Specialists making computers that can survive danger zones

Howard Gould
Howard Gould
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Howard Gould led the management buyout of iSiS-Ex three years ago. Its annual turnover has quadrupled. Suzan Uzel met him.

THE market town of Malton in North Yorkshire might not be the first place you would look for high tech computers for the oil and gas sectors.

But iSiS-Ex designs and manufactures just that from its base there. And it has been expanding, both in terms of headcount and revenues, since it was bought by Howard Gould and John Holliss in 2009.

The PCs and accessories it makes are approved as safe for use in explosive and hazardous environments, including drilling rigs and refineries, with 95 per cent of sales being exported, primarily to the United States and France.

“If I woke up one morning and decided to start a new business, it would not be this,” admits Mr Gould, the managing director of iSiS-Ex. “It’s horribly complicated. And we are audited to death to make sure our products are safe for use in a hazardous area.

“This is not like buying a Dell computer, this really is a very special device.”

But there are not many big players in the sector, he added, and iSiS-Ex is looking to gain market share by focusing on product development and targeting new geographical regions such as the Middle East, Africa and Russia.

The Leeds-headquartered firm, which employs 33 people and expects to record a turnover of £4m this year, opened an office in Houston, Texas, last year.

Born and bred in Leeds, Mr Gould, has had a varied career in sectors ranging from telecommunications to textiles, holding engineering, IT, sales and marketing roles, but always based in Yorkshire.

His past employers include Phillips, then owned by Pye of Cambridge, where he worked for 18 years, BT and a division of Standard Telephones and Cables (STC), which manufactured fibre optic communication products.

When STC closed its plant in Leeds, Mr Gould took a job at Beacon Controls in Bradford, a manufacturer of processed control equipment for the textiles industry.

“They had stumbled across an opportunity to design a product for use in a hazardous area, which required some special skills and I had some experience of that from my days at Phillips because we used to make some radios you could safely use in hazardous areas.”

Mr Gould joined as general manager of this new division, named Isis Products, in 1989 – within six months he was on the board, ending up as managing director. Beacon Controls was later sold by its Swiss owner to the Barco group, a Belgium-based technology company, but the Isis division was in turn bought by Norwegian firm the Technor Group.

Mr Gould said he was given the choice of whether he wanted to stay with Beacon or go with Isis to the Technor Group – he chose Beacon.

“But very quickly in about 2000 it was obvious the textile industry in the UK was in trouble, the whole business was moving East and our business was struggling,” said Mr Gould.

The Bradford business was consolidated with another part of the Barco group in Blackburn but Mr Gould decided not to go. “I’ve successfully avoided a number of attempts by employers to move me away from Leeds,” he said.

So in 2001, Mr Gould started his own business – Turnaround and Interim Management, or Tandim for short – providing interim management. “It gave me an opportunity to get involved with businesses in trouble, And trouble is not always bad, sometimes it’s good in that they are growing quickly and need resource rapidly.” He also decided to study for a business degree at Leeds Metropolitan University, having regretted not going to university earlier in his life.

Several years later, Mr Gould received a call from Technor asking him to return to the Isis business and run it. Now known as Technor Isis, it had moved from Bradford to Malton. “So over the year or so I was there as interim MD we made a number of changes. We stemmed some losses, we developed some new products and in many ways transformed the business.”

But in 2009, Mr Gould was asked to sell it – again. “It was bizarre, because there I was being asked to sell the same company for a second time.”

Mr Gould and former Beacon colleague Mr Holliss, who has a Yorkshire company which provides interim finance director services called FDYL, decided to buy the business, completing a management buyout in July 2009 – with Mr Gould owning 85 per cent and Mr Holliss owning 15 per cent. Its name was changed to iSiS-Ex.

Mr Gould handed over the day-to-day management of Leeds-based Tandim, which is still operating today, but retained the role of managing partner.

He has since been focusing on growing iSiS-Ex, which in 2009 was turning over just under £1m and was loss-making, employing 15 people.

“When John and I went to the banks looking for funding they thought we were nuts and told us so and declined to support us, but we were very confident in the prospects for the company so we funded it ourselves,” recalled Mr Gould.

By 2010, the business was making profit and had secured funding from the Royal Bank of Scotland – but the credit crunch had struck, the oil price was unstable and the industry was not buying.

“We made a conscious decision to keep close to our customers despite the fact that we knew they weren’t likely to buy anything from us at that time.

“My theory was if you kept close to them in the bad times they would remember us in the good times.”

In 2011, turnover was up at £3.8m and pre-tax profits were £250,000. “We were making serious money but we were investing heavily in product development. It’s very important that because this market is a continual technological chase,” said Mr Gould.

Today, iSiS-Ex is investing heavily in infrastructure and variations of its current products, as well as new products which can be operated safely in hazardous areas such as a USB, wireless access point and ethernet product.

The order book for 2013 is strong, said Mr Gould, with business being secured off the back of entering new markets. In the sector, the degree of risk is defined by zones – zero, one or two, with the latter being the least risky.

“When we bought the business all we had was zone one, but we knew there was a huge market for zone two, predominantly onshore rather than offshore. Not many people realise there are hundreds of oil rigs onshore , particularly in North America and they tend to be zone two.”

The oil and gas sectors will be sustainable for years to come, he said.

“We are all very conscious of the need to look after the environment and oil doesn’t help but it doesn’t appear at the moment as though there’s a viable alternative.

“We are not quite yet at the stage where we’ve got an engine that can run on water.”