Our blog series focusing on businesses which have benefited from the support of Business Wales AGP continues, with a look at St Asaph-based Leader Optec.
Leader Optec is a fibre optic cable assembly manufacturer, providing high-speed communication cabling for the data centre industry – a sector which has enjoyed rapid growth in recent years.
Here, Paul Desmond, of Leader Optec, explains the story of his business and how Business Wales AGP has supported it in its growth. He also advises others setting out on their own entrepreneurial journey.
Tell us about Leader Optec.
We established the company in 1993 when I started out with a former colleague who I worked with at Pilkington. We identified a gap in the market for the assembly of fibre optic patch cables for the growing number of fibre networks. When we incorporated the business in 2000, my original business partner decided to leave and my father, Michael, joined the company as a fellow director.
With Welsh Government and Objective 1 support, we established a headquarters at St Asaph Business Park, where we operate from today. We had some emotional upheaval in 2013 when my father died. His shares passed to my sister, Laurie Summers, and she joined the board. Laurie now has a 25% shareholding, and I have the other 75%.
In the last 25 years, we've grown to employ more than 40 people, and the business continues to grow. It's a fast-moving world, and we've kept on top of the latest connectivity methods, techniques and processes and invested wherever necessary in tooling, equipment and training. As both business and consumer demand for cloud-based IT solutions continues to grow, more data centres are being built, and established sites are continuing to upgrade to faster and more capable technology. We are operating in a sector with massive opportunities, which means we can create more jobs and growth for the company as well.
What are your proudest moments in business so far?
We've had so many milestones and so much recognition over the years. I remember when we broke the £1m turnover barrier in 2000, which was a moment of immense pride. Then, moving to our new premises in 2001 and having an official opening of that building, with my wife and father there. In 2016, we launched our Lite Linke product portfolio at an international exhibition, which meant we were showcasing our cutting-edge technology to a global audience of potential clients.
Finally, in the last couple of years, we had our first engineering apprentice who qualified with a first-class engineering degree. And an unexpected gift from all staff was our 25th-year celebration party.
If you were starting again, what would you do differently?
Over the last two to three years, we've invested more in business education and formalising strategy. Up until this point, the focus was simply on running the day-to-day needs. If I had my time over again, I would have focused on a longer-term vision, which would have probably altered many of the decisions I made, mainly around recruitment.
How has support from Business Wales AGP helped your business?
Over the years, we've received some fantastic support from Business Wales AGP and the Welsh Government.
Our sales director, Mike Lenihan, was given Business Wales AGP mentoring by Richard Forde Johnston, who delivered sales training to the sales team. This covered business development, account management, customer retention and solutions selling. Since then, the business has seen sales growth of around 5%.
Our marketing officer was supported by Business Wales AGP mentor, Nick Mason. He helped him to establish a clear marketing plan for the company and our Lite Linke product solution.
Nick encouraged us to look at the marketing message rather than just the product to identify what we were trying to convey to the client. Our marketing material immediately became slicker and less detail-orientated. We have since created two new websites, one of which is e-commerce-based and which has paid for itself twice over. We felt Nick's work was vital in preparing the company for the future.
I received mentoring from Geoff Andrews, who was the first Business Wales AGP consultant we worked with. The first thing we addressed was our vision as directors, and how achieving that vision was being planned. Up until this point, a 12-18 month vision was the furthest we'd thought ahead, so the plan was to extend it to a five-year plan and start thinking about succession planning as well.
The Business Wales AGP mentoring was covered by half a day a week over a 10-week period which allowed for time for structure the plan and review and make necessary changes. Geoff continued to work with us for a half-day every two weeks until the project was complete.
Without this particular support, the company would not have moved forward as we put in place a stronger management structure.
What advice and guidance would you give other businesses starting out today?
● Acceptance is crucial. It's not the first year of business that's tough; it's the first 25 years. Then it gets harder! So accept that for most business sectors, it's always challenging and it's easy for personal motivation and enthusiasm to dwindle over time.
● Get a good listening mentor who will allow you to vent but will draw you back to your strategy.
● You must have a long-term vision – as short as five years, as long as 25 years. A popular one surrounds building a business to sell it. Having a vision will enable you to ask the questions: "Will I achieve it with my current staff, with my current portfolio of products or services, with my current client base/market?"