Chris Parsons feels strongly about British manufacturing: below the surface there is much that's good, waiting to be freed by the right management.
Rearranging good ingredients so they total the sum of the parts has been the past two years' story at FujiFilm Electronic Imaging (FFEI), where Parsons is manufacturing director.
As Crosfield Electronics, the company was well respected for its hi-tech, world-beating pre-press film- and plate-setters, used in the worldwide graphic arts industry. But, for whatever reason, research excellence was never echoed by the business side. Run very much as a cost centre, first as Crosfield, then jointly by Fuji Photo Film Co and DuPont, from 1984 to last year the Peterborough site grew its order book to pounds 100 million - but never made a profit.
The turning point, says Parsons, who joined in 2001, came when Fuji, sole owner since 1998, finally lost patience with its only non-Japanese manufacturing site. The message was clear: no more excuses, no more subsidies; from now on the UK subsidiary (there is also a head office at Hemel Hempstead) would be on its own.
Since then, the hard medicine of restructuring has 'focused on ownership and responsibility so that everyone understands their role in the teams'.
Numbers are down by a quarter. A wave of junior management volunteers was signed up and promptly sent on management courses to help break down functional barriers and drastically boost business awareness as a way of quickening change. Senior ranks are now also undergoing similar management training.
Meanwhile, on the business side, the new teams were focusing on understanding real customer needs and how to combine FFEI's own unique technologies with those of other group companies. Manufacturing was charged with building better forecasts of customers' requirements so that the plant could be structured to increase capacity without adding headcount or affecting customer service.
Manufacturing has also been looking carefully at its make-or-buy decisions, with a view to eliminating non-value-adding elements and moving towards a modular build. Some trimming of the supply base has been necessary, 'since we need companies with the design capability to bring down costs'. But rather than outsource bodily to the Far East, Parsons believes it is better for the company - and for British manufacturing - to encourage suppliers to partner with companies in untapped European countries such as Bulgaria or Estonia that are closer and have just as much promise. 'We're taking a world view - but offshore doesn't have to mean 14 hours away.'
These efforts last year brought FFEI a small first-ever profit. But Parsons insists that it has not been bought at the expense of the long term. FFEI continues to spend 10% of revenues on R&D, but the key is to make it more commercially astute. Much effort is going into not just design for manufacture but design for environment. More stringent regulations for recycling and chemical use are bound to be introduced: by being ahead of the game, Parsons reckons, FFEI can gain a marketing advantage, support the parent company's frugal culture - and still show a profit.