Step on Safety 15 Year Anniversary
Step on Safety is one of the largest employers in the Manningtree area with over 70 full-time staff. Specialising in providing access solutions built from Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP), its busy workshop sits on the Suffolk side of the Stour in Cattawade.
2022 sees the 15th anniversary of the creation of the business and a lot has happened since 2007. The three Owner/Directors – Steve Houghton, Andy Lee and Noel Tilbrook – have been reminiscing about the early years, how they met, how the company began and how it grew to what it is today.
The guys met as colleagues at a similar company based in Sudbury. Steve and Noel were sales reps and Andy was head of engineering. However, that business was starting to fail; debts were piling up, suppliers were refusing to supply, customers were losing faith and the owner/MD was mis-managing what little cash was available. In a desperate bid to recoup his overspending, he raised the prices of his product lines and sales dropped even further. The company became completely uncompetitive and slipped further and further towards the fringes of the industry. It eventually entered into a Company Voluntary Arrangement – a stalling tactic on the part of the owner to satisfy the growing list of people he owed large sums of money to.
With mortgages and families to support, Steve and Noel started looking for new employers but found they had little appetite to work for any of the other companies within the industry. The market was buoyant and there was plenty of work to be won so they came up with the idea of a ‘safety net’ company which would be there to fall back on should the worst happen. Once Step on Safety Ltd was established as a trading entity, Steve and Noel began to use project directories to look for projects in need of GRP grating. They quoted for jobs requiring uncut panels and they began to win orders. Supplies were brought in from China one job at a time.
A new GRP supplier
One job led to another and they began tentatively building their own customer database. Their work for SoS Ltd started taking up more of their time but enquiries for cutting, fabrication and faster delivery times were becoming more frequent and, without premises to store stock or engineer the product in any way, they were unable to move forward. This is where Andy comes in. He was also aware of the uncertainty that surrounded their existing employer and arranged a meeting in a local pub where he made an impassioned pitch to the pair to persuade them to set up their own company. Once Steve and Noel calmly told him they had already created a business which was well underway and trading, Andy put his money where his mouth was and provided a substantial cash injection to give the business the boost it needed.
The timing was perfect. Andy’s investment allowed premises to be established at Jubilee End, Lawford. They were modest but finally allowed for storage and fabrication. The office space was kitted out with second hand office furniture that had spent several years in a farmer’s barn with a number of pigeons. Their first 40 foot container was ordered and that was it, Andy’s capital was gone. Failure at this point was not an option, they needed to get every piece of grating on the container sold whilst it was on the water. And they did!
At this point it was decided Andy would hand in his notice and go full time on SoS Ltd business – however, after winning a job that their current employer had hoped to get, their new venture was discovered. The MD confronted the trio and tried to convince them to abandon their fledgling company and concentrate their efforts on getting him back in business. They declined and a fortnight later their employment was terminated. Just three days after that they found themselves sitting behind their new desks and hitting the phones.
Building a GRP Business
There’s no question that the first 12 months was tough on all of them. They were jointly responsible for sales, purchasing, cutting, transport, invoicing and fabrication and they couldn’t afford to draw a salary for seven months. But, despite the long hours and the hard work, those times are very fondly remembered. The warmth and nostalgia in the way they describe their feelings of triumph and joy every time they took an order or completed a project is obvious – they are incredibly proud of what they achieved – and rightly so.
After a couple of years however, they’d reached a point where more help was needed. Most of their time was being spent in the workshop rather than finding new customers and sales had plateaued. The first employee was taken on, giving them time to develop new business; sales immediately jumped and the rest, as they say, is history. With more staff came more paperwork, less time working hands-on and more time spent strategizing and planning. More space was needed so they moved to Station Road; just five years later they needed to move again, this time to the current location on Factory Lane. Today Step on Safety has an MD that takes care of the day-to-day management and while Noel is in the office every day, Steve and Andy come in just once a week for a board meeting. It’s fair to say that 15 years on, while they are still passionate about the business, some of that initial buzz has been replaced by EBITDAR reports, five year forecasts and operational reviews.
Stand out GRP Projects
When asked about stand-out projects, the one they all picked was Wembley Stadium. The Foo Fighters were due to perform there, and the stadium was being prepared for their performance. This preparation involved the biggest wheeled crane in Europe. The original steel plates covering the cable trays that surrounded the pitch could not take the weight of the crane and buckled when it crossed them. Furthermore it took the Roadies three days to lift and replace them. The head of Wembley got in touch and samples of QuartzGrip 42mm Solid Top Grating were sent to try out. The Foo Fighters crew did their worst and it stood up to every challenge. Step on Safety subsequently supplied grating to cover over two kilometres of trench – something all three of the guys are really proud of.
Their first really big project was for London Underground, supplying over 800 GRP Pit Ladders to replace old timber versions throughout the network. While undoubtedly a landmark project for the business, it actually took over two years and many, many, meetings to come to fruition, so is recalled with groans and wincing rather than smiles and enthusiasm. Never-the-less it established a relationship with the rail industry that remains a key part of the business today and also lead to a huge project at Selhurst Depot which, at the time, was the largest entirely-GRP structure built in Europe.
Other fondly-recalled projects include the supply of GRP Track Mats to the Royal Marine 40 and 42 Commando Units during the Afghan war, the installation of desert-brown Micro Mesh Grating at a military training site in the STANTA training area, Thetford and assorted airside fabrications at both military and commercial airports. Unfortunately, images of those jobs are restricted, which makes the memories all the more poignant.
A Bright Future
So, what does the future hold for Step on Safety? The new cast-in RiserDeck System has recently launched, is growing in popularity and is set to change the way GRP service riser floors are specified and supplied. The first Network Rail GRP LOC Staging Platforms have been installed. And they’re hoping to take over and integrate a profile fabrication business which will take up a lot of time over the next 18 to 24 months. It’ll bring the company one step closer to their dream of becoming a truly British manufacturer. The current site in Brantham is full to bursting, so the new business’s offices and yard will also provide valuable space for staff and for materials storage. Co-incidentally, those premises are just a stone’s throw away from where it all began on Jubilee End.
So the future is looking bright for Step on Safety and the Directors are very happy with what they’ve accomplished. Here’s to a fabulous first 15 years and hoping the next fifteen will be even better.