Will Hawkins visits bespoke air conditioning and air handling systems manufacturer, Weatherite, to see what makes this company so successful. Weatherite's directors - John Whitehouse (chairman) is 3rd from left)
It must be good being a Weatherite customer. The 'Black Country Welcome' is probably one of the warmest in the industry. And that comes right from the top of the business from Weatherite's chairman, John Whitehouse.
John explained how he started the business in 1972 from 'humble beginnings' and how it evolved into the group today, which is designing, making, installing and maintaining heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems for retail and industrial customers. Weatherite
has no products on its shelves. Everything it produces is bespoke.
He put its success down to investing wisely in both people and machinery. But mainly due to the people and providing them with the right working environment. Some of his team have been with him since the early days. For example, technical director, Paul Griffiths, joined the company two years after it started.
Open communications One of Weatherite's engineers bubble testing a customer's product
Although the company has 'line management' in place, the business does not rely on it to hear what is happening. John gets out among its people and speaks openly with them. John is an approachable man so you can imagine that this works well. In other businesses, employees often complain that the lack of internal communications means that the company works in 'silos' and not together. That looks unlikely to happen at Weatherite when the senior leadership is so close to its employees.
Communications are important in the business. But, to evolve you also need to invest to be successful. John explained that making bespoke solutions requires a lot of brain power. They do not rely solely on computers to design their solutions. The deep experience of the team is crucial to their success. They have a joint venture in research and development with a local university. The venture and the approach encourages people to think and get away from 'the norm'.
Self-reliance and investment Inside Weatherite's factory in West Bromwich
John does not have much patience with politicians or bankers. When talking with a former Trade and Industry Secretary about unnecessary EU regulation and its list '3,000' rules imposed upon businesses, the politician did not believe him. John described this 'out of touch' politician in a short but meaningful way.
By investing back into the business, Weatherite has not had to rely heavily on bankers to innovate and evolve. John would, no doubt, have had some equally succinct and descriptive phrases if he had had to lean on fickle banks for investment.
Right for the UK
“We place customers on a pedestal,” he said. “Customers need a secure route to solve their problems. We are very good at solving their problems.” Paul Griffiths, technical director, shows the inside of one customer's order on the production line.
Many Weatherite customers are consultants and, John explained, they prefer not to design or build 'from a catalogue'. This approach is different from the US. In the 1960s and 70s, air conditioning was dominated by American products. But, their approach was not totally right for the UK market.
As a result, the UK's production approach evolved into a market which has a number of smaller manufacturers using low cost machinery to make products suitable for UK conditions. Now, Weatherite ships its products across the globe. On the factory floor on the day I visited, a system was ready to be shipped to Qatar.
John and his team saw this need and set up the business to help UK customers with UK solutions. Weatherite creates a wide range of solutions for customers who need anything from data centre cooling to heating solutions to air conditioning in large buildings. The company has a long relationship with many of its customers. For example, Marks and Spencer has been a customer for 30 years. Tesco is another long-standing customer.
Despite the long relationships with customers, John is not complacent.
To illustrate the point, John explained how a senior engineer in a retail client had, in 1989, challenged them with an HVAC problem concerning their existing in store bakery extract product. The Weatherite team provided him with a design within two weeks and solved the problem quickly afterwards. The retailer has a been a customer ever since.
The teamwork, great communications and experience built the company's reputation in the industry for meeting and beating customers' expectations. Customers have exacting demands on cost, space and efficiency. Weatherite is very good at providing what their customers want and need.
Biggest year for new projects
The retail market has taken a beating recently with increased competition and price wars. To counter reliance any reliance on one market, John and his team are constantly looking at new markets for their skills. It seems to be going well. This year (2015) has been their biggest ever for new projects.
A major cinema chain is a new customer. John cited a project where they replaced an air conditioning system on the roof a site which had to fit into the existing space used by the old system. Shutting down the theatres entirely was out of the question. Weatherite managed to design, build and install a new, far more efficient system in the same space. The customer lost no revenues and is now saving enough on its energy bill to help provide a quick pay back.
It is Weatherite's 'can-do' attitude which is perhaps its most impressive attribute. John leads this and summed it up as follows:
“We have never had any major problems in our business. It is because we never walk away from problems. If something goes wrong, we always fix it.”
That is why it must be good to be a Weatherite customer. Their customers must feel as though they are being looked after by some of the most intelligent, caring, friendly and determined people in the industry. In a world where there is a lot of talk about 'customer service' and 'innovation', Weatherite is one company that delivers on both, brilliantly.www.weatherite-group.com