In the world of business, there’s such a thing as entrepreneurship through acquisition, which involves buying, running and growing an existing operation, as opposed to setting up a company from scratch. Troy and Catherine Barratt, the successful husband-and-wife team behind Contracts Engineering and Furnitubes, are a shining example of this.
The couple are passionate about turning businesses around and scaling them up. “When Troy and I met at graduate school getting our MBAs (Master of Business Administration), we both felt strongly that we wanted to be masters of our own destiny and contribute by making products, working in manufacturing, employing people and helping grow careers,” says Catherine. “We had great careers of our own but we wanted to be able to build companies and make a difference to the community.”
With Contracts Engineering and Furnitubes, their shared vision has been fulfilled. Troy’s background in private equity and investing in manufacturing companies, paired with Catherine’s experience running businesses for larger corporates, has resulted in both ventures really taking off.
Operating from a 30,000 sq ft factory and warehouse in Sittingbourne, Kent, Contracts Engineering offers clients a complete range of sheet metalwork fabrication and mechanical assembly services, including design support and manufacture, supply chain integration and quality assurance. “We manufacture products or sub-assemblies for OEM (original equipment manufacturer) companies and Tier 1 suppliers that are national, regional or global, with a factory footprint in the UK,” explains Troy. “Specifically, we process steel and aluminium through processes such as CNC machining, laser cutting, folding, robotic and manual welding, and mechanical assembly.”
Contracts Engineering was originally set up by two sheet metal-trained and certified apprentices who were both in their mid-60s and looking to retire. In 2012, it was acquired by Troy and Catherine, and since then, the company has become one of the largest steel contract manufacturers in the South East. “We’ve grown the topline by more than five times,” says Troy. “It has gone from not being very profitable and just ticking along to doing well and having capital to invest in the latest robots, machinery team training and development, and software. Our second laser cutting machine arrived in September and our third robot will arrive in November. These investments mean we are able to employ more people, pay them better and provide them with career opportunities to grow with the business.”
Troy points out that there are a lot of exciting opportunities within manufacturing and engineering. “The UK is the eighth biggest manufacturing economy in the world and the third biggest in Europe, and we’re growing. This is what motivates us at Contracts Engineering. We’re a proud British manufacturing company that is passionate about growing the country’s manufacturing base and being a leader in the industry.”
A Contracts Engineering project now ramping up into full production centres on the team manufacturing the chassis for a new design for a large publicly traded American company’s UK footprint. “They’ve redesigned their main product so that it is entirely battery-powered,” explains Troy. “We’re manufacturing the 105-kilo chassis. There has been a fantastic amount of work upfront in terms of supply chain requirements and quality certifications, and it’s helping to support our third robotic welding investment.”
This is something Troy and Catherine are really excited about because they can now effectively justify another full-time, fully-trained robotic programmer, as well as an operator. “Projects like this are allowing us to invest in the team and new equipment,” says Troy. “There are a lot of other processes that need to go through the factory before it goes on to the new welding robot, so this creates a new skilled job – it creates employment.”
Contracts Engineering will soon provide all the manufacturing and assembly for Troy and Catherine’s second business, Furnitubes, which designs and manufactures street furniture for public spaces. The partnership, they say, will make both businesses stronger, allowing them to simplify operations and focus on what they each do best.
Furnitubes has been under the ownership of Troy and Catherine for the past four and a half years, but it is over 75 years old. “The company has a great history,” says Catherine. “It was established in 1946, just after the end of the Second World War. Like a lot of great businesses at that time, it was all about making do with what you had, reusing and creating new products. Furnitubes was founded by a marine engineer called Jack Cluer to make furniture for the newly-formed NHS, as well as London councils and schools, from unused or disused pieces of the naval shipyards and ships after the war. It’s an amazing example of sustainability.”
The company continues to design with a focus on minimising waste, ease of maintenance and a long product life, enabling more people to spend time outside in comfort in the urban environment. Furnitubes was a new client of Contracts Engineering, and being passionate about manufacturing and bringing manufacturing back to the UK, Troy and Catherine were looking for a business to fit their ethos, where they could integrate the supply chain to own the whole product and keep the manufacturing process in the UK.
Over the last five years, Furnitubes has focused on building out a contemporary design aesthetic whilst respecting its heritage values. Today, the company designs and makes public space outdoor furniture with modularity and sustainability at its core – furniture
that accommodates lots of people and allows easy specification and installation to create unique schemes. The team have focused on this vision of ease and modularity by investing in technology to help better visualise the layout configuration of a scheme.
Of late, the Furnitubes team have been undertaking important lower-carbon material research and development, and bringing a range of projects to fruition. One project they are really proud of is their involvement in the transformation of The Strand, Aldwych in London. “It was a big scheme for us and a great example of the collaboration between the designers at Furnitubes and the engineers and the production team fabricators at Contracts Engineering,” says Catherine. She adds: “Closer to home, we’ve been fortunate to contribute to a project in St George’s, Canterbury working with Canterbury City Council.”
Through the Furnitubes’ platform, Troy and Catherine want to be a voice for the industry. Their monthly podcast, The Green Room, engages with experts – from landscape architects and developers to sustainable suppliers, contractors and everyone in between – to celebrate and discuss collaborations, schemes and the latest topics. “We felt passionate about creating content and sharing our research and learnings,” says Catherine. The podcast allowed us to do that. We really enjoy putting the shows together each month and meeting new people who share the same goal as us. We want it to be an interesting resource for our community.”
Catherine explains that the majority of Furnitubes’ sales are to the UK, but this year has been the company’s largest export year, particularly to Switzerland, Northern Europe and the US. “We’re not actively marketing to the US yet, but it is picking up a huge amount more interest. That is why we have a strategy over the next few years to be actively selling in the US and exporting.”
It hasn’t always been plain sailing for Furnitubes and Contracts Engineering. Covid-19, unsurprisingly, brought its challenges and both businesses continue to navigate supply chain issues affecting the manufacturing industry. “As with every challenge, you learn to adapt and can get some great benefits out of it,” states Catherine. “Contracts Engineering stayed open as a factory throughout the pandemic. We kept all our staff on and were able to make products for the NHS and schools, such as a foot pedal-operated hand sanitiser. From a Furnitubes perspective, we quickly transitioned from an office-based company to working from home remotely, which has given us a lot more flexibility. It has been really good for the team to know that we are robust and resilient. With the right attitude, and with the right group of people, you can do anything.”
Troy and Catherine say that 12 years ago, embarking on a new journey as business owners was a clear decision. “At the beginning, it was a big jump,” Catherine explains. “When you decide to buy a company and leave your corporate jobs, a lot changes. In the first few years, we made quite a few sacrifices to ensure we were doing the right thing. What has been fulfilling for us is seeing how well those businesses have done and how we’ve grown. Our daughter was born three months before we bought Contracts Engineering, so we always talk about the company as our third baby.”
Troy and Catherine’s success story will be an inspiration to many small business owners and entrepreneurs. So, what advice do they have for those starting out? Troy says: “It’s important to recognise that cash is king. Keep a close eye on it. You need profits to keep going. Then, if you’re scaling the business, it’s about staying true to your vision and mission. Ask yourself: what is it that we want to do, and how can we find people who share our passion and are interested in going on that journey with us?” Catherine adds: “I think the third is to build a great team. The difference great people have is transformative.”
Contracts Engineering and Furnitubes are both primed for continued innovation and growth. Troy says the team are enthusiastic about sticking on their current path – partnering with and manufacturing products for OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers. “We want to be the biggest company doing this in the country. Stay tuned. There will be some pretty exciting things to come in the next few years!” And what about Furnitubes? Catherine explains: “There is definitely more growth in the UK market. We love the fact that the UK understands outdoor space and prioritises it. We’re excited about the future in the UK and we’re excited about expanding to the US.”