For most of us, BM needs no introduction. One of its plants, tucked away in an innocuous industrial estate in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, doesn’t give anything away from the outside. It’s only when you step through the door that the scope of BM’s undertaking with emissions products is revealed. All of it (or most; some robots weren’t working on the day we arrived) moves with automated efficiency alongside ceiling-high racks upon racks of raw material storage. Mark Blinston, BM’s Commercial Director, cheerily explains some of the serious-looking machines churning away on the plant floor. One of them is producing a small waterfall of oil continuously, and every minute or so a freshly-machined nut tumbles out into a collection tray. “We use this for producing sensor ports and various other machined parts,” says Mark. “The most expensive one we have cost £170,000. The CNC Lathe machines can run 24 hours a day and are fully automated. We manufacture these components in-house to give us control over quality and design whilst reducing the inventory labels required when importing them.” Other automated machines at work include a 200-tonne press to stamp out the shells for BM’s catalytic converters; welders; CNC Miller machines; and three large tables upon which an automated plasma cutter line is fast at work. We have to be careful not to look directly at the beams.
The whole operation exudes a sense of pride, considering that not so long ago all of this was non-existent.
BM, like any company, had humble beginnings. When it was founded in 1966 by Alf Belton and Eric Massey, the company offered one service: fitting tyres for the local community. Operating out of a single base in Bulwell with five members of staff, it wasn’t until a few years later that government legislation led the company to expand its operation to fitting exhausts as well. Then, when legislation requiring mandatory catalytic converters was enacted, BM seized the opportunity to begin producing their own. In true full-circle fashion, BM has grown from sourcing exhaust parts from big suppliers in Europe to being a major supplier to them. “We were buying exhausts from all of these people as a garage,” says Blinston, “and they’ve allowed us to set up and it’s come all the way around to the fact that we now supply them! It’s quite bizarre.” Indeed, it takes some pretty astounding oversight on the part of competing European firms to allow a small garage in the East Midlands to become the largest independent manufacturer of cats, DPFs and front pipes in the whole of Europe, but this is precisely what has happened. Today, BM is almost entirely self-sufficient, manufacturing and machining its own parts – even down to the nuts used to fasten sensors on to the catalytic converters – to be used later on in the assembly process. “What we’ve got to do is keep our products as cost effective as possible, hence the investments in all the bits and bobs –” robotics and machinery, in this case “– so that we don’t then have someone in the way taking a margin as well,” says Blinston. The other benefit of being self-sufficient is that relying on European-based suppliers for parts is about to get a whole lot harder…
For BM, the disadvantages that a hard Brexit might place upon the company are numerous; particularly frustrating given the strong position the company has earned itself over the years. “Of course, some of our European competitors will have an instant advantage over us if we have a hard Brexit. There’ll be no tariffs [for them], and it would take longer for our stock to get to our customers,” Blinston explained.
A solution could be to move at least a portion of BM’s manufacturing into Europe before the UK officially leaves, as others have done. But for Blinston, this isn’t on the cards. “You’ve got to spend millions setting up plants in a low-cost economy that in five years’ time isn’t a low cost economy any more. Poland, five or ten years ago, was a cheap place to manufacture, but their economy’s grown quite a bit. So it’s tricky, and we wouldn’t want to be as far out as China.” In addition, all of this wouldn’t play into BM’s identity as a British manufacturer, something Blinston wears on his sleeve. “We’re proud to be a British manufacturer, to be honest with you. It can be done here. There’s this massive assumption that you can’t make things here, and we are.
“It will be interesting to see how [Brexit] affects other people. I suspect that some people will have buried their heads, and I suspect that some people have got plans like we have.” Blinston says that BM has a number of scenarios in place depending on the outcome of a Brexit deal on March 29th. And, in a worst-case scenario where trade is halted altogether, the warehouse stockpiles could enable BM to continue producing components for 10 to 12 months. But selling and sourcing parts isn’t the only issue that Brexit has brought upon the firm.
This year has been a struggle for BM in an unexpected way. “It’s a shortage of manpower,” says Blinston. “For the first time in our history this summer, the factory couldn’t cope with sales. We were selling more every day than we were able to make, so our stocks became massively depleted.” There were a couple of factors that made 2018 difficult in this respect: particularly high demand, a red-hot summer and a world cup (yes, really!) made it difficult to get workers in. “When you’re working a 10-hour weld shift in hot conditions, do they want to stay and do overtime for an extra four hours? Very difficult…” says Blinston.
The availability of skilled workers is another area in which the uncertainty of Brexit is proving a nightmare for BM. “Since the referendum we’ve found a smaller pool of workers from outside the UK wanting to work. People are going back because they’re worried about settled status.” But crucially, the lack of skilled workers is an issue that starts at home. “It does worry me that people coming out of school or college that would normally go into the engineering sector or fabricational welding, they don’t want to do it anymore,” says Blinston. “They want a beautiful office environment with air conditioning and table football.” Although Blinston says that BM have managed to recruit a sufficient amount of welders for now, the frustration from passing up on sales and certain supply deals over the summer, costing millions of pounds worth of business, still lingers.
Despite everything, Blinston remains optimistic about BM’s future. “Our company has always thrived in difficult, challenging circumstances. I think we just tend to navigate the choppy waters a little bit better.” Plus, regardless of Brexit, the emissions market will see increasing developments which should drive sales for manufacturers. The addition of SCR (Selective Catalytic Reduction) systems, for example, “is going to drive sales for AdBlue, temperature sensors, NOx sensors, this kind of stuff,” says Blinston. Although Euro-4 products make up 37 percent of BM’s sales, Euro-5 and 6 ones are fast catching up. “The trick,” he concludes, is to “never stop investing” in new market developments. Easier said than done, but BM certainly seems to be in a position to do so.