With a 25-year track record of engineering excellence, Mark Cook aims to take robotics specialists Sewtec to the next level with an ambitious growth plan, writes business editor Mark Casci.
Managing complex situations is a desirable character trait to have for any business leader.
But for Mark Cook, it has been a day-to-day reality for the last 25 years.
Today, Mr Cook is managing director of Sewtec, a Dewsbury-based robotics manufacturer.
Specialising in the design and making of factory automation systems, Sewtec boasts a raft of blue chip clients including Mars, Unilever and AstraZeneca.
Under his leadership, Sewtec has announced its intention to double turnover to £32m in five years as the company initiates a new growth plan. It also anticipates creating around 100 highly skilled jobs across its mechanical design, software, engineering and sales functions. This would see it more than double its existing workforce.
It is the latest chapter of his career across multiple top companies, operating across a diverse range of sectors including electronics, defence and security.
However, Mr Cook views it as simply a variation on a theme.
“The common thread that runs through all of it is management of complex systems,” he told The Yorkshire Post.
“I haven’t really been involved in product manufacturing, as in your standard commercial products.
“It has all been about putting complex things together. You have software, electronics, mechanical engineering with usually at the end of it a demanding expert customer who knows pretty much what they want but doesn’t always articulate what they want in the specification.
“You usually just work with them to tease out what they want and form a contract around it that you can deliver.
“You make some money and they get what they want.”
Mr Cook makes it sound very easy but this assurance comes from more than 25 years of experience.
Before joining Sewtec, he held management positions at various electronics, defence and security companies including Sterling Dynamics, Seven Technologies Group, Racal Defence Electronics and Thales Group.
He also founded defence, aerospace and security management consultancy Persides in 2003 before selling the business on.
He said: “I have always been an engineer since graduating. Most of my early career was with large corporates where I was able to get a fairly good grounding.”
Mr Cook’s involvement with Sewtec came via Leeds-based private equity specialists Endless.
Since its inception Endless has traditionally been famed for successfully turning around businesses but Sewtec was a very different case.
It got involved with Sewtec when it backed a management buyout from its former owner. It already had the relationship with Mr Cook and the combination of the three has proved a winning formula.
“Sewtec was a high performing business already,” Mr Cook observes.
“It had a good customer base and has some decent margins.
“I came in just after the MBO had happened. The really important thing is to significantly grow the business over the next four years, that is what the strategy is all about. It is definitely not a turnaround, it is a grow and improve.
“We have set ourselves the target to double the business in five years. We are one year in.
“We want to double revenue to £32m. A headcount associated with that will probably add another 40 or so permanent employees.
“As part of that we will be relocating the business, it is something we are actively looking at now.
“We have operations on three different sites and we want to consolidate that to a single site. There will be space there to support the growth, and then some.
“£32m is the target, I am hopeful we will surpass that.”
As specialists in automation, Mr Cook and his firm face an ever-evolving landscape, both in terms of companies’ desire for efficiencies and in terms of advancements in technology.
He said: “The demand generally, globally for automation and generally improving efficiencies is always there.
“Our customers are driven by a number of different things. One is resource availability. A lot of the processes were traditionally done by people but they are not particularly challenging jobs so you find individuals are just not interested in that type of work.
“Also, just the competitive nature of the markets they operate in. To squeeze any additional margin, having automation is a significant way to achieve that.”
As with any engineering firm, recruitment remains an ever-present issue. When asked if he found the hiring process straight-forward, Mr Cook is forthright.
“It never had been, my whole career. Anything to do with engineering there is generally always a shortage. When it comes to getting the best people there is an even greater shortage.”
To address this Sewtec has significantly beefed up its website and worked harder on its contact with students.
Given Mr Cook’s longevity in the engineering sector he is well-placed to judge the health of manufacturing in Yorkshire, and is generally upbeat.
“There are some good strong businesses of similar sizes to ourselves,” he said.
“The activity going on around Sheffield with the AMRC there, that is a really good initiative. There is a real growth in the northern manufacturing scene, in terms of the high end of manufacturing capability, which is good to see.”
And how does he rate this latest chapter of his career so far?
“I love it. I very much like businesses where you can see the end product. When you see some of the systems coming together and fire them into life it is really satisfying.
“For most engineers that is exactly what spurs them on and the more complicated the better. The feedback we get on the build quality and professional way we go about adds to the feelgood factor.
“I have the capacity to learn as well as to run the business. It is very rewarding and is on a par with anything I have done.”