John Pring & Son is living proof that a company does not have to be a start-up operating out of smart premises or in a fashionable sector to achieve service excellence - provided it has the right attitude. And Pring has attitude in spades.
Run from a factory in the Cheshire town of Sandbach that looks little different from how it must have done when it was built back in Victorian times, the company makes specialist metal wires used all over the world in shopping trolleys, lampshades, coat hangers and especially for fastening bales of cotton with a product called the Jamlock. Yet Pring is in many ways a thoroughly modern enterprise.
Through engaging the workforce and concentrating on such matters as really satisfying customer needs as well as reducing wastage, the company has found a way of making money in a commodity market so competitive that it has lost about 30,000 jobs in the past 18 months. Essentially, it has focused so strongly on acquiring a reputation for exceeding customer expectations that it is able to charge a premium.
The emphasis on 'customer satisfaction through highly committed, motivated, well-trained people' is a personal crusade for Kevin Croker, the energetic MD who has been at the helm for five years.
At many businesses the commitment to customer service stops at the mission statement, but at Pring it clearly permeates the whole organisation. This so impressed the judges that the company improved on last year's position on the shortlist to win the manufacturing and engineering category, despite strong competition from the construction management company Mace and London Electricity Services, the specialist arm of London Electricity that picked up the Learning Organisation award.
Croker does not pretend that creating such a service-focused culture has been easy. He had to overcome scepticism from long-serving employees and the trade unions, and in recent months has taken tough decisions on the management team.
Pring's organisational values have been 'really key' in bringing about the changes, he says. They make for a tough set of principles, setting out what is expected of all employees in five areas: trust and respect for individuals; high levels of contribution and achievement; uncompromising integrity in the conduct of business; teamwork; and encouraging flexibility and innovation. And yet Croker insists that breaking any one of them will create a problem for the individual concerned. Such adherence is possible because the employees have been closely involved in their development.
Similarly, all employees - not just the sales people or others who deal directly with customers - know what is expected in terms of customer service, because they all attend meetings and receive regular updates on customer needs as managers learn of them. But many of them visit customer sites - wherever they are in the world - to gain extra insights into the businesses they serve. One result of a better appreciation of the challenges faced by customers has been a marked improvement in the percentage of on-time deliveries, to more than 95% - believed to be way ahead of the competition.
Yet Croker and his colleagues realise they cannot stand still. John Pring & Son remains a relatively small concern, with annual sales constant at about pounds 6 million for the past five years. But, with the backing of Leggett & Platt, the US-based industrial firm that has owned it since 1999, it is looking to expand, both organically and by acquisition. So there is every chance of Croker's revolutionary zeal spreading to other parts of the wire industry - and beyond.