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From its beginnings as a prolific manufacturer of pens, C. Brandauer & Co Ltd has become an institution in Birmingham with a reputation for making top-quality pressings and stampings across a wide range of sectors. Henry Carpenter meets the man at its helm who is presiding over a wide-ranging culture shift at the Newtown factory.
Originally published in Birmingham Business Magazine
If Rowan Crozier feels the heavy weight of responsibility on his formidable frame, he wears it lightly.
As the CEO of C. Brandauer & Co – which can claim legendary status as one of Birmingham’s last, great precision engineering companies – Crozier is the man charged with ensuring the prosperity of the historic firm for the short term and laying the foundations for its success into the future.
It’s some heritage, too, he is responsible for continuing. The origins of Brandauer can be traced back to the late 1700s as a manufacturer of steel pens, helping Birmingham gain its status as one of the great global pen producers, with the city boasting an output of 500 million a year in 1850.
It is still a family firm, which operates under Brandauer Holdings. Some of the shareholders are direct descendants of Joseph Petit, who launched the pen factory a stone’s throw from its current position on New John Street West.
A century and half ago, Brandauer’s products solely revolved around pens, even if they did encompass some 400 different designs. In the war years of the early to mid-20th century the focus shifted from pens towards the growing automotive and aviation industries.
Small, technical items all, known for quality and innovation – just very different markets.
“Everything we make here now fits in the palm of your hand,” says Crozier, cradling three items in his by way of an example. “Here, for instance, we have a domestic kettle component, an airbag control system and a push-fit plumbing grab ring.”
He is keeping the language simple for the layman. Those with a passing grasp of the terminology will tell you that Brandauer makes micro-components and laminations which have been used in highly ambitious products, including electric vehicles, renewables, life protection and aerospace applications.
The company can manufacture loose or reeled stampings, bonded or interlock laminations, t-segments and ultra-thin components from its facility in the heart of the West Midlands.
Tiny, unseen components but crucial in the role they play. They need to be exact in form and if there is one word which has always applied to Brandauer’s components it is precision.
“Everything we make here now fits in the palm of your hand.”
The factory building may have moved – though not far – but intricate pressings and stampings are still Brandauer’s stock in trade. The technology used is right up there with anything that can be found anywhere in the world.
If ever there was a case of looks being deceptive – you couldn’t imagine a more nondescript exterior than the one which greets visitors on arrival at the Newtown site – it is here. Inside, however, it is something else.
“We are splitting microns here,” explains Crozier, as he conducts a tour around the site. “To put that into perspective, one hair comprises 40 microns.”
We pause at a brand-new piece of machinery which is still being installed. “That is a stamping power press – it cost us 500,000 euros.”
This is just the latest of the 47 power presses which inhabit the site, operated by a team of men and women over a wide age spectrum (more on that later). There are now 63 members of staff at Brandauer, and if they aren’t setting or operating the presses they might be found in the multi-screened design room or the series of sales and admin offices.
And it is in one of these offices that Crozier reflects on his involvement at Brandauer; where it has come from, where it is now and what lies ahead for the future. And he is in a chipper mood. As he admits: “We are now on a foundation of core profitability.”
It doesn’t take long though for the core values he imparts at Brandauer to come to the fore.
“When I stepped into my current role as CEO three years ago,” he says, “I believed there were some seriously juicy opportunities to improve the business by focusing on three key areas: people, investment and customers.”
The vision was remaining the same; it was the delivery which needed changing and Crozier wasted no time instilling in the team the attitude he expected, all based around a culture of precision.
The average age of the workforce was too high in his eyes – it was approaching 60 – and the apprenticeship scheme badly needed to be reinvented; skills, or rather the shortage of them, was a big issue.
Three years down the line and the staff average age is 44 and there are currently nine apprentices on site. It is a growing workforce too, with 11 more staff members on the books than when he took over the top job.
“We are getting there with our people – in fact, we have a cracking workforce,” he says. “Their work is underpinned by a culture of inclusivity with staff buying into what we want to achieve. But we are continuing a drive for ever more inclusivity and introducing engagement policies to get the best out of our staff.
“We have restructured multiple times and I now feel we have put people in the right places to enable our growth and quest for improvement.”
If the profile of the workforce was characterised as slightly elderly and very much male dominated, Crozier has put paid to that. There is a vibrant, enthusiastic feel about the place with more than a smattering of women at various posts in the factory.
“There is a vibrant, enthusiastic feel about the place with more than a smattering of women at various posts in the factory.”
Then there is investment. We know the sort of precision the machinery is capable of.
He continues: “We have to manufacture progression tools, and these tools and their components are unique to us in the UK. The shareholders don’t take a huge amount out of the company. The vast majority is reinvested which is necessary given that the machinery needs replacing every five to seven years.
“Every year we spend somewhere in the region between £600,000 and £1.4 million – a big number for a small business. I think we have probably been guilty of under-investing in the past.”
Finally, there has been the focus on customers. Crozier admits that the company has undergone a huge exercise in putting a professional system in place to link the supply chain with Brandauer’s customers.
A business development drive has seen the firm move into new markets and sectors and profitability has been the result. Last year was the best he has known since joining the firm nine years ago and is happy to share that it broke through the EBITDA target of £1 million.
“One of the biggest things we’ve done is secure a pharmaceutical contract supplying components for a disposable razor with one of the big players in the industry. I anticipate the orders to reach £1 million per year.
“Historically, we have been a subcontractor and I thought we needed another strand in the form of our own product.
“We secured the licence for ELOPIN, a push-fit connector for printed circuit board users. We have won our first contract for that, supplying a customer in Italy. It’s great to think we are winning business in Europe! Brexit will perhaps not be the big concern for us as it is for other manufacturers.
“Another big area is tooling, making the tools which make the components. We are in a strong position for this, particularly in the UK.
“Motor laminations is another area we have grown into, and probably account for about 2% of our turnover. All of these areas are going well and have got real traction.”
There are plenty of other areas Crozier and his team are looking at. He is keen the relationship between Brandauer and academia is tightened, for instance, and he is intent on continuing to bang the drum to improve inclusivity at the firm. The challenges of availability of skills is likely to be ongoing for the foreseeable future.
You get the impression that, despite the consistently high standards he sets for his staff and his constant talk of improvement, Rowan Crozer is an open and generous boss.
An engineering man to his fingertips, he is also one who commands respect, not just at Brandauer but in the industry in general.
He is chairman of the Manufacturing Assembly Network of businesses, which consists of eight SMEs and one design agency, allowing the members to share best practices “and gives us access to other opportunities”.
The career path which led him to Brandauer is instructive in itself.
After a near miss signing up to the Royal Navy, the Loughborough University graduate found his way to the Newtown facility via a short spell at Lucas Aerospace (now part of Rolls-Royce), a two-year stint working at a precision stamping firm in south Wales and finally at a Midlands-based Tier 1 company making mechanical control systems for cars.
“This moved abroad from the Midlands and I was then part of this off-shore machine, so I looked elsewhere,” he recalls.
“The appeal of Brandauer for me was that it is based in the UK, it is highly technical, the operation is under one roof and there is a real diversity of both products and customers.
“I joined the firm nine years ago as sales and marketing director. I really came for the firm’s capability which was clear for me to see – the firm has survived multiple recessions and two world wars, after all.”
The success which Brandauer is now enjoying “is down to the people we employ and the hard work they are putting in – it is a massive team effort,” he insists, pointing to the men and women in overalls on the factory floor.
Brandauer – a great company, seemingly in very good hands.
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