UK: Sabre's Aspirations.

UK: Sabre's Aspirations. - It's a mad life, starting and running a business of your own. First there are the repeated crises when you're always on the point of running out of money. Then, if you're lucky, a run of good years might bring some of the trapp

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It's a mad life, starting and running a business of your own. First there are the repeated crises when you're always on the point of running out of money. Then, if you're lucky, a run of good years might bring some of the trappings of success: a bigger (or a second, or third) factory, slightly grander offices, the Daimler Sovereign, the sailing boat on the Solent. But prosperity is generally fragile, and growth brings its own problems.

There are disagreements and tensions, as shortcomings become apparent, while the solutions are nothing like as clear. Moreover the company is still small fry, under constant threat from more powerful competitors or from sudden changes in the market - such as the latter's virtual disappearance in a recession. That is a fairly typical progression. And Sabre Safety, makers of breathing apparatus (as used by firefighters and such), of Aldershot, Hants, is a fairly typical privately-owned manufacturing business. Its co-founder chairman and chief executive, Mike Glynn, a solidly built 60-year old with the greying locks and gravelly voice that one expects of a typical Tory backbencher, must be a typical entrepreneur. But no two businesses are the same. Glynn's experience of the past 23 years is unique.

Besides, he thinks, "it would be very difficult today to do what we did in 1969." Not in every respect, though. People do it every day - leave their employers and set up in competition. At least they used to in the galloping years of the mid-to late '80s, before the going got so treacherous. And it's a lot easier to go into partnership than to go it alone.

Glynn's partner, Noel Matterson, was a former soldier turned marketing man. He was marketing manager at Siebe Gorman when Glynn joined the company, as a senior project engineer, in the early '60s. Under chairman Barrie Stephens, Siebe has since grown into a large, £1.5 billion, diversified engineering group, but in those days it was Siebe Gorman, and best known as a manufacturer of deep-sea diving and other breathing equipment, "the grandfather of the industry", Glynn acknowledges. "We loved working there," he says, adding with a quick laugh, "and hated it."

The loving part for Glynn was the technology. He was, by that time, something of an expert in the design of breathing apparatus, having been introduced to this arcane field of endeavour during National Service. As an aircraft engineer who had done an apprenticeship at De Havilland, he was commissioned as a technical officer in the RAF, and given a posting that all his contemporaries were eager to get. It concerned high altitude research at the Institute of Aviation Medicine at Farnborough. Glynn didn't apply, so naturally he got the job, and joined a small band of engineers working with a lot of service medics. However entomologically improbable it may sound, he was soon "bitten by the bug of breathing systems".

After National Service, Glynn returned to the aircraft industry and came, by stages, to Siebe Gorman. There he found that designers of civil and military breathing apparatus had hardly ever spoken to one another. "Each world had problems that the other had solved." But the less appealing aspect of the job - a question of personal relationships - gradually became dominant. Although a redundancy programme brought him promotion rather than the sack, he reached the point where he "couldn't stand it any longer" and began to think about starting up on his own.

Glynn didn't know that Matterson had already passed that point, that he and a third Siebe manager were talking quietly about creating a safety products company of their own. What they lacked was an engineer. The third man brought them together, and for six months they met regularly - like conspirators - in a pub close to Surbiton station, planning every detail of their breakaway. Matterson, who had done his soldiering in the Royal Horse Guards, had a useful friend in the City who promised to help them find some money. Nevertheless, the break, when it came, was slightly chaotic. Matterson suddenly learned that he was about to be made marketing director. This called for immediate action, even though the financing had yet to be finalised. All three handed in their resignations at the same time, giving - Glynn is quick to point out - longer notice than was strictly necessary. But the third conspirator was hauled back and offered the marketing vacancy, which, after a few days, he accepted. Glynn didn't blame him. The man had long wanted the job and, being in his later 40s, was roughly 10 years old than the other two. But his defection left Matterson and Glynn without a third partner, without employment and without a deal.

The crisis didn't last long. Within a week or so, yet another disaffected manager was recruited. And in November 1969, Sabre Safety began life in the City offices of Matterson's friend's firm, which put up all the initial capital. The first task was to find a factory, 2,000-3,000 sq ft of space to rent, accessible from both Matterson's home near Guildford and Glynn's near Basingstoke. They found an old printing works of 5,500 sq ft for sale in Aldershot, exactly equidistant between the two. Their helpful backer bought the building and gave them a mortgage on favourable terms.

Another matter that had to be resolved at the outset was whether or not to scrap the painstakingly prepared plan. After all, the co-planner who had elected to stay behind knew every detail, so it might not be difficult for Siebe Gorman - if it chose - to snuff out competition from these treacherous upstarts. Glynn and Matterson decided to stick to plan, which they reckoned they would not be expected to do. But since they needed to buy a lot of standard components they rewrote the list of suppliers.

Glynn is firmly convinced that competitors would have destroyed them if they could. Counter-measures were needed. "You can't hide the truth, so the thing is to mix it up with a lot of lies." On one occasion Glynn prepared a spurious document, which he left nightly on the window sill of his ground floor office, beneath the Venetian blind but visible from outside. The paper implied that Sabre was chasing a contract to supply the Coal Board with equipment that would require quantities of soda lime to soak up poisonous gases. A year or so later, he learned that a competitor had spent good money arranging exclusive contracts with all three British suppliers of soda lime.

On other fronts there were rather fewer laughs. After three or four years, in the early '70s, Sabre's financial backer, a subsidiary of a South African investment house, withdrew from the UK. Before going, it sold its 60% stake in the company to the three individual shareholders for a fairly nominal £28,000. Then the third director-shareholder departed, having fallen out with the other two, which left Matterson and Glynn owning 50% each. But Sabre had not yet traded as a profit, and the bank was not prepared to advance more funds. The period of acute financial uncertainty was interrupted by an approach from Bodycote International, the Manchester-based workwear manufacturer that was expanding into protective clothing and safety products. Bodycote's chairman had been a senior manager at Siebe Gorman, and was keen to see Sabre join the group. Matterson and Glynn were in no position to argue. They parted with 50% of the company, but obtained an agreement that, should the chairman leave, they could buy the shares back for a sum determined by the auditors. After a year the chairman was eased out. The partners recovered their shares at virtually the price they had been sold for.

By that time things were improving though money was still short. Part of the factory had been let to another small business, which manufactured fire extinguishers, and for a while the two companies joined forces: "It didn't work," says Glynn shortly. But the fire extinguisher maker had a financial adviser, a Canadian called Bob Wilson, who had time on his hands after selling his own business in Slough. Glynn remembers saying to Matterson, in effect, "Go and get him see if he can help us." Having looked at the books Wilson decided that he could help, and not just as an adviser. He took a 10% slice of the equity, and lodged with the bank certain shares of his own, against which Sabre was able to borrow. Glynn and Matterson made him chairman, with themselves as joint managing directors.

In 1975, the year after its escape from Bodycote, the company made its first profit. Gradually, through the '70s, Sabre found buyers among the water boards and gas boards, in the chemical industry ("the likes of ICI"), in oil refining, in the armed forces. By the end of the decade, turnover had climbed to £1.6 million (from £400,000 in 1975) and pre-tax profits exceeded £100,000. With growth came diversification. One subsidiary manufactured gas detection products, a second made marine safety equipment. Then Sabre went joint venturing in the US, a market it had been trying to break into for years. By 1980 the company had "something different" to offer. "We had a product that we'd designed for the Third World - slightly modified, it would suit the Americans absolutely," says Glynn quite deadpan. He gave a demonstration at a trade show in Chicago, and the device went into production with the joint venture near Atlanta.

Not everything that Glynn and Matterson touched sprang to life. The marine safety venture, for one, was "an absolute fiasco". The partners met a naval commander who had invented a life-jacket which was not filled with kapok, and would neither burn nor give off toxic fumes. With tighter maritime safety regulations coming into force, the idea look good, and Sabre took 75% of the company set up to exploit it. But "the only synergy was in the word safety". Shipowners were not impressed by the rules, and nobody bought the product.

The growing number of options that appeared in the late '70s served to bring out differences between Matterson and Glynn. There were "disagreements" - not rows - about the future direction. Glynn, who describes himself as "a good all-round engineer", wanted Sabre to concentrate on its design and engineering strengths. Matterson wanted it to become a diversified group selling all manner of safety products. In the early '80s, Glynn recalls, "I found Noel making funny, irrational, decisions", ignoring what had already been agreed between them. It emerged that Matterson had been having headaches. X-rays revealed a brain tumour and he was operated upon, successfully, or so it seemed at first. "He died on January 6th, 1982," says Glynn. It was clearly a deep personal tragedy.

Death prevented Matterson from sharing in Sabre's greatest triumph. Elsa ("emergency life support apparatus") is an emergency escape system developed from an American design Sabre acquired, after strenuous efforts, in the mid-'70s. It consists basically of a transparent plastic bag that will fit over any head, regardless of beard or spectacles, plus an oxygen supply. The US original had been effective, but crude and complicated to service, according to Glynn. "It was a super idea badly engineered - we redesigned and improved it." When the Argentines invaded the Falklands on 2 April 1982, the company was working on an order for 2,500 sets for the Royal Navy.

On the day Sheffield was hit by the Exocet, Glynn was speaking to his contact in naval procurement. The order had shot up to 7,000 sets. Then another phone rang on the procurement officer's desk. For 7,000 read 11,000. Work stopped on everything else, and not just in Aldershot. The oxygen cylinders came from Austria, the pressure valves from Germany. Nevertheless, says Glynn, "We produced 11,000 in six weeks. They all went to the Falklands." Elsa transformed Sabre's outlook. In the recession of 1980 the company had plunged to a loss. With the bank once more refusing to lend, the partners had to raise money in the City, via an issue of convertible loan which threatened to dilute their holdings. The Falklands War changed everything. Turnover put on over 70% in successive years, to sail past £5 million in 1983, when profits reached £1.4 million - a record unequalled since. The loan was duly paid off, and there has so far been no further threat to Sabre's independent status. Since Matterson died, control of the company has been entirely vested in the Glynn family; and Mike Glynn, who has a son in the business (he also has a daughter), intends that it should remain there for the foreseeable future. The voting stock is limited, but all shares are closely guarded. As soon as the law allowed, in the early '80s, the articles of association were amended to ensure that any shares held by directors on their death or departure from the company would be returned to the pool.

The Falklands factor told for some time. Sabre has so far sold 58,000 Elsa sets to the Royal Navy, and more to foreign navies and industrial buyers. Elsa is also manufactured by the associate in the US, where NASA is a customer. Helped along by the introduction of other products, the company maintained an impressive rate of turnover growth for the rest of the '80s averaging more than 25% annually in the half-dozen years up to 1990, when sales reached £17 million. The profits record was rather more uneven. And with the company doubling in size every four years, Glynn realised (about 1988, he says) that he had "better do something". Wilson had retired four years earlier. By 1988 Glynn, the chairman and chief executive, had never so much as read a management book, and was beginning to feel things slipping away from him. The all-round engineer retained consultants to help him find a professional manager. Ever cautious, he appointed a man he had known for 20 years.

Dr Laurence Eyres, aged 40, joined Sabre as chief operating officer two years ago, from New Zealand where he had gone as a senior manager in the food industry. There have been other changes since, including a new finance director and the promotion of Glynn's son Nigel to the board. Eyres split the company into five divisions along business area lines: breathing apparatus (50% of the whole), filtration (which grew out of an MoD contract to supply filters for chemical warfare masks), medical (based on a small valve manufacturer acquired in 1983), gas detection and offshore.

At present sales are rather more critical than fancy structures. Glynn admits that "We've always been weak on the sales side - we can make whatever we can get orders for." The problem is getting the orders. "We hung on through the second half of '91. I could feel then that '92 was going to be no better." A couple of months ago the company had to make 45 people redundant, causing numbers to drop below the 300-mark. "I would like to say that we've finished."

Glynn is "fairly comfortable" about 1993 and after. He thinks Sabre is quite well placed in the EC, even though a German company is the biggest in the world safety industry. Nevertheless huge trading blocs do make life difficult for a business of Sabre's intermediate size: "You need large sales networks to get the products out." Ensuring quality gets ever more expensive. Moreover, companies are increasingly being required to take responsibility for a whole raft of services: products, maintenance, training, etc. "There's a lot to do for a company of our size .. We will have, at some time, to join forces with somebody."

It's just as well to be realistic.

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