Essex: Exports drive growth at packing lines company Pacepacker

Staff at Pacepacker, based at Great Bardfield.

Staff at Pacepacker, based at Great Bardfield. - Credit: Archant

Pacepacker, based at Great Bardfield, near Braintree, is setting the pace with its automated packing lines. Starting out as a firm which automated processes for East Anglian farmers, it has since branched out and is catering for a growing number of different bulk products around the world, as SARAH CHAMBERS found out.

It was exports which helped automated packing line firm Pacepacker through the recession, says UK Trade and Industry (UKTI) international trade adviser Simon Fennell.

He has been working with the firm, which is based in former agricultural buildings at Great Bardfield, near Braintree, and its managing director, Dennis Allison, for the past eight years.

“Exports got them through the recession when the UK market was virtually extinct. Canada was the big one. It still is a very successful market for them. There are American competitors, sure, but Canada is very much open to British businesses. It’s the good, old-fashioned Commonwealth tie,” he explains.

The firm’s business development manager, Paul Wilkinson, believes listening to impartial advice has been key to the firm’s success in recent years. During the recession, Pacepacker was finding that although there were a lot of projects in the pipeline in the UK, many of these were being put on hold because of the financial crisis. However, as automation can save a significant amount of money, it remained on companies’ agendas.

“Because of what we do by automating, we found that the recession, although it affected us in the way that decision making took much longer because people were thinking much more about their spending, we were still getting the orders to carry us through,” says Paul.

The company now exports about a third of what it produces. North America, and Canada in particular, has been a very good market for the firm in recent years and it established an outlet in the US in 2011.

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So while the level of interest remained high here, it has also been selling into the likes of America, China, Scandinavia, Estonia, Chile, Ireland, France, Belgium and Iceland in a bid to keep the work flowing.

“We have quoted enormously more last year than we have ever quoted before,” says Paul.

“The level of interest generally is coming back. I think there’s a lot more confidence now and a lot more people prepared to invest now than a few years ago.”

He adds: “We have typically seen an average of 25/30% of our market is export. We are looking to expand that and we are looking to increase our export strategy this year.

“We are a big advocate of the UKTI. As with anything where it’s advice driven, you need to talk and listen to the advice given to you. If you don’t listen, and you are not prepared to implement the advice, you are not going to see the change.”

A number of companies are trying to cram new lines into existing warehouses, he explains, and the automation process Pacepacker offers can help with this.

The firm specialises in efficient packing. All processes start up manually, and its job is to design processes to automate what is done, from the hopper feeding the product into the sack or bag, through to weighing and the packing pallet. It uses mechatronics or robotics and works with partner firms, such as robot maker Fanuc, to produce bespoke end products which can range in price from £6,000 to £600,000 depending on the size of the system.

Its turnover is just short of £3million a year, and it has ambitions to increase that to more £4m.

“We can deal with anybody, anywhere. We sell into the UK but we also sell across the world,” says Dennis.

“The first thing we do is visit the site and understand the need the customer has. We can then provide the correct solution. You could say we don’t sell anything – people buy from us.”

He adds: “We can be a one-stop companies who can design, manufacture, install, commission and support. We always say when we have completed a project it’s not the end. It’s the beginning of the relationship with the customer.”

Although its roots stretch back much further, Dennis and three others bought the assets of Pacepacker Ltd, which was based in Braintree, and in 2004 Pacepacker Services Ltd was created, and the operation moved to Great Bardfield. Today, Dennis and technical director Richard Gladwin are directors of Pacepacker Services, which employs about 20 staff.

Initially, the business specialized in packing agricultural produce, including potatoes and seed and feed. In more recent years the applications for its products have expanded to include food, chemicals, ingredients, powders – anything that can go into a sack, bag, box or tray.

A pick and pack arm of the business automates end of line packaging in the retail sector to take packaged goods and put them in the trays and boxes for retail distribution.

“We have been launching those products over the last year or so and the level of interest is picking up rapidly,” explains Dennis.

The firm designs the systems, and local contractors make a lot of the parts. The automated lines are built in the firm’s assembly shop on site.

Farming-related contracts still make up about 50% of the business, and a team of five designers use 2D auto CAD and Solid Works 3D to come up with bespoke designs.

Dennis, an engineer by profession, estimates that the business is growing by about 25% year-on-year.

“It’s justifiable because behind that we have a plan. We have forecasts, budgets and key performance indicators. We measure how well we are doing on every aspect of the business and we know if we measure it we can manage it,” he says.

He sees his own strength within the business as his ability to motivate and galvanise his staff.

“My thoughts are that you always employ people who are better than you,” he says.

Simon Fennell believes that in order to succeed, manufacturing businesses have got to add value to what they do, as Pacepacker has done.

“It’s being flexible and adapting to what the customer needs. Quite often it’s easier for a small to medium-sized enterprise to do,” he says.

“A small one can turn round on a sixpence. British manufacturing has learnt to be lean through difficult times. We have actually adapted in terms of the number of people we employ and the processes we use. Britain still has a very happy reputation for quality engineering.”

Initially, he believes, the company was trying to do too much.

“I guided them to concentrate on their strengths and not to take on too many new markets at once. We did that by suggesting they joined Passport to Export for novice exporters. They progressed through that and started to enjoy success,” he says.

“I would like to see them exporting as much as they can. It’s important for a small company not to take their eye off the ball. Pacepacker has proved that by increasing their exports they have spread their risks. If one market slows down, they can put effort and emphasis on to another. Those companies that do export are generally healthier than those that don’t.”

Simon is part of a strategic accounts team working with larger companies or those more experienced internationally.

“Most of those are manufacturers and, I’m pleased to say, since beginning of last year most are reporting much healthier order books. They are more optimistic,” he says.