Chris Holland meets the founder of a specialist engineering firm whose adventure products are in growing demand

TAPPING into people's taste for adventure, however modest, is a successful business model for John Beers.

Over the past 15 years the Bingley-based firm he runs with wife Ruth has developed into a leading designer, manufacturer and installer of rope courses, climbing walls and artificial caving systems for a wide range of locations and clients.

Hangfast Adventure Engineering is also gaining an increasing international reputation for its products and capabilities, boosted by involvement with the London Olympics and Paralympics in 2012.

John launched the business in 2001 after working as a manufacturing engineer for a climbing wall producer but becoming dissatisfied with it's lack of interest in after sales maintenance and repair work.

"I found maintenance and repair very satisfying work, Customers were always pleased to see you and I saw an opportunity to start up in that arena. It was interesting and varied work and got me around the country as a one-man operator.

"For the first five years I focused mainly on maintenance of rope access equipment and the inspection of climbing walls. Eventually, customers started asking if I could help them design new equipment and I started with indoor artificial climbing walls.

"Over the past ten years we have specialised in helping customers take a concept and develop it and then designed and produced the equipment and installed it. Our business model is not to make a range of off the shelf systems but to focus on bespoke equipment and it has proved very successful," he said.

John began as a steel fabricator, working for his father building steel boats before studying engineering at university, followed by a short spell on North Sea oil rigs.

These days Hangfast has a workforce of more than 20 full-time employees and a team of up to ten regular freelance rope access engineers. The firm currently has four vacancies for people with relevant skills, including an experienced stores manager.

"Stores and distribution is an area we need to upgrade as it will be key as we continue to expand our operations and meet increasingly complex customer demands," said John.

A year ago the £2 million turnover business moved into three units totalling 12,000 sq ft at the Castlefields industrial estate at Crossflatts - doubling its operating space and providing room for future growth.

Hangfast works with a wide range of clients including Sport England, the armed forces, schools, outdoor education and leisure centres, and leisure and tourism attractions. Legoland, Center Parcs and Alliance Leisure are among the firm's key clients.

The firm has expanded its capabilities from making basic low level climbing walls to a range of ever more sophisticated systems to suite a wide range of abilities and uses. Hangfast also pioneered artificial caving systems and has a dedicated team producing these.

Among its most recent contracts was developing a large adventure system at a leisure centre in Selby incorporating ropes courses, climbing walls, a soft play area and ski simulator . It is also working on a system for a shopping mall in Spain.

Hangfast has also developed and installed equipment for holiday park operator Center Parcs both in the UK and in Europe. John is due to meet senior executives of the European business to discuss potential future projects later this month.

Adventure equipment has also been designed and supplied for Legoland sites in Florida and in Indonesia.

Its systems cost between around £50,000 and £250,000 and the aim is to secure one large contract per month.

Over the past four years Hangfast has attended the Euro Attractions Show which attracts 9,000 industry professionals from some of the biggest leisure and hospitality companies in more than 100 countries. This major event has proved a source of new leads for the business.

John said: "From attracting passing interest for our stand the first time we attended, we it now provides us with the opportunity to sit down and have meaningful discussions with potential clients about specific projects.

"It's a key part of our marketing activity in addition to our social media and online presence and regular word of mouth referrals."

At the latest show in Barcelona last month, Hangfast unveiled its latest product -

the world’s first Flight Tower. The 21metre high tower offers a range of adventure challenges, including abseiling and a zip-line to jump off the structure from various heights.

There are different routes to the top including a 13 metre challenging rock climb and a series of staircases leading users to the different challenges.

John said: “We’ve enjoyed significant success with the growth of our XHeight climbing walls and caving products, which are now installed worldwide. We’re confident our new Flight Tower will be just as successful among leisure businesses from across Europe and beyond.”

The drive to get people of all ages, but particularly youngsters to pursue a healthy lifestyle puts Hangfast's products centre stage.,

John said: " Some local authorities are still spending money from the 2012 Olympics legacy fund to encourage healthier living and clearly our products fit in with this. Use of the Selby scheme is being monitored by Sport England as part of its bid to get kids into healthy activities away from traditional sports.

"Climbing walls and other equipment we make enables people tot tackle challenges at a range of levels. It helps them perhaps overcome a fear of heights and to build their confidence and fitness.

"Customers have come back for a more advanced system as users progress from the original more basic and easier one as they aim higher.

"Shopping malls are increasingly installing adventure areas both as a source of revenue and to enable parents to entertain their children in a healthy way. It's a growing area."

Hangfast is used to operating on big stages, including the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics where it had four staff permanently on site between May and September that year designing and installing equipment for the spectacular opening ceremonies.

Since 2007 Hangfast has been contracted to the England Cricket Board to erect the rigging holding the giant TV screens at grounds for international matches . The company has also carried out similar contracts at Royal Ascot and Silverstone for the British Formula 1 grand prix fixtures.

It is a side of the business John would like to develop further in due course but his immediate focus in expanding its mainstream adventure equipment manufacturing operations.

" We have always aimed for steady growth and following a surge last year have retained that pattern. Whilst continued growth is our plan, we don't want to overstretch ourselves, particularly if we extend our business in the US market,which is our ultimate aim," said John, who will attend a major trade show in Orlando to meet American distributors.

Hangfast is partnering an Australian company for its latest venture - a "rollercoaster zipwire" which goes around obstacles .

"We're always looking for new ideas and this tubular steel product takes the zip line ride to another level by curving round tress and buildings to provide a far more exhilarating ride than a straight line wire. It's something I will be pitching to Center Parcs when I meet them next."

To start with Hangfast will carry out site surveys and sales in the UK and Europe and import the system from Australia but may advance to manufacturing it under licence here.

John recently appointed Bingley-based specialist communications agency Rule 5 to raise its profile.

He said: “Since the inception of Hangfast in 2001 we have been quietly building the business, delivering bespoke adventure leisure experiences for customers worldwide. As we celebrate our 15th anniversary we’re looking ahead to the next phase of expansion, with a marketing and communications campaign that will further elevate the Hangfast brand."