To the untutored eye the main office at Superior looks like the future has arrived early – after a single buzz, the door pushes open to reveal a light, airy, desk-less foyer and a screen welcoming the visitor by name. In the moment it takes to grasp this a member of staff appears and the welcome becomes more personable. A standee proclaims the company name and the legends ‘Innovation through Chemistry’ and ‘Precision through Engineering’. Floor to ceiling, everything is spotlessly clean.
Superior is a market-leading designer and manufacturer of seals and O-rings for a dizzying range of applications, from automotive, food and drink and the construction industry, to water, chemical processing, heavy industry and pharmaceutical. Their products are what keep fluids and gasses where they belong, out of harm’s way.
‘Nobody notices the seals unless they go wrong and we work extremely hard to minimise that risk,’ says Managing Director Tim Brown across the gleaming white polymer and brushed stainless steel table.
Tim was awarded an MBE in 2016 for the company’s commitment to apprenticeships and charitable services and with five factories and its own Apprenticeship Academy at East Dorset Trade Park on the Ferndown Industrial Estate, Superior employs some two hundred people, of which thirty-eight are apprentices at various stages of their education. That’s almost twenty per cent of the workforce when typically in the engineering and material sciences sector they would rarely account for more than five or six per cent of a company’s staff, according to Katie Bodman, the Academy’s Head.
That focus on education and training is every bit as much a part of the doggedly forward-looking vision of what a modern manufacturing premises should look like as the building itself. In 1986 Tim Brown took over the family business started by his father Terence in 1972 on the Woolsbridge Industrial Estate in Wimborne. Within a few years he realised the expectations of some of his customers, particularly those based in Germany and Scandinavia, could not be met by the business as it was.
‘My father was a toolmaker and he identified that the way technology was going there was a going to be a strong future for the elastomeric – basically rubber – O-ring,’ says Tim. ‘He was very right about that and by the early 1990s I was starting to see what the business needed to be. The Academy is really the final piece of that jigsaw.
‘We present a high standard of cleanliness that represents a very modern idea of what an establishment like this should be. I realise it is not what some might expect a factory to look like but we believe it demonstrates our willingness to look closely at the detail and to ensure everything is exactly as it should be.
‘We make 120 million seals a month and sixty per cent of our output goes straight to export. We operate in an area in which there are minute tolerances for error. Our premises need to send the message to our clients that we pay attention to the small things and to be honest, increasingly, this is what clients expect.’
Allied to that is Tim’s fervent belief that the training of Superior’s workforce was too important to be left to others. The new factory premises opened in 2009 followed three years later by the £1 million Academy next door. With this year’s cohort its apprentices are at all levels from Foundation to Higher, the equivalent of a degree qualification, with the option to pursue a Masters. All are offered permanent positions within the company and all are paid while they are training.
What’s more there is no financial penalty if an apprentice leaves early.
‘Of course we’re disappointed if someone decides it’s not for them,’ says Tim, ‘but we don’t look to claw back training costs. The apprenticeship scheme is hard work and we are there to stretch and challenge our apprentices to achieve more but always in a safe way. We won’t let anyone fall, but we encourage apprentices to work at a level slightly beyond what they think they’re capable of.’
Superior is firmly rooted in the community and funds a bursary scheme through Dorset Community Foundation to enable students that might not otherwise be able to continue education in the STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths – and Katie Bodman works closely with many Dorset schools, particularly Ferndown Upper and Queen Elizabeth’s in Wimborne, to increase the profile of apprenticeships generally and those at Superior in particular. Much media interest in recent years has focussed on the skills shortage in engineering and highlighted the relatively small number of women in the industry.
‘Both are still true,’ says Katie. ‘We work well with our closest school contacts, but it’s a shame that awareness of apprenticeships still seems to lag behind in other schools largely because they are so focussed on exam results and getting students into university. That means we have to work harder to get our message in front of students.
‘We also have extremely good relationships with Bournemouth School for Girls and Parkstone Grammar, which is all-girls of course, and they send their ‘Girls in Engineering’ groups here for tours. Attitudes are changing, but it can be very frustrating to be at a careers event with a display of products and parts and see parents lead their daughters straight past the stand. That’s a shame.’
It might happen less frequently if the grown ups understood more about just how much faith Superior puts in its young charges, as Katie explains: ‘From the first day they have to get used to engaging and interacting with older, more experienced colleagues. They work in rotation in every aspect of the business so they will be talking to clients, dealing with enquiries and making sales calls as well as manufacturing or designing parts, checking them for quality or organising their delivery.
‘Communication is incredibly important so when we are considering offers to potential apprentices we take into account whether or not someone can make eye contact when speaking to you, whether they belong to groups like scouts or air cadets, if they participate in team activities, or work towards the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, those kind of so-called soft skills.’
Quality Manager Ben Clarke is the main contact for many of Superior’s valued customers. A former apprentice, he believes that his experience of in-job learning is the foundation of career progression.
‘I was about to leave school with no idea at all about what I wanted to do,’ he explains. ‘I heard about apprenticeships and thought it would be a good idea to earn money while being trained so I completed an apprenticeship with another Dorset engineering company then moved to Superior in 2008 as a trainee in the Quality department and I’ve worked my way up the ladder from there. There is still something of a stigma, but there is nothing second best about apprenticeships ’
Along with other members of the senior management team he plays a key role in mentoring apprentices and is only too happy to raise examples of how Superior nurtures talent and trusts it to deliver outstanding results.
Like all apprentices sales and marketing specialist James Rowe achieved his HNC in Engineering Manufacturing and sampled life in all departments of the business, but showed a particular flair for sales. He now has a Level 6 Diploma in Sales and Marketing and at the age of twenty-three represents Superior in the USA, undertaking sales trips to seek out new business and respond to the needs of existing clients.
On the factory floor is Callum Shaw, a former apprentice who has developed a system to fully automate a process for the first time using state-of-the-art robotics. His system will save thousands of pounds by enabling colleagues to be retrained and deployed elsewhere, improving productivity and reducing waste.
‘The company has invested hundreds of thousands of pounds in ten of these systems already with another five on order,’ says Ben. ‘It is an outstanding achievement for anyone, never mind an apprentice, that makes a significant difference to the business. It is exactly the kind of example that justifies the investment in training as well as in machinery and premises.’
Callum is now busy with his latest automation project that, when successful, will see a machine capable of producing complex parts for central heating systems.
Superior’s apprenticeship scheme recently won royal approval after being commended by the 2018 Princess Royal Training Awards for inspirational commitment to learning and development. HRH The Princess Royal presented the award in October in a ceremony at St James Palace.
As for the future, it seems more of the same is the order of the day.
‘There’s no sense of us resting on our laurels, we’re always seeking to improve,’ says Tim. ‘Obviously the uncertainties surrounding Brexit are in the background of our thinking and while we are preparing for there to be some disruption it is essential we continue to supply our customers in good order so we are building up inventory to manage any problems. It’s down to planning.’