Good vibrations for Mildenhall-based DJB Instruments

Neil Ovenden of DJB Instruments in Mildenhall.

Neil Ovenden of DJB Instruments in Mildenhall. - Credit: Archant

It becomes clear shortly after meeting Neill Ovenden that he has incredible passion for the industry he works in.

A vibration sensor produced by DJB Instruments in Mildenhall.

A vibration sensor produced by DJB Instruments in Mildenhall. - Credit: Archant

He has been at DJB Instruments a little over three years – first as a consultant minding the business before becoming managing director in mid-2013 – and during this time has taken the firm through a major restructuring process and set it on an impressive growth path.

The company manufactures accelerometers – vibration sensors that are used in the testing of virtually any product you can name from cars and mobile phones to aeroplanes. Everything is handled in-house from buying raw materials to manufacturing and assembling the product for shipping. Even the small electronic circuits used with some of the devices are made here.

Mr Ovenden was asked to take over managing the company following a period of uncertainty that came after the death of the business’s founder Don Birchall in 2009. The business has a proud 40-year history but in the years prior to MR Ovenden’s arrival had struggled to make a profit.

“I’ve known of this company all my working life and as soon as I walked through the door it was obvious it had massive potential,” he said.

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“We are one of only six or seven companies in the world who make these devices and we are the only UK manufacturer in our sector. It’s a very niche market from a manufacturing point of view.

“There is no reason why this company cannot be as big as its competitors, which are multi-million dollar businesses, some based in the States and others in Europe.”

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But to get to where Mr Ovenden wants to go has meant some painful changes in recent times, as new processes and more efficient ways of doing things have been introduced.

But with a background that includes managing component system testing at Leyland DAF Vans (LDV), heading up sales and marketing for a noise and vibration testing software company, and running a technical sales and marketing consultancy business, Ovenden is the ideal man to lead DJB Instruments.

“Pretty much from day one, we have grown the business,” he said.

“When I arrived the business was turning over £450,000 a year. This year we will pass £1.2million with very high profitability. Realistically, our growth figures are going to be 25 – 40% per annum for the next few years, mainly through overseas growth.”

DJB’s vibration sensors are used by a whole range of industries but the key markets the company supplies are the automotive, aerospace and defence sectors.

The sensors developed by DJB vary in size – they make the world’s smallest accelerometer, which is not much bigger than the tip of a ball point pen, up to sensors roughly the size of a coffee cup.

“Most of the business we are now acquiring is through winning business from our competitors,” continued Mr Ovenden.

“From a UK point of view, a lot of British companies like to buy British and it is something we push. Globally, we’ve had to set up a whole network of distributors and partners who re-sell our products and that takes a lot of work.

“Pretty much every country in the world we move into, our competitors are already well-established and we have to go through a phase of educating our potential customers about our USPs to win their business.”

Mr Ovenden has travelled extensively in recent years attending exhibitions and finding the right distributors in countries such as the US, Germany and India.

Headcount at DJB has increased in the past two years from 12 to 20 staff. A number of these appointments have been apprentices. Additional plans include introducing new machines to expand capacity while longer term, the company is considering expanding the factory space on the land it owns around the current building.

The business is also engaged in a knowledge transfer programme with Loughborough University aimed at developing wireless accelerometer technology. Funded 66% by the government, the project has seen DJB take on a dedicated research associate and benefit from the support of the academics from Loughborough University while it works at manufacturing prototypes.

“There are a lot of potential applications like sports science and the monitoring of structures such as bridges in remote locations where cables are a real limitation,” said Mr Ovenden.

“Being a small company we don’t have the resources to take on a project like this by ourselves but through this scheme we get wireless technology experts from Loughborough plus a dedicated person here who has time to do the job and two thirds of the money comes from the government.”

“It’s a brilliant way for small companies like us to develop the technology we know our competitors are working on but who have the resources internally to do so.”

The company is also looking at another project using European funding to develop ultra high temperature electronics for use in their accelerometers.

Mr Ovenden continued: “We can grow the business with our existing technology by re-packaging it into new sensors but still using core technology. That allows us growth through a good number of years but we also have to think longer term about what the next level of growth and development will be.”

Ovenden says he and his colleagues were delighted to win the EADT Small Business award and says it is just rewards for the whole company.

“This is a company has been through so much and the staff here have been through a lot with it,” he said. “I’m not always the easiest person and I’ve forced them through a lot of change. But we’ve come through it. And none of this would have happened if the people here hadn’t been willing to do the work and make the changes.”

He added: “It’s not about me, it’s about the people that work here feeling that all their efforts are worth something and they’re being recognised for it.”

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