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Liversedge, England with Birkby's Plastics

November 1, 2004

3 Min Read
Liversedge, England with Birkby's Plastics

Dating to 1867, Birkby''s was a tannery and manufacturing chemist, and one of England''s first molders of thermoset plastics. But the course of the 20th century brought hard times for many of the U.K.''s plastics processors. Yet, where some see difficulty, others find opportunity; so Ian Hunter and two colleagues executed a management buyout in April 2003.

Hunter, the managing director, with quality systems director Stephen Harrison and finance director Andrew Bullivant, acquired the firm from parent company Marubeni Corp. The path since the MBO has not always been smooth, admits Hunter, but it''s been in the right direction. For FY2004, sales grew by £6.8 million ($12.2 million) to £38 million, turning a loss to a profit of £2.62 million. "Financially, we''ve had a very good turn-around," he says.

Along the way, Birkby''s had to confront vestiges of its long history, including five-minute tea breaks each hour. Hunter invested considerable effort to convince the union such niceties were not compatible with the cut-throat world of automotive parts molding, which accounts for 70% of the firm''s sales.

"We''ve a good relationship with the union, even though it has been difficult making everyone see the shift from a large corporate owner as a positive one," he says. The firm was able to retain almost all of its full-time employees, and recently started a three-shift pattern five days a week. To make workers more cognizant of their role in the firm''s success, stations were installed where employees could see how results are tracked: in quality parts molded, percentage defects, and employee absenteeism, for instance.

Birkby''s has about 420 full-time employees and many temporary workers. Part-time employees help the firm stay flexible; during a recent visit a team of them were assembling hard drives for Hewlett-Packard. "They [hard drives] don''t have much plastic in them," notes Hunter, but the computer maker was already a customer for molded parts and offered the extra work.

Birkby''s has three business units: Japanese automotive trim, European automotive, and business electronics/ non-automotive, with each housed in adjoining halls. About half of the firm''s 70-plus injection molding machines are in the fast-growing Japanese trim business. "For Toyota, we are doing about 20 to 25 mold changes per day," he says, a sign of both the processor''s versatility as well as its level of activity.

The business units place different demands on employees. Japanese carmakers tend to want close work with Birkby''s at every step, whereas European carmakers "expect us take over complete project management to include parts design," says Hunter. And though automotive projects tend to run for three years or more, the non-automotive unit requires very fast time-to-market. All are tough markets, he admits, but expects his firm to hold its own. "Our speed and flexibility, and hopefully our pricing, will be recognized," he says.

A December 2001 article in MP detailed IMX-inmold everything-as the firm''s vision for its technology future. Inmold projects have continued, says Hunter, but some of the IMX research effort had to be suspended to make personnel available for ongoing business. But next year Hunter hopes to re-form the firm''s R&D section to further develop processes such as inmold welding, assembly, and decoration.

The firm has a number of new molding machines and is making room for more. Also relatively new are plant-wide materials handling systems, as well as updated enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. "It''s incredible how much this [ERP] ties the whole plant together," notes Hunter, but adds there is no substitute for "management by walking around."

As for the global competition, Hunter simply says, "Ultimately, I think quality products, delivered on time, will be recognized by customers."

Matthew Defosse [email protected]

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