Fine-tuning Acme Whistles' Curious Culture
"Manufacturing isn't a skill it's a culture," says Simon Topman, Chief Executive, Acme Whistles.
"It's a culture and by both understanding your product and making it, you come to love it. That's part of the magic."
...A magic that comes to life as I climb the winding stairwell, covered in glorious crackle-glaze tiles of lemon quince, to join Simon in the company showroom at their Victorian head office in Barr Street, Aston.
Not many businesses can have had much more media coverage, especially in relation to their size. But then with an extrovert like Simon Topman at the helm it's hardly surprising.
Simon does not simply represent a big character with generous dollops of charm; perhaps his own brand of practical philanthropy resonates, like his building, more with an era of larger-than-life personalities, the sort depicted by the likes of Dickens or Trollope.
Like all good philanthropy it starts at home with Acme's HR policy focusing on employing local people, "from post codes B19, B6 and B20".
His contributions beyond his business are wide ranging. Many business people will know him as former President of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce. Additional roles include Chairman of Aston Pride, West Midlands Deputy Lieutenant, Chairman of Optima Housing Association, Vice President of The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists and he's well known as a raconteur and after dinner speaker to boot!
His business has been around for 141 years, having made and sold over 460 million whistles during that time. Turning over just under £10m annually (from 83 lines or 200 SKUs), it employs 65 people, producing over 6 million whistles a year and exporting to 119 countries, including China.
"Imagine that," exclaims Simon, "a Birmingham-based manufacturer exporting handmade whistles to China; that's not meant to be possible. But we're doing it!"
"We're probably the world market leader," he adds. "We have an absolute belief that we make the best product in the world. And that no one can touch us."
Despite enjoying years of success since Joseph Hudson's renowned Thunderer, Metropolitan and Siren Whistles first hit the streets, Acme continues to build market share, at home and around the world.
"Most of our competitors are located in the Far East. The Chinese, for example, watch us like a hawk and what we do today they will copy tomorrow.
The company takes out patents regularly to protect its position as it works on new developments. This, coupled with their vertically integrated approach, is seen as vital.
"We're continuously engaged in R&D. Our whistles produce 83 different noises, including duck and crow calls, sirens, etc, so we're working with partners such as Staffordshire University looking at producing holistic sound solutions and with Birmingham University on technical challenges using their anechoic chambers."
Acme's policy is to introduce two new products a year, targeting at least a 10% sales increment over three years. These have to be patentable innovations, whether they're ultimately patented or not.
R&D costs run at around 5% of turnover each year. If they believe they're onto a 'real winner' this sum could rise to as much as 8% of turnover. "But," says Simon, "we have to feel very confident to break the budgetary rules."
"These figures include not only new sales, but replacement sales," he adds. "No matter how hard we try to develop new products for specific niche markets, as they are all whistles customers often replace old popular models with new ones. We find this unpredictable. And of course the old product life cycle models apply to us too - so it is worth having something new regardless of generating new business."
In developing new products Acme also has a policy of bringing out new models to plug gaps in their offering, even where they believe it unlikely to generate the 10% of additional sales required.
"For example, we brought out a very small safety whistle to attach to rucksacks and to go into first aid safety packs," Simon continues. "Our existing product was good but too big and if we hadn't produced something a competitor would have done, resulting in loss of market share. If they were to break in with that type of product it could have been an inroad to expanding into our existing sales."
A culture of constant innovation sends messages to both their workforce and customers. "Our employees know that we're always seeking 'new and the better' offers. Our customers realise that in working with an innovative company it's always worth taking a look. They may not always buy, but you are constantly on their hit list. That is worth a lot too."
"The one who will win is one who can constantly innovate : but we need to bring to that process of innovation a highly competitive edge. If you innovate often enough the competition is constantly behind you. But we also protect our innovations with a 'hard-nosed' business plan."
Acme speaks about how it consciously develops its own brand of 'curious culture', controlling it as they would "any other business process".
"Culture always trumps the business plan. Therefore before you can have a truly flexible and efficient business plan or even one that works, you need to understand your culture and have the means of continuously analysing and controlling it."
With up to 26 languages spoken in Aston, Acme has piloted some innovative techniques for bringing together their ethnically diverse workforce. 'Theatre in the Workplace', Kathak dance classes and housing Birmingham's first art gallery dedicated to Indian art are examples - even leading to the development of the new Meteor Whistle whilst generating a lot of fun and excitement.
"New ideas are inevitable," Simon concludes. "Through new product development we are constantly redefining our relationship with our marketplace. Trends change, contexts change, but we keep up with the times through constant experimentation. The future never sleeps and neither should we. There is a real buzz about success and the excitement of change. People enjoy it and in turn love our product."
Signing off with the British Admiralty Boatswains Pipe, designed, as every good mariner will know, so its high pitched notes can be heard even in gale conditions!...Oh and something for the curious to reflect on:
HE WHO OWNS THE WHISTLE RULES THE WORLD
January wind and the sun
playing truant again.
Rain beginning to scratch
its fingernails across
the blackboard sky
In the playground
kids divebomb, corner
at Silverstone or execute
with my Acme Thunderer
I step outside,
take a deep breath
and bring the world
to a standstill.
Beverley Nielsen is Director Employer Engagement, Birmingham City University