the right skills, we train them. I always like to recruit from within: I bring people in at the bottom whenever I can.

I pay over the odds for key positions. While I can't afford to pay everyone more, I try to build an environment where people enjoy coming to work. We provide flexibility, and we do lots of social things. We care about our staff.

4 – Stay at the cutting edge

We have our own software team so we can constantly improve our technology. We talk to customers a lot, asking them how we can make their next machines better.

For every GBP1 you spend on R&D, you get GBP2.30 back in tax allowances. We pay no corporation tax because of our R&D efforts.

We also go around the world to attend conferences. We talk to academics and find out which way industry is going, so we can be at the front end of any change.

5 – Put quality and service first

Don't always go for that big profit on day one. If you say no to a small order, that customer will tell someone, who will tell someone else.

I can't emphasise quality enough. If you get your product wrong, it will cost you more in travelling around to put things right.

Short-termism is not for me. I want people to come back. If that costs us money when I know a technical complaint is not our fault, so be it.

Looking to drive business growth? Our online Business Finance Guide looks at the financing options for each stage of development, click here.

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