We need to maufacture, says Business of the year boss

John Hensley is undoubtedly an extraordinary businessman and entrepreneur. He has grown the business he founded more than 20 years ago into a �7million enterprise which now has worldwide reach and four trading divisions, each involved in different aspects of supporting blue chip clients in the electronics, automotive and medical arenas. His customers now include industry giants from Marconi to Dell, Hewlett Packard and BMW.

Along the way he has seen lucrative markets disappear overnight but has been quick to seize other emerging opportunities; he’s had a timely “leg-up” from the Princes Youth Business Trust and has embraced the development of the internet and other technologies as tools to grow internationally. His business in supplying emerging technologies with innovative packaging and other support, including clean room supplies, means his expertise is in the manufacturing environment, one which he believes should now become a prime focus of the UK’s economic recovery

Now he is on a mission to support manufacturing in Europe and to encourage young people to see the career opportunities in “making things”.

His opinions are strong but delivered with good humour and the experience of someone who has got on with things, quietly and successfully.

“Education is the most fabulous thing you can get and it empowers us to learn about the world and how to play nicely, but, there has been too much focus on degrees which have become a carpet under which to sweep people and with no jobs at the end of it,” he said. “Horizons are expanded but at the end of the process there is no mechanism to fulfil it. I am one of Maggie’s children; I have got on my bike and made things happen, we are fleet footed and respond to our customers’ needs and the opportunities in the market. We need to wake up to the fact as a country we have relied too heavily on finance and banking and that there needs to be a return to manufacture in the UK and that is key. “Degrees are fine but we need people to do the plumbing and work in agriculture and to make things. The most powerful economies in the world make things. So we need investment in factories, involved in the production of electricals and cars and then if we buy British that creates thousands of jobs; that’s the way to develop the UK economy and invest in UK youth.

“But, we need to crack on otherwise others will take it away from us, so we need to do it now and do it ethically.”

John’s original company, Antistat, was formed in 1985 to service the needs of the defence and aerospace market. The end of the Cold War, however, came as something of a shock to the young entrepreneur who feared his business would not survive such a dramatic shift in not only the market but worldwide attitude to defence.

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It was at this point that a chance meeting with a Prince’s Trust adviser at an exhibition in Cardiff gave him the opportunity to change direction and pursue blue chip electronics manufacturers.

“I was lucky that the Prince’s Trust gave me a leg up,” he says, reflecting on the low interest loan and gift funding he received.

“The Cold War had ended and we really didn’t know if we could survive. But with that support we were able to switch to the electronics supply chain and that really was the key to our survival.

“Back then as a young entrepreneur I had no access to finance or credit history, the infrastructure wasn’t there.

“The adviser who helped me never knew how much he did for me. He was way up the food chain and talking to me, just a kid, and he enabled me to engage and get that contract which was the difference between us being here or not.”

Since then the business has diversified even further and now includes four divisions. Each has been developed or acquired to further meet the needs of existing customers or to fulfil a gap in the market. The group believes being fleet-footed has helped it remain ahead of the pack.

Back in 1995, for example, the world watched as the Kobe earthquake caused devastation in Japan causing substantial damage to the world’s computer memory manufacturing centre and wiping out much of the memory stocks. John formed a company, Cygna, to respond to the needs of the marketplace, becoming an established supplier to Computercenter and quickly helping fill the void in their memory supply chain. Since then Cygna has provided fourth party maintenance to the computer maintenance market and has a huge network of suppliers and contacts worldwide.

As supply chain experts the Ant Group has also filled other niches. The Acupaq division, for example, acquired in 2009 gave the customer base access to component handling and production consumables.

The Ant Group’s fourth division, Cyberpac, and award-winner in its own right, is involved in innovative packaging solutions and has developed the environmentally-friendly Harmless packaging range, which includes biodegradable ‘plastic’ bags.

As an ambitious entrepreneur John has used emerging tools, such as the internet, in growing his businesses.

“When I started out, it was difficult to find out what was happening in the market, there was no internet and a flight to Germany to see a potential customer would cost you �700.

“I would have needed a bank loan just to do that. The internet has revolutionised our business and has become an intrinsic part of out everyday lives. That and the advancement in other areas. These days you can get a parcel sent from here to Budapest to arrive tomorrow morning; 15 years ago that was like flying to the moon.”

The Ant Group deals mainly with manufacturers in central Europe and has partners in Romania, Poland, Malta and Morocco, rather than China. While John travels a great deal, he also uses video conferencing and his trusty smart phone to keep him up to speed with all areas of the business. While he is away he knows the business is in the safe hands of operations director Ron Tosh and Michele King, the group’s finance director and the team who all share the company vision.

Moving manufacture to Europe has helped the company achieve a “massive” growth curve. The move has meant stock is not ‘at sea’ for months. For the immediate future John is opening a new office in Chicago to support emerging business with South America, which he describes as a “very exciting economy” and also has an eye on developments in Africa, where he believes manufacture is coming on line. As well as expanding geographically, the business is also looking for new sectors, and is keenly involved in developing new products for the life science technology. It really is all go.

After his incredible journey, John feels quite comfortable in offering advice to other entrepreneurs. As a young man, he says, he didn’t always keep his eye on ‘the numbers’ which he now sees as key, particularly now that his business and many other deal in multiple currencies.

“Employ someone; get an accountant,” he says. “Invest in technology and invest in people. There are some very clever people about and the combination is a key driver to success.

“Also, make sure that you offer good service and value for money. Be reliable. Do what you say you are going to do and do it well. People will pay for that and they will stay with you and that way you build relationships. Alongside all of that, be sure to invest in young people.”