Rod Wah had just completed his engineering apprenticeship when he joined Beverston Engineering in 1978, then based in St Helens.
More than 40 years later and Rod is the owner of the business. Beverston, now located in Knowsley, has successfully tapped into a global market for precision components with demand coming from the aerospace, oil and gas and pharmaceutical sectors.
Since those early days, he has witnessed momentus change as digital technology has transformed the industrial landscape. He said: “I’ve seen them all arrive – computers, mobile phones… I remember the days when it was a big wow to have a fax machine.”
In 1981, at the height of a recession that was laying waste to swathes of British industry, Beverston’s boss decided to throw in the towel. Rod, now the firm’s managing director, explained: “There were only three of us then and he decided he wanted to close the place down. I bought it off him for a small price.
“In those days we had no computerised equipment. Everything had to be done manually. If we made a part it could have to go through 10 different machines. Today, it goes through one machine and you are good to go.”
From the early days Rod saw how critical it was to the survival of the business to invest in new processes and technology. It was in the 1980s that CNC (computer numerical control) machinery started to be introduced into factories and he made sure Beverston was at the forefront of that.
“Our big breakthrough came in the mid-1980s,” he added. “We got our foot in the door with what was then called Lucas Aerospace, based in Huyton and we built the business up slowly but surely. And embracing new technology was the key to that.”
What followed was 40 years of growth and Rod and his team established a business with a fantastic reputation in the markets in which they operate. It makes components for Rolls Royce and for aircraft made by global giants Airbus and Boeing.
However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, the business suddenly found itself in the midst of one of the most turbulent periods in its history. Rod said: “Much of our growth at that time was coming from aerospace and we were being encouraged to expand to meet that demand.
“However, we have all seen what has happened to the aviation sector during the pandemic. No one is flying anywhere. That had a devastating impact on us – we lost half our work overnight.”
At the start of the pandemic Beverston employed 58 people. It initially tried to weather the storm but eventually had no choice but to make people redundant, a heartbreaking moment for Rod, who added: “It was the first time in 40 years of owning this business that I have had to make people redundant.”
The workforce has now slimmed down to 42 people and Rod can at last see light at the end of the tunnel. And, once again, it is his forward-thinking philosophy and investment into new technology that is already paying dividends.
He explained: “Before the pandemic we had already started a project to digitise our processes under what is being called ‘Industry 4.0’ or the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. With the support of the Future Innovation Fund and Made Smarter we are now analysing data from our machinery, looking at temperature changes etc.
“That forward-thinking has gone down really well with our customer base. They like that we are doing this kind of thing and it has brought us a lot of attention. We are already seeing work coming in off the back of it.”
Rod is keen to bang the drum across the wider engineering and manufacturing sector locally about the importance of investing in both digital technology and the skills needed to fully exploit that investment.
He is the chair for the of Knowsley Chamber’s Knowsley Manufacturing Network and he speaks frequently with his fellow business owners. He says they too have been hit hard by the pandemic but are now generally positive about the future as the country starts to gradually emerge from the crisis.
“Brexit, for many of us, has not really had as big an effect as people feared,” said Rod. “There were some initial delays following the agreement with the EU but things seem to have settled down now and people are able to get on with things. There was a lot of stockpiling going on so people were prepared.
“We have a high number of manufacturing and engineering companies in Knowsley and we try to keep in touch and speak on a regular basis. I look to get the message across that training and technology are so important. We are all in a global market and if we don’t embrace change we will be left behind.
“I was an apprentice in the 1970s and we have always had apprentices here at
Beverston. I have probably trained around 40 or 50 apprentices over the years. One of the problems is that some of the training done today in a number of businesses has barely changed since the 1970s.
“Yes, young people all know how to use mobile phones so we assume they will be able to use other technology. But that is not always the case. Young engineering apprentices also need to be trained in using computers and packages such as Excel, otherwise they don’t have the skills that they will need.
“We can see there is a shortage of both engineering and digital skills. That is one reason why engineers are paid better today than I was when I was younger. They are in demand. And I see young people deciding against going to university and considering an apprenticeship in engineering instead.
“And this is the message we need to get across to businesses in our sector. You have to change. Invest in skills, invest in digital technology. It is the only way to grow in the real world.”