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Building hope

15 February 2017

Advanced’s managing director Ray Hope sits down with Mark Sennett to share the secrets of why his global fire systems business continues to grow at a rapid rate and discuss the key challenges that lie ahead

Can you give us some background on what you did professionally before you created Advanced?

I guess I could be classed as an entrepreneur. I started out as a mechanical engineer but was always interested in business ‒ the thrill of doing deals and fulfilling diverse needs by applying the latest technologies. 

In the early 1980s, I became interested in computing and founded a business to develop innovative hardware and software products for the emerging home/educational computing markets. We designed and manufactured a number of innovative products, including teletext-based communication systems and a range of high-speed and high capacity – at the time ‒ RAM discs, which were fast-access alternatives to the 5¼” floppy disc. 

These products were used in the home, education and commerce markets, with the teletext adapters used by the (pre-‘Big Bang’) Hong Kong stock exchange for trading data, and by the Met Office for running the daily weather maps. The business did really well but by the end of the 1980s, the market for these computer peripherals was starting to diminish. 

Around this time, the fire industry was changing, taking advantage of cost-effective microprocessors, and the systems were becoming more intelligent. I was introduced to a couple of really smart design engineers, who had loads of experience in high-powered, safety-critical electronic control and monitoring systems, primarily in the mining industry. We got together and began creating panels that could be used with what were then the latest fire detection products. Our products were very successful, highly efficient and reliable (the mining background) and we were the first people to really consider making the interface and the programming user-friendly. This was at a time when everybody else was trying to get to grips with creating a good computerised panel. We had made a real step change.

The company grew very quickly and, in 1992, we shed the computer side of the business and focused on manufacturing fire panels. We pushed on and, in 1997, were taken over by a US-based company (one of the industry giants) that was looking to expand into Europe. Within three months of the takeover they wanted us to re-locate our operation from the North East down to the South Coast and focus on commodity rather than excellence.

That just didn’t fit with our attitude and approach and so, after a short break, we got the old team round the table, together with some new commercial and engineering talent, and founded Advanced. The downtime was a great thing because the dust settled and we all realised we had quite a bit of unfinished business. We got to put right the things we had always wanted to, in terms of product performance, and we also had a serious level of knowledge and skills.

We had a much better idea of how the technology in the industry would change and this allowed us to lay down a development blue-print and the core concepts of what has become one of the most applauded fire systems in the business, selling in more than 60 countries now. 

The platform we created meant we could quickly bring new innovations to market in any territory, and easily regionalise products for export and standards regimes. Our export business took off at the same time as our domestic one. We grew year on year without fail, won all sorts of innovation and commercial awards, including the Queen’s Award for Industry, and built strong relationships with our customers.

The platform we’d built had other advantages. It meant that technology we developed in one country could be quickly improved and shared in another. This meant we could bring leading-edge solutions to our systems, based on regional expertise and standards. 

One recent example of this is our false-alarm management software, AlarmCalm. It’s free for users, is really easy to use but highly configurable. We developed it quickly, based on industry needs and customer requirements across UL, EN and AS regimes.

By 2013, we realised that to really drive the business forward we needed further investment, and we found the Halma Group. It has been fantastic for us. Halma’s model is that its companies remain autonomous but we’ve got access to a global network of businesses in and outside of our sector, real financial clout and best practice from one of the best plcs in the world. 

Can you tell us how the acquisition of Advanced by Halma has affected business growth, and share what your targets are for the next few years?

We’ve grown by more than 25% this year alone in revenue terms and by even more than that in profit. In the period since the takeover, we’ve invested strongly in brand and marketing and repositioned the business and our products. In the UK, we thought we were at saturation point, with an estimated 40%-plus share of the market segments we operate in, but the marketing we’ve done has seen us record 10% growth in the UK for two consecutive years.

There is also huge potential for growth in North America. It takes a long time to gain credibility in the US fire market. We’ve been there for nearly a decade now and have developed real trust with our customers. Slowly but surely we have been expanding our product range to provide a one-stop-shop for mid-to-top-level fire detection systems, and with the brand recognition we have, we are perfectly placed to see rapid and continuous growth. It’s good to see that the reactions we get from new products justify the investment and time it takes to develop them, and that we still impress real experts with our approach.

Our strategy as a business is now to identify markets where we can become one of the biggest players in the sector and record at least 35% growth year-on-year. Already, 60% of our total turnover is exporting outside of the UK.

That leads us to an obvious question: what impact do you think BREXIT will have on your business?

Like most of us, I’m still unsure what the fallout will be. There is a lot of worry and uncertainty, especially in the short term, in relation to the pound and how it will fare against the euro. But most of our products are sold outside of the Eurozone and I will concede that if trade deals can be struck with nations outside the EU, such as the USA, this could have a very positive impact on our business. The word ‘uncertainty’ is probably the best way to describe the outlook, and that is naturally a concern. 

What’s coming up in your product pipeline?

Well, I obviously can’t say too much, but we’ve expanded our engineering function geographically to give us diversity as well as strength in depth, and we’re bringing some exciting systems and solutions to market in the near future. 

As well as ongoing innovation and product improvement, we’re looking at how the market and wider world are changing, and we are developing solutions to the challenges of urbanisation, system integration, smart buildings and such-like. I expect to see real changes in the industry in the medium to long-term but we’re well placed to deliver solutions that follow our ethos of performance, quality and ease-of-use.

Recent developments are performing well and justify our approach of doing things better and differently. Our TouchControl panel is a touchscreen, easy-to-use interface with in-built graphics, and AlarmCalm is helping to eliminate the risk of false alarms. 

Can you give a couple of examples of some big projects that Advanced is particularly proud to have been involved in?

In the UK, an obvious one would be our systems in The Shard. We are also exceptionally proud of our involvement in the New York City Waterfront project in Manhattan, as it is one of the biggest fire-system installations in recent years, in probably the most demanding standards regime in the world. We have systems installed in Westfield shopping centre in Sydney Australia, M Station – the largest power and desalination plant in Dubai, Dublin Airport and the Royal Albert Hall. Every year we do more landmark developments and we’ve got some superb examples in the pipeline.

You can see the kinds of projects we work on are diverse, from tall buildings to iconic heritage projects, and across vertical markets.  We’re incredibly proud of the reasons people select and install our products and it’s not just the big sites that demonstrate it. 

The Atlantic Islands Centre on the Isle of Luing, in Scotland, is a tiny building, one of our smallest installations, I’d say, but it’s absolutely invaluable to the small community and tourist economy of the island. They installed one of our MxPro panels because they wanted the ultimate in reliability and trust. We do a lot of jobs on very remote sites, from astronomical observatories on top of mountains to pipelines across deserts, where only the best will do.

We probably now do an equal proportion of retrofits and new builds and about a 70/30 split of networked to standalone. We can do a lot with our network, it’s the best in the business, so it’s not just about big sites (of which there are a lot) but also integration, monitoring and control. 

In your opinion, what sets Advanced apart from its competitors?

If you ask our clients, they would tell you that we are easy to do business with. Our products are bulletproof and easy to use, and our staff are incredibly committed. I’d like to think it’s the customer relationships we’ve built that sets us apart. We always strive to give great customer service and to be easy to deal with, which includes the detailed support and training we offer to customers. Advanced has a strong personality and real ethos, and I think people react well to that.

What do you think the biggest challenges will be in the coming years for your business and the wider fire sector?

The importance of the fire system will increase in the future, as it’s the core life-safety system in the building. It’ll be asked to do more, more efficiently. We are already seeing the impact of consumer technology and developments like the Internet of Things in the industry. Making these things work within strict standards regimes will be a challenge. 

We invest a lot of time in finding and training the best Engineered Systems Distributors (ESDs) and commissioning, maintenance and installation firms around. That quality across the value chain is part of Advanced’s competitive advantage. The industry needs to make sure that as new people enter it they are trained to the right standards. The FIA and other industry bodies around the world do a good job in this regard, but I’d be very happy to see a register of properly trained contractors in place, rather like the Gas Safe scheme.

In our business, as we grow, ensuring we invest in the right talent, resources and skills to maintain our leading position is a great challenge to have. The worlds of engineering and manufacturing technology are changing quickly too, and new markets are opening up around the world. I wish I was a few years younger because, while we’re already successful, what we’ve got coming, both as a business and in the industry, is even more exciting.

Ray Hope is managing director of Advanced Electronics and Mark Sennett is managing editor of FSM. For more information on Advanced, visit www.advancedco.com