Fifty not out for family affair

Pinchinthorpe Hall

It had humble beginnings in the back of a Stockton garage.

But as it proudly celebrates its golden anniversary, the Stockton Machine Company of 2021 is very different to the one created 50 years ago.

It’s bigger, of course, and is based in Billingham. What hasn’t changed, however, is an ongoing commitment to offering precision, cost-effective machining solutions.

In 1971, Ivan Smith, a time-served fitter at Head Wrightson, took a leap of faith with mate Kenny Huggett to set up a machining business in the back of “Tiny’s garage” in the Skinner Street area of Stockton, largely to tackle servicing work for Matterson’s industrial furnaces.

Effectively, it was two men and two machines – but it worked.

As the business grew, Ivan acquired more machines and took people on. And in 1987, his son Mark came on board as an apprentice turner.

Mark had intended to be an electrician. But when his college course became unavailable, and knowing he was adept at machining, he opted to give it a go and, before long, he was working for the family firm.

He’s now the MD. But as the firm celebrates 50 years, with a well-established reputation for quality, reliability, versatility and service, he recalls how he was given anything but an easy ride in those early days.

Mark told Tees Business: “Dad gave me a hard time because he didn’t want the lads thinking there was any favouritism going on.

“I learned the hard way. They used to get quite a lot of ‘on call’ work and with me living under the same roof, whenever the phone rang and a job needed doing, I couldn’t say ‘I’m not in’, so I’d get sent!

“But I learned an awful lot, very quickly. It was ‘sink or swim’ but it stood me in good stead.”

Over the years, the firm has had several homes, including premises in Middlesbrough and Billingham, although the original name, Stockton Machine Company, has remained.

In the mid-1990s, Mark began to wonder about taking the firm over and, sure enough, in the early 2000s, the chance came along and he took it.

The firm had already moved to Billingham and in 2003 it moved to bigger premises just down the road on Royce Avenue, on the Cowpen Industrial Estate, which remains its base. Mark became MD not long after.

In 2003, Stockton Machine Company had 12 staff, including Mark, with most of its work in the food production industry. Now there are 16 staff, with an apprentice starting in September, and clients in the chemical, offshore, subsea, renewable, pharmaceutical and food sectors.

And in a nod to our changing world, Mark says much of the firm’s business involves renewable energy – for example, making components for trenching or cable-laying machines.

Recalling his early days as MD, he said: “I realised we weren’t utilising our machines to their full potential, so we began moving into complex CNC (computer numerical control) machining.

“And because we were able to offer hi-tech machining at sub-contractor rates, it meant we could navigate the several recessions we’ve been through.

“We now have 17 machines, most of which are CNC. But I’ve always believed in investing in machinery – reliable, accurate, state-of-the-art stuff that keeps us ahead of the game. I bought two new machines last year, for example, orthodox manual lathes that are already proving their worth.”

The Covid situation presented challenges, but Mark says SMC came through it well.

He said: “I furloughed a handful of staff to start with, for social distancing reasons more than anything, but it was a mistake because I was struggling from a capacity point of view.

“Business was good, to be fair. Even though there was a pandemic, we matched the previous year, which was a profitable one. And this year has been encouraging. We’ve just taken a big customer on, again one that’s into renewable energy.”

The oil and gas crash of 2008 was also challenging, Mark recalls. “I’d just got a big customer in Aberdeen and thought, ‘Yes, here we go’ but then it all crashed. We got through it, though.”

Mark says his loyal, skilled workforce is key to SMC’s continuing success. But bearing in mind its slogan, “Small enough to care, large enough to cope”, does he want to keep growing?

He said: “I’ll probably carry on buying new machines because you can’t stand still in this business and I’d like to move into bigger premises. But machines can weigh 15 tons, so you need a big electricity supply cable. And they’re precision machines and have to be housed correctly, so it’s not that easy. I certainly haven’t ruled it out, though – I’d love the extra space.”

And he acknowledges that those early lessons learned from his dad continue to stand him in good stead.

He said: “We have a ‘can-do’ attitude – again, I suppose, going back to those early days working for my dad. We will take on work other firms won’t because we want to do everything possible to make our customers happy. So if that means working through the night, or travelling the country to get the equipment, that’s what we’ll do.

“I think dad’s proud we’re still around and doing so well after 50 years.

“He laid the foundations and I owe my parents a lot, especially for the sacrifices they made.

“I was grateful for the opportunity to do a management buyout – and it was always going to be that way, I didn’t want to be given it.

“I got ‘tough love’ from my dad, learned a lot and stepped up to make the money to buy him out. And I’m proud of the way we’ve gone since then.”