Chris Holland visits a Bradford engineering company admired for its commitment to apprenticeships and which is marking 40 years in business

TONY Hubbert reckons he has served two apprenticeships.

One was as a 1977 school-leaver serving his time as an engineering apprentice at Carter Gears in Bradford.

The other was 11 years ago when he took ownership of his company T F Automation which he had joined in 1997 as sales and project manager.

"I had regarded myself as a good first lieutenant to the previous owners but had never thought of owning the business.

" When that happened I had to serve a sort of second apprenticeship learning about running the business, keeping people employed, paying the bills and so on. Happily, we survived the deepest recession for generations and we're now much stronger," said Tony.

TFA was founded in 1975 as Time Factors Limited by Robin Rendell who put his Baildon home up as security for a start-up loan and originally ran the business from there, maintaining and supplying pneumatic components and PVC tubing.

As business grew the firm moved to premises in Frizinghall and then to its present base in Hillam Road.

Mr Rendell sold the company to John Roberts and Ivor Williams in 1982 and a decade later it was wholly owned by John and Janet Roberts. In 2004 Tony Hubbert, by then a director. became the majority owner, with a five per cent stake being retained by the Roberts' daughter Louise.

he had brought with him broad experience in both engineering and plastics , including time with the Lucas Group which owned Ultrasonics in Shipley and working as a general manager of a Swiss manufacturing company in 1990s before joining T F Automation.

When Tony joined, TFA was heavily reliant on supplying equipment to the Bellows Machine Company in Leeds which had the sole UK rights to sell fast sewing machines . Within two years of him joining the firm. Bellows' main customer Marks & Spencer moved sewing operations offshore, resulting in a major hole in TFA's turnover.

Tony said: "We had to find an alternative to clothing industry. Fortunately, we were able to replace it with other business relating to special machines. It was more risky but higher margin business and it broadened our customer base.

" It was a major move for us to do that and but we have grown turnover from £600,000 with 13 or so people to nearly £1.7 million with 20 people.

"Supplying pneumatics equipment has been growing over time. Although it hit a low in the recession we have steadily and surely improved it to a point where the business is now better than pre-recession.

"The machines have become more complex and higher quality which has enabled us to become - nominated suppliers to the likes of Jaguar Land Rover, although we have to remain competitive to win the business.

" Our continued success is based on service levels and strong business relationships. We try very hard not to talk about price."

T F Automation supplies customers ranging from a historic Cumbrian snuff maker to giants such as Hallmark Cards, Morrisons and household products maker McBride.

Tony is a strong believer in proper trade apprenticeships and TFA has invested in young people and their education to ensure a skilled workforce.

This year the company is investing around £20,000 in a leadership programme to enable people actively contribute to continued business growth and help push u-p the turnover which has remained static for the past couple of years.

"We are committing what is a tidy sum for a small business in implementing the Lamont Jones programme. The cost is equivalent to a new machine tool but the intention is to develop people to put us in an even stronger position.

"The programme looks at leadership and management training for our managers and training three former apprentices as supervisors .It's about establishing a roadmap for the business and planning for the future," he said.

The aim of the investment is to enable T F Automation to grow organically by improving the skills and competencies of its existing people

"The fact that turnover will remain the same as the previous two years tells me there's a constraint in the business. Doing better is about being smarter and better organised," he said.

Tony's commitment to training and apprenticeships is driven by a lack of ready skills in the engineering sector along with his own experience .

He said: "When I left school to become an apprentice at Carter Gears there were around 600 school leavers going into engineering with companies such as English Electric, International Harvester, Hepworth & Grandage and Renold and doing HND and HND at Bradford College

" We need more youngsters entering the industry. manufacturing is vital and not everyone can work in retail or for the council, which should not be the largest employer around.

"Many of our skilled employees joined the firm as 16 year-old apprentices and we have several people more than 20 years service which is satisfying and shows the benefits of investing properly in people," said Tony.

In 2012 the company was praised for its commitment to training apprentices by then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg who toured the factory to promote a £1 billion 'youth contract' to subsidise employers taking on trainees.

Mr Clegg said during his visit: "It's great to see a small manufacturing firm that has created a real niche expertise and, given the wider gloom in the eurozone, has succeeded in spite of some nervousness about whether customers will splash out on its products.

"It was also good to meet people on the shop floor who have been trained here as apprentices and continue to work here."

Tony Hubbert recalled that he had suggested a £10 minimum wage to Nick Clegg , emphasising his belief that low pay doesn't work .

He said: "I'd hate to think that our manufacturing economy is going to be regenerated by creating a low pay economy.. We did that 50 years ago and it didn't work and we'd be foolish to go down that road again.

"Low wages rather than investing in the latest technology was one of the main reasons for the demise of textiles locally . It's a model that model doesn't work and we can't base our manufacturing economy on how low is the local pay.

"If we compare ourselves with Japan and Germany, the workforce there is educated, motivated and paid well and companies have invested in automation as well as people.

"Of course, pushing up wage levels can't be done overnight and I welcome the intention to increase the minimum wage to £9.20 an hour by 2020. A workforce needs to be educated and motivated and committed to the future of a business . That's the balance of the exchange.

"The original aim of schemes like YTS and the Youth Opportunities Programme

was about investing in young people's skills but it didn't turn out that way.. It became more about getting them off the unemployment register. We need to invest properly in our young people and upskill the workforce ."

T F Automation operates around 50-50 across two business divisions.

Factored goods supplies pneumatic components to keep other companies' machines operating. This business supplies goods across West Yorkshire.

The special purpose machines operation is a global business- with products sold to clients in markets including Singapore., Puerto Rico and the United States.

Much of the special machinery goes to automotive companies and Tony is keen to broaden its scope.

"While the automotive market is on the crest of a wave now; going back eight years it was at the very bottom. So, widening the sectors we serve from this part of the business is a key consideration.

" It was with this in mind that we recruited Jay Thankappan as business development manager . he has an MBA from Bradford School of Management and it researching

other market sectors and new opportunities to manage our exposure to the automotive market," said Tony.

T F Automation is also a supplier to storage products company Really Useful Products and builds machines which make mini springs for the expanding Harrison bed manufacturer.

The company also works with global operators such as Morecambe-based specialist filter maker GVS and A P Racing, which provides brakes and clutches for Formula 1 racing cars.It recently helped develop anti-piracy technology for a new Microsoft games console .

In addition to its commitment to training and skills development capital spending on new machines at T F Automation has been around £100,000 over the past five years.

Tony said the business was financially "comfortable" .

"Living through the recession we set ourselves to be cash comfortable. We are not reliant on the bank but as a business we like to have some managed debt to ensure our credit profile is good," he said.