Travis, who trained with BDO in Manchester after university, had until then spent her career working in a variety of management and financial accounting roles, latterly as finance director of healthcare communications group Fishawack Ltd, where she was involved in an MBO. After having her second child, Travis decided to take a break from juggling parenting with a demanding job and three-hour commute, but some part-time financial troubleshooting at her husband’s engineering business prompted a change of direction.
The family company Chelburn Precision Ltd - founded in Rochdale in 1982 by Roger Travis and now run by his son, Katie’s husband Neil – is a specialist manufacturer of key components for machines needed in industries such as oil and gas, industrial gear boxes and printing and canning. “Cash reserves had reduced by about 50%. I stepped in to put some more robust reporting procedures in place including formal cash flow forecasting and KPI measurement.”
In 2012, she officially joined the business, albeit with an ambition of stepping away from finance, and became a director in July 2018. Earlier this year, the company was awarded the Queen’s Award for International Trade after its overseas sales increased fivefold in three years – from £360,000 to £1.7m of a total turnover of around £5m – primarily to the USA and mainland Europe.
While many of Chelburn’s local competitors have fallen by the wayside in recent years, Travis says the combination of a focus on quality and investment in state-of-the-art machinery have been key to its increasing success and its ability to meet growing customer demand for both high quality and low cost. “If you don’t deliver on that they will go somewhere else.”
Investing in technology has also resulted in efficiency gains, allowing the business to manufacture more components in a shorter time and to a much greater tolerance. While domestic competition has dwindled, foreign competition buoyed by a lower cost base remains a constant competitive threat. “Our machine-shop typically manufactures large components weighing up to 10 tonnes; the associated transport time and cost mean we have an advantage,” Travis explains.
Brexit has been little more than an inconvenience as far as Travis is concerned – the business ran up stocks in anticipation but apart from some delays to sourcing replacement machine parts from abroad, it’s been something of a damp squib. “In terms of exporting, we just do the extra paperwork and our freight forwarders handle it. You just get on with it.”
In contrast, the impact of COVID has been far bigger, Travis says. “It was 16 March last year ahead of the national lockdown but we knew there was something seismic afoot. I’ll never forget the conversation I had with every single employee. We were clear that we would keep our doors open and safeguard jobs for as long as we could, but we were waiting to find out what the government did. The fear and uncertainty was palpable.”
Travis is grateful that the business, deemed a critical supplier, was allowed to stay open. “Our machine financing is our biggest cost and no revenue means no contribution to that cost. That said we had to change our working practices very quickly to remain COVID safe.”
Despite a worrying lull in orders over the summer, the business has more than bounced back. The plan is to continue the business’s expansion slowly but surely. At the same time, she is already thinking about the future of the industry as new technologies look set to revolutionise component manufacturing methods. “We foresee over the next 10 to 20 years 3D printing will improve and could potentially be a low-cost replacement or complementary activity but it’s early days still.”
Travis says her ICAEW qualification and accountancy experience have been invaluable in helping her to navigate the trials and tribulations of the business world in a way that she didn’t imagine when she was in her early 20s. “When you’re training, it’s all about the numbers and passing exams but that’s just a fraction of it. Visiting clients, talking to different people, understanding how different businesses are run and watching what really inspirational clever people do - it gives you such a broad insight into different methods and setups and you can pull out what you think is successful and use it.”
When you come across someone you admire, try to dissect their innate or learned skills and try to emulate them, Travis advises. “You can use other people’s methods – they don’t need to be your own.” And don’t be afraid of making mistakes, she urges. “I hate making mistakes but they’re crucial to helping you learn.”
Working closely with her husband as a fellow director hasn’t presented any issues. “We’re both looking in the same direction in terms of family life and our business and we’re supportive of each other.” However, she admits moving into an established business as the wife of the managing director was a challenge. “I feel as if I’ve had to prove myself in this role more than in any other.” As she takes time to reflect on the Queen’s Award, it’s clear her efforts have more than paid off.
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