Review of the year 2021
“Patience is a virtue”
As a child, my Grandad would often say to me that “patience is a virtue”. This was usually said as I moaned about the wait for dinner or for my birthday to come… but as an entrepreneur and business owner himself I’m sure he knew the value of patience in a business context too.
Patience is essential when acquiring and owning private companies. From the acquisition perspective, it’s been a while since our last acquisition, Merkland Tank, but in November we were delighted to complete our most recent one – Hardie Polymers.
More of Hardies in a moment, but the intervening period hasn’t been spent twiddling our thumbs. We see over 100 new opportunities in any given year and it can be difficult not to try to force something to work or overlook problems – especially when you haven’t made an investment for a while! But as we outlined in our first annual review in 2016, our success at Nevis will not be defined by the number of deals we do in a year but by the quality of the portfolio we build over the long term.
That makes it easier to continue to be selective and when we find an opportunity like Hardies we are glad we did not use our scarce time and capital elsewhere. Hardies is an independent polymer distributor supplying a broad range of end markets from aerospace and automotive to medical and white goods. The business was established back in 1924 and has been owned and operated by three generations of the Hardie family since then. When Fergus Hardie decided to sell the business, we were only too happy to work with the current management team of Isy Ferguson and Bartosz Komanski to buy it.
What, you might ask, attracted us to Hardies? We’ve outlined our basic criteria before and in our 2018 review discussed what we are looking for in more detail by outlining our focus on the “3Ms” – Management, Market & Money.
Hardies ticked all of the boxes with an ambitious and capable management team who have spent much of their working lives with the business; a large and growing UK market for polymers; and a long-term track record of steady financial performance.
We’re proud to take our place as owners alongside Isy, Bartosz and Fergus who all have a meaningful stake. We appreciate the faith that Fergus has placed in us to take the business forward as it moves towards 100 years of successful trading. We know that ownership brings with it great responsibility to the Hardies’ employees and customers but we are confident that by working with Isy and Bartosz it can bring good reward too.
As long-term owners of sustainable businesses, we know that time and patience are required when making the changes that allow a business to continue to survive and thrive. In 2021, this has been demonstrated across our portfolio. I mentioned in last year’s review that Astec Precision and Merkland Tank were the two of our businesses most severely impacted by the pandemic. I’m glad to say that the investment we made through those difficult times has begun to pay off for both.
At Astec, the move to larger premises has allowed us to continue to increase our manufacturing capacity and the end of the year saw us return to pre-pandemic order levels and sales. Craig Hyslop followed in the footsteps of Paul Moore at DTGen and Raymond Shepherd at James Ramsay in moving from Managing Director to Chairman. Eddie Young has joined us as Managing Director and his experience of leading other similar businesses (and as a time served machinist) has stood him in good stead. By continuing to focus on getting things right for our customers we are hopeful we will see continued growth and Astec reaching new heights in 2022 and beyond.
For Merkland Tank, our 2020 investment in tankers, equipment and people together with the leadership of Director Kirsty McIntyre made 2021 our strongest year yet. Towards the end of the year, we welcomed Colin Hotchkiss as a new Managing Director to work with Kirsty and the rest of the dedicated Merkland team. Colin has experience of leading large UK and multinational businesses and we’re delighted that he was attracted by the chance to get into a more entrepreneurial environment. Our flat structure allows us to move quickly and the base that Kirsty and her team have built will allow Colin to take advantage of opportunities as they become available. We’re excited about what we can achieve as a team and believe we can really grow and develop the business over the coming years.
2021 was Gary Shepherd’s first full year as Managing Director of James Ramsay and we’re delighted with the progress the business continues to make. Their focus on quality and service has allowed them to punch above their weight and to develop strong partnerships with several key customers. Partnerships are an area that have really driven growth across our portfolio and around two years ago we identified the likes of Spirax Sarco, Cochran Boilers and Aggreko as organisations with a similar focus on the customer. We have worked hard to develop mutually beneficial relationships with them and with the likes of Star Refrigeration and Vital Energi. This has not only brought new business but has led Ramsay into high profile work in growing renewable energy areas such as large-scale heat pumps and energy recovery systems. The business has survived more than 100 years by adapting to changes in technology and the economy – from ship building to coal mining, from steam power to gas and now towards renewable energies. It has been able to do this by serving and moving with its customers, maintaining technical excellence and by managing its finances. Only by continuing to do so can we plan for 100 years more.
At DTGen, Paul Moore and David Oates have led a year of progress and planning for the next phase of development. Our first gas-to-power generator was installed at McGhees bakery and is proving the strong financial returns & additional resilience that are available to high electricity users. At a time when energy costs are spiralling, we hope that they will be the first of many to take advantage of these benefits. Plans for further development included the establishment of a more significant presence in the English market with a new depot in the Midlands and we believe 2022 will offer considerable scope to expand this further.
It takes time & patience to develop businesses partly because it takes time to develop the people in those businesses. We have written previously of the importance we place upon continued development of the people and teams in all of our businesses. We invest heavily in technical training as well as wider training and mentoring. We extended this further in 2021 with the establishment of the first Nevis Leadership Development Programme.
The programme is focused upon those identified as having the potential to build a stronger second tier of management in each of our businesses with the aim to help participants build successful and enjoyable careers and to make a significant impact on the long-term success of their business. The course covers a range of topics including customer service, operational excellence and finance and we hope it will provide a foundation to help participants become more rounded and effective businesspeople, with a better awareness of themselves and others.
Participants are drawn from across our portfolio companies and we hope to run and improve the course many times over the coming years. We also hope that those who come through this and the various other training programmes we invest in will form the backbone of our management teams both now and in years to come.
Conclusion & Outlook for 2022
A year is not long in the world of private company ownership but we are grateful to see that 2021 bore some fruit itself and from the work of previous years. Our sincere thanks go to the leaders and teams in all of our businesses for the hard work and ingenuity that have made this possible. In particular, we’re proud of the “front line” of engineers, drivers, machinists and operators who have worked tirelessly and throughout the various lockdowns to continue to meet the needs of the critical industries they supply.
Looking forward to 2022, we expect to see a lot of deals in the wider market as the pent-up demand created by the pandemic begins to be met. At Nevis, our goals are the same as any other year – the continued development and improvement of the companies we own and the acquisition of part or all of at least one new business. If you own, or you think you might know, a business that would benefit from a patient, committed owner then please do get in touch – we’d love to hear from you.