Alistair Houghton meets JOHN ROGERS and GEOFF BILLINGTON, of International Safety Products, Bootle
NOT many businesses got a funding lifeline in the depths of the recession in 2008. But, as John Rogers and Geoff Billington are keen to point out, International Safety Products (ISP) isn’t just any business.
ISP bills itself as the world’s largest manufacturer of inflatable marine life jackets, with thousands of the life-saving devices coming off its Bootle and Birkenhead production lines every week.
Rogers and Billington bought the company in 2008 and, despite a tough first year, have kept it afloat through the economic storms by looking at new markets and product ranges.
They have just sealed a deal with an as-yet-unnamed global brand to produce life jackets under its branding – and its jackets even played low-key but vital roles at this year’s Olympic Games.
As he walked around ISP’s Bootle base, Rogers’s pride at his company’s work was clear to see.
“We still say we are the largest manufacturer of inflatable marine life jackets in the world,” he said. “And here we are, a little company in Bootle.
“Saying we’re the largest is a fairly bold statement, but we’re proud of it. We make up to about 150,000 life jackets a year.
“What we have to get over, and what our staff take 100% on board, is that we’re making a life-saving product.
“We are going to save your life if you’re in the unfortunate scenario of falling into the water and are struggling.
“Every single one we make has to have the capacity to save somebody’s life. That’s a big responsibility for our staff. We take it very seriously.
“We have a tremendous workforce, and a lot of long-serving staff.”
As Rogers and I walked through ISP’s Bootle factory, he proudly pointed out a giant picture of the speedboat carrying the Olympic torch and David Beckham along the Thames to the Olympic opening ceremony.
You have to look closely before you realise that the white-clad torchbearer at the front of the boat is clad in a discreet white life jacket.
Rogers said: “One of our staff is a course layer for sailing and regattas. He was called up by (Olympic and Paralympic Games organisers) LOCOG to lay the course for the Olympics off the South Coast.
“Because of his connections, we supplied hundreds of life jackets to LOCOG people for sailing events.
“In the middle of that, we got a call from LOCOG saying ‘We need one black and one white life jacket – can you make them?’
“Of course, we said. They then said the white one had to be all white, and you cannot have your name anywhere near it.
“We asked what it was for, and they said ‘We can’t tell you.’”
It was only after the Olympic opening ceremony that Rogers and his team saw a close-up picture of the speedboat – and realised what their jackets were for.
“If you look at the picture,” he said, “the woman is wearing a white life jacket. Beckham, we think, is wearing the black one under his suit.
“We were jumping up and down when we saw that picture.
“Then somebody wrote to a trade magazine saying it was ‘appalling’ people were not wearing life jackets on the boat.
“Well, we had a field day with that, and wrote back. It shows how good we are that you can’t even see the life jackets.”
ISP employs 105 staff, some 20 of whom are based in its smaller Birkenhead factory.
As a proud British manufacturer, Rogers was proud his company could play a key low-key role in the great British sporting summer.
“If you look at my jacket you’ll see an ISP badge, with the Union Jack in the corner,” he said, pointing to his lapel.
“We are a British manufacturer. We make things here in the UK. That’s very important to us.
“We’re making life-saving equipment. It’s extraordinarily important we get every one right. We have every quality accreditation we need.”
Once our factory tour was over, Billington joined us in the office upstairs to tell the tale of how he and Rogers came to take over the business.
ISP was founded 31 years ago, initially to design safety equipment for air crews. But it soon diversified into other areas and for the past 20 years its core business has been the manufacture of inflatable marine life jackets.
Rogers started his career at Dunlop’s tyre manufacturing site in Speke. From there, he joined industrial conglomerate BTR, which was to become a multi billion-pound global conglomerate.
In his 20-year career at BTR, he moved from operational to commercial roles, running small firms within the group.
Rogers left BTR 15 years ago to join Wirral-based Survitec, before joining ISP 10 years ago.
Billington, meanwhile, started his career at a Liverpool yacht chandlery. He then became a regional sales manager for Yamaha before, in 1985, he joined BTR following its purchase of Dunlop.
Billington and Roberts’ paths crossed a handful of times as they both rose through the ranks at BTR and they eventually began working together on the operational board at Birkenhead-based Survitec.
In 2004, Roberts moved to ISP to join Rogers.
Four years later, they were given the opportunity to buy the business when the previous owner decided to sell. The recession had hit the UK hard and the banking sector seemed to have closed for business, but Billington and Rogers believed the business was so strong that they could secure funding.
And, despite the scepticism of friends, they succeeded by winning the support of the Co-operative Bank and of Merseyside Special Investment Fund, who took a stake in the company.
ROGERS said: “We raised the money in what was probably the worst financial environment in the last 50 years – but I take that as a major reflection of people’s confidence at the time.
“They were lending millions of pounds to people who had never bought a business before. People don’t do that unless they believe in the concept.
“Everybody said we had no chance of doing what we did. But we put pen to paper on December 12, 2008.”
Almost immediately, the deepening recession took its toll.
Billington said: “In the first year, the difficulty was that one of our major customers was a big brand name, selling at top prices, and sales just collapsed.
“They were our biggest customer in 2008. They were going to be in 2009. Then the recession hit us both between the eyes. The order intake fell away. In overall terms, our sales probably dropped 15% in year one.”
But Billington and Rogers kept the business on course.
Rogers said:”We bring to the business that professionalism born from many years’ experience working at big corporates, as well as running small businesses within larger organisations.
“The effects of the recession were never going to be terminal. We bought a profitable business. It took a hit, of course. But with the circumstances of the drop in sales, ie the recession, both the Co-op and MSIF were very supportive.
“We needed to manage our way out of it.”
ISP’s sales fell in the consumer and leisure markets, meaning its sales staff had to look to other markets for growth.
“The offshore industry was not affected on the exploration side by recession, for example,” recalled Billington.
“Some military business globally wasn’t affected. The MoD had some cutbacks, and it was the same overseas in places such as Greece, but we just tailored our approach to other economies, such as Singapore. The military side is a big opportunity for us.”
ISP has also started looking at new markets, including the USA.
Another key growth market, Billington added, is “legislated products” – products for use on boats where life jackets are required by law, and therefore where boat owners need to keep safety equipment up to date no matter what the economic conditions.
In 2010, the regulations around life jackets changed – but ISP had already created products to meet those requirements.
Billington said: “Some people at the smaller end of the market had no offering that complied with the new regulations. We had two.
“We stole a march on the market, which helped us to grow our reputation in that sector.”
ISP’s turnover today stands at more than £7m. Billington and Rogers hope that in the next five years they can lift that to £10m, with another £1m on the bottom line in terms of earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (Ebitda).
ISP’s life jacket business is set for further growth in 2013 thanks to its deal to produce jackets for a major brand that is pushing into the sailing market.
Billington said: “One growth area for us has always been to identify another brand we can manufacture for which has a big market presence.
“We supply people like Helly Hansen and major retail outlets in France, Spain and New Zealand.
“Then, because of our reputation, out of the blue we had an inquiry through our website from a major brand. It’s a great opportunity for us to grow with a truly global brand.”
ISP also specialises in “tactical waistcoats”, used by armed forces, special forces and police forces around the world to carry weapons and other equipment.
“We make them for 26 police forces out of 42,” said Rogers, adding that ISP also has a long-term “enabling contract” with the Ministry of Defence. As well as life jackets and tactical waistcoats, the company also sells products including immersion suits and emergency transmitters.
ISP’s move into selling electrical products, including a hydrostatic release unit that cuts life rafts free from their parent boat on contact with water, is inspiring it to create new products.
Billington said: “We are currently talking to a UK manufacturer of alarm and beacon systems to create ‘intelligent life jackets’.
“Currently, if you fall in the water in your life jacket, you’re just praying that you get picked up.
“The idea of the intelligent life jacket with a man overboard alarm is when you fall off the vessel it sends a signal to the bridge so the ship will know your position using GPS.
“We believe that will be a big step forward for the industry.”
Rogers added: “When you’re at the forefront of the industry it opens doors. But it’s a challenge as well.
“If we’re not going to push the boundaries of technology, then nobody is.
“In the last 18 months our reputation has soared. It’s not unfair to say that we’ve raised the bar.”