NIC Instruments has learned that successful and long-lived companies will constantly reinvent themselves, exploring new products, services lines and markets. Sometimes, the reinvention is so complete that a business will bear little resemblance to its earlier beginnings.
NIC Instruments in Folkestone, Kent, started life back in 1946 as a medical device manufacturer. Today, it is a world class design and manufacturer of sophisticated products to locate and make safe unexploded ordnance.
Its products include personal and vehicle mine extraction kits, improvised explosive device detection and search tools, and its state-of-the-art unmanned ground vehicle – a robot called ZEUS. Its products are used by the United Nations, governments, armed forces and police forces around the world.
“My grandfather and his brother, Walter and Albert Wisbey, both started separate medical device companies back in 1946,” explains Managing Director Steve Wisbey. In 1955 their businesses merged to create NIC Instruments.
“NIC’s product line back then included highly specialised medical inspection devices which, following an approach by a former representative of the then Ministry of War, developed into industrial inspection devices. The seeds of today’s business were there from the start.”
The 1970s saw the threat from IRA terrorism grow, with devastating attacks both in Northern Ireland and in other UK cities. Similar threats echoed across Europe.
NIC Instrument’s industrial inspection devices quickly evolved into security search and inspection devices, and with bomb disposal sitting hand-in-hand with search, NIC Instruments soon added its own disposal product line.
“I joined the business in the 1990s after completing a bio-engineering degree,” says Steve. “At the time, we were still manufacturing medical devices, but it was clear that there were more opportunities to sell into the security sector than into the increasingly regulated medical industry.”
And then, on 11 September 2001 two commercial airliners were flown into New York City’s twin towers in an unprecedented act of terrorism. The security threat became a global concern.
“Security threats until that point were largely seen as domestic affairs,” explains Steve. “9/11 changed that. The security threat was and remains global. In 2005 we stopped manufacturing medical devices to focus exclusively on ordnance detection and disposal.”
Today, NIC Instruments employs 18 people with a turnover of £2m. It is a world-leader for specialist ‘hook and line’ systems that allow remote access into buildings and vehicles housing with suspected unexploded devices. It has also developed a modular, lower-cost unmanned robotic vehicle, called ZEUS.
“We saw many robots on the market,” said Steve, “and they were all very expensive to buy. Put simply, we believed we could do better creating a low-cost, fully modular robot that can search for and disable unexploded ordnance. ZEUS is designed and manufactured entirely by us and is used both to help combat terror threats and to clear battlefield sites. It is particularly useful in developing countries.”
Despite the growing demand for its products it is a competitive and challenging market. Over 90% of NIC Instrument’s products are sold overseas and procurement processes selling into governments, armed forces and to the police are protracted and bureaucratic.
NIC Instruments has cleverly responded by behaving like a much bigger business.
“We are competing against some of the world’s largest businesses, so it is important that we are seen to be just like them,” explains Steve. “We have the ISO9001 accreditation and our processes are tight and strict. That means we offer better levels of support and reassurance to our customers when compared against much larger businesses.”
Steve and his team also adopt highly efficient manufacturing processes, often getting more out of their machines they buy than their manufacturers’ sales teams ever could have imagined.
The government, both the current Conservative and the previous Labour governments, have provided generous support to high value, low volume manufacturers. R&D tax credits, grants and knowledge transfer partnerships have been particularly helpful.
“ZEUS has taken some £1m in research and investment,” says Steve, “and R&D tax credits have been enormously useful. They represent real cash to the business, reducing our corporation tax rates. And for a business of our size that is especially helpful.”
But challenges still remain. Finding the right qualified people is a particular struggle, and currency fluctuations following Brexit have added costs.
“School and university leavers are simply not up to the level specialist manufacturers like us need,” says Steve.
“And not enough emphasis is being put on maths and sciences in schools and colleges. We are having to spend more and more training people ourselves.”
But that also brings benefits too. NIC Instruments’ staff tend to be much more loyal and will stay with us for much longer.
Kreston Reeves has played an important role in the success of NIC Instruments, advising the business for almost 20 years. Managing Partner Nigel Fright has led the Kreston Reeves team for much of that time, gaining a deep understanding of the business and the family.
“Nigel and his team support us with all our business, tax and wealth needs and have been enormously helpful guiding us through commercial decisions as well as the often-complicated grant application process,” explains Steve. “Where they have really stood out as well is with their help and guidance on R&D tax credits.
“We were subject to one of the very few R&D investigations by HMRC and Kreston Reeves’ dedicated support and advice, all under their insurance cover for clients, was especially helpful. Kreston Reeves was at our side, assisting throughout the investigation. They dealt with all enquiries immediately resulting in a very successful outcome for us.”
“The Kreston International network has also been invaluable. Over 90% of our sales are overseas, and Nigel and his team have been able to put us in touch with local accountancy firms around the world when needed, with the knowledge that they all perform to the same high standards as Kreston Reeves.”
Steve adds: “But what has really impressed us is Kreston Reeves’ approach: they really do take time to understand our business and the needs of our family and they are always there for us. That is what is really valuable.”
"What has really impressed us is Kreston Reeves’ approach: they really do take time to understand our business and the needs of our family and they are always there for us. That is what is really valuable."
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