Chris Holland meets the husband and wife owners of a Bradford machinery firm whose new premises are playing a key part in boosting sales
IT'S been a long journey from working part-time in their garage at home to operating from a smart new building with impressive views across Bradford city centre.
But in business, Bill and Annemarie Rhodes have never wanted to run before they could walk.
Their company Bar Graphics Machinery Ltd, which designs and produces finishing equipment for label and packaging manufacturers in the UK and abroad, has benefitted from deliberate steady growth.
Former maintenance engineer Bill and administrator Annmarie followed their desire to work for themselves in 1992. She continued working part-time, coming home to do the books at Bar Graphic (Bar is Bill and Annemarie Rhodes) while he developed and made machines.
They remain hands on while jointly driving the strategy of the business which employs a small but growing multi-skilled workforce.
Throughout the company's development they have striven not to overreach themselves, growing gradually while being flexible enough to meet new trends and customers' specific requirements.
Annemarie, managing director, said: " We were tired of working for other people in the labelling industry and spotted a niche in the market for equipment. Neither of us had run a business before.
" There wasn't as much help for new businesses in 1992 and it was a case of muddling through in the early days. So, we have taken things step by step .
"We have financed the business ourselves which has restricted the rate of growth but ensured we operated within our limits. By being careful with money, including Bill and myself not taking a salary, it enabled us to keep our people working through the recent recession when others were letting people go."
Today, Bar Graphic produces eight standard rewinding, label finishing, die cutting and packaging machines which are supplemented by many variants.The Elite range of equipment sells for between £6,000 and £200,000.
Bar Graphic machines are used to process labels and packaging for a wide range of end users supplying sectors including pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, food and drink and even the production of vehicle number plates.
Bill said: "We are a niche operator and try to create and develop equipment to suit specific needs Being small and flexible enables us to meet the requirements of different customers looking for a particular application."
After six years working at home Bar Graphics rented a unit at Five Lane Ends. In 2000 the business expanded into larger premises at Shetcliffe Lane, Bierley, which the Rhodes' bought.
In 2014 the company redeveloped disused premises off Wapping Road in its boldest step to date, investing around £500,000 in total on buying and fitting out a 10,000 sq ft state-of-the-art premises designed by Janus Architects, of Idle.
"We spent a long time driving round Bradford looking at buildings and the materials used so that we got a good idea of what we wanted. The result is that we have a blue and white building reflecting the company's colours and suitable for the next stage of our development.
"Our larger premises, together with our strong market position give BGM a good base for further growth. The new facilities are nearly three times the size of our previous premises, enabling us to increase output to meet increasing demand for our machines.
"We are constantly developing and launching new products to add to our extensive portfolio, building on the success of our Elite range of converting and finishing equipment. This investment underlines our full commitment to the future," said Annemarie.
Again, to keep costs down, she and Bill, supported by several employees, worked on the new base, called Rhodes House, themselves and the finishing touches have only recently been completed..
Annemarie and two colleagues worked in the canteen area for a year before the office area was finished; a new product demonstration and showroom was completed last week and the meeting/training room table is on order.
" It's the first time I have had an office window for 14 years and the view across Bradford is wonderful. We are very proud of our new premises and they are helping us to attract new customers. The place was in a mess when we first found it but the investment has paid off, " she said.
Bill said BGM's order book had "gone crazy" since the move which he described as a was a major strategic step for the business.
" The new building has played a major part in our continued growth, Visitors are impressed by it. The old premises held us back but now the fact that we have invested in quality premises reflects our belief in producing quality machines and is definitely helping us to win new business.
" While we do offer a service and spares operation - we were among the first in the industry to offer a thee-year warranty on in-house spares - we aim to make machines which don't break down.
" That way we can attract customers for buy more and that's been proven by one of the biggest labelling operators so far buying 15 machines," he said.
While being coy about quoting specific numbers, Annemarie and Bill are looking to double both turnover and their workforce, which includes a number of apprentices, over the next year.
Bar Graphics currently exports around 30 per cent of its products to customers in the EU, with France a particularly strong market at present and has also recently delivered its first order to Hungary, along with sales to Israel and Canada.
Trading in the euozone is tougher these days - and the couple also see the forthcoming EU membership referendum clouding the trading climate further over the next four months. From a business viewpoint they would prefer to UK to stay in.
Having sold two machines into the United States, the Rhodes' see North America as their next big opportunity.
They are going to Chicago in September to visit a major exhibition to try and make contacts and investigate the US market .
"It's very different selling into the US so we need to find out how to go about it. Attending the exhibition and getting appointments with companies will hopefully be a good first step," said Annemarie.
Coincidentally, the day I visited Bar Graphics the Rhodes were preparing to meet with a potential US customer in the new showroom.
Bill said having the new premises increased their confidence at such key meetings where the significant investment in the building and state-of-the-art production underlined their commitment to the future as a quality supplier.
Bar Graphics has also been raising its profile taking space and launching four new machines at the Label Expo Europe trade fair in Brussels last year.
Bill said: "It was an expensive venture for us but we decided to have a significant presence there. It was a useful platform for unveiling the new machines, making contacts and developing potential sales leads.
"We try to stay at the forefront of technology both by using the latest CNC manufacturing systems and in the products we make. We are a niche operator with a great track record of returning satisfied customers, which is a very strong message to communicate."
Annemarie also emphasised BGM's commitment to customer service, adding: "Customer satisfaction is the cornerstone of our business. We like to develop long-term relationships with clients and believe it is this commitment that has enabled us to build our reputation."