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JDR Cables

JDR Cables: Careful research leads to meteoric growth

By Alison Withers

Patrick Phelan, 46, was recruited as MD of JDR Cable Systems Ltd, in Cambridgeshire, to drive through new developments shortly after the group was re-organised eight years ago.
JDR Cables: Careful research leads to meteoric growth
Patrick Phelan, 46, was recruited as MD of JDR Cable Systems Ltd, in Cambridgeshire, to drive through new developments shortly after the group was re-organised eight years ago. He has a degree in Mechanical Engineering and an MBA and had been an MD for eight years before joining the company. He has presided over a period of massive growth and change in the company, which has 40 years' experience in its sector. The Cambridgeshire unit is headquarters of the group's Umbilical Systems division, which has facilities in the UK, Houston, and now in Thailand. These three sites are specialists in the production and supply of subsea cables and umbilical systems to the Oil and Gas and renewable energy markets. The group's other division is Smart Solutions, based in the Netherlands, which caters for the seismic and defence markets.

The company now
The present structure is the result of a buyout by a private equity company in 1998. The new focus has led to substantial growth and development. "At that point we were a small business doing about £6 million turnover, which included about £3 million a year of oil and gas work. This year, our oil and gas order intake will be about £40 million for Umbilical Systems," Phelan says. The restructuring allowed his division to focus on umbilicals for subsea oil and gas developments, an area where there were significant growth opportunities.

The senior management of the company, he says, has been changed in line with business growth and consists of a team of four key directors. In addition to the MD, they are a Sales and Marketing Director based in Houston, the centre of the oil and gas industry, a Technical Director, who has been with the company for 20 years, and an Operations Director covering manufacturing in the UK and Thailand, who was recruited last year. At the middle-management level, the company has expanded its team by recruiting experienced managers from outside and by developing and promoting young engineers with around four years experience in the business into junior management roles.

Ten dedicated offshore service technicians travel the world to provide an after-care service to customers. Many of them are ex-servicemen, who are well prepared for visits to customer locations like Angola and Nigeria. JDR has customers in Western Australia, Brunei, Indonesia, Korea, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Houston, Norway and many other European countries.. The company is very keen on health and safety globally and is careful to do risk assessments tto ensure that technicians who go to such places are as protected as possible, "or else they don't travel".

Although engineers are in fairly short supply, the company recruits 2-3 graduates a year and is careful to train them in different areas of the business: design, product development, and sales support. While it doesn't have links with specific universities Phelan says: "We tend to recruit the best people at the time. We always find them. It's a case of how hard you look. A key part of their development is the fact that we ask them to spend time in Houston or Thailand." More junior posts are recruited locally.

Kaizen and Visual Manufacturing
JDR uses the Kaizen system, driven by multi-disciplinary teams focusing on the business plan and product non-conformity. Phelan says: "There are a number of individual teams working with people from different parts of the company depending on the subject, to analyse problems and come up with solutions. Their progress reports go to the monthly management meeting."

It also has an American IT system, Visual Manufacturing. It's been in place for approximately ten years and the system and the company have developed together. The company's most recent software development is to use DBR (Drum Buffer Rope), an advanced scheduling system which enables the company to achieve increased throughput with a lower inventory. Phelan says: "Another interesting use of IT is that with Thailand, a manufacturing-only operation with back up and management from the UK, we have a number of advanced web cams. Anyone can operate these from anywhere in the world over the internet and look at anything going on on the shop floor. It saves on travelling and it helps with communication. You can see a view right across the whole factory or zoom in on a single nut and bolt."

The Thailand factory was a result of Phelan perceiving a need to be able to manufacture closer to a growing future market and a need for a quay-side facility. The UK plant is land-locked so the highest weight product it can deliver is 100 tonnes. "But there's a huge market for above 100 tonnes and we identified S E Asia as where none of our competitors already had a quay-side facility." A site was identified at Sattahip, about 100 miles south of Bangkok, on a Thai navy site with modern buildings and a motorway linking it to one of the newest airports in S E Asia. It took less than two years from identifying the site in September 2005, to delivering the first four completed umbilicals for a customer in April 2007. Phelan says: "We set ourselves a target of winning £5 million in orders in the first year and we've actually won £20 million. It's very satisfying for me and all the staff involved from shop floor to senior management."

JDR is also in the process of a major 5S initiative across the whole business using a consultancy service called Productivity Europe to help it.
Plus it's planning to open a design office in Bangkok having foreseen the need for more design people as contracts grow in size and complexity. Phelan is adamant it's not about low cost outsourcing. "We want local people to work on our local manufacturing and to develop local skills," he says, and in fact Thai employees are currently paid about 20 percent above the going rate in Thailand. "We are taking on people, we are training them, giving them a very good working environment and they're earning good money to support an extended family."
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