From a staff of three for more than 20 years, to ten since the beginning of the year and a projected 15 in the next few months, John Edwards tells us why the recession is good for his business, and why there’s no better place to call home than North East England if you’re in bed with big pharma.
Lacking today’s integration in supply chain management, the explosion of ideas and regulations in big pharma in the 1980s made it difficult for suppliers to meet customer needs. With a background in process packaging, Edwards’ Analytical founder David Edwards quickly realised there was a niche for an intermediate testing consultancy between packing suppliers and manufactures in the packaging and materials industry.
In the 24 years since, Edwards’ Analytical has steered its clients through the hazardous and potentially destructive maze of compliance. It’s also carefully watched the industry grow and morph, cleverly adapting itself to its changing needs. The last 18 months, however, have been a whirlwind of diversification and expansion that’s created a renewed excitement within the original team. And there’s more to come. Says John, David’s son, and partner and director, ‘Since our latest expansion drive we now offer microbial activity testing around packing. With the installation of a new microbial lab we can test the raw materials themselves, not just the bottles and packaging they come in. We check the interaction of the product on the packaging, and the other way around.’
Ironically, Edwards’ Analytical is enjoying growth because of – rather than despite – the recession.
We’re doing well because companies are cutting back and consolidating, choosing to outsource instead. That’s good for us. Companies use us because we’re more cost effective than expanding or doing it themselves. Also, the structure of our business has become more integrated. We were spurred into asking what our potential markets really need – and we found out: instead of knee jerk problem testing, we now carry out routine analysis of packaging. There’s always a 1% failure rate that occurs in packaging, which costs companies dearly. By checking this in advance, we can proactively save our clients money.”
A large part of their current business – around 50% – is Extractables and Leachables – identifying what materials or ingredients within packaging are toxic to the human body and finding replacements for them. This has led to a focus on R&D, not only in alternative packaging, but also transportation.
Yet, while recent growth has been in technical competence, John has targeted sales and marketing as the next vital area of development. ‘We’re now at the stage that we need to focus resources on selling and marketing ourselves within the industry. That’s something we’ve never done before – previously we’ve relied almost exclusively on customer referral and our accreditation.’
But he is quick to stress that despite their remarkable growth, theirs remains a small business, with all the personal attention that that offers. ‘We deal with our clients directly and allocate them a specific project leader. This single point of contact, with great service and rapid response from start to finish, is something that large companies with call centres can’t offer. It’s this 1:1 service that I’m most proud of,’ John admits. It’s the trademark of SMEs to be able to tailor and morph themselves to a client’s needs. And on top of that Edwards’ Analytical is home grown. Despite the world shrinking, more and more companies are turning to locally made created products and services – everything from fashion to McDonalds are doing it.
Which is why John is convinced that for those in big pharma, ‘there’s no place better to be in the world at the moment. That’s starkly obvious.’ The NE has the largest concentration of pharma and their suppliers of raw materials, plus packaging manufacturers. It’s a globally, not just nationally, central location for pharma, and with all the joys of modern technology samples are ‘Fedexed’ in from China in 36 hours or Columbia in 48 hours.
It’s not all rosy, though. As is common with many SME companies, one thing is ‘sadly missing’ – cash. John sites cash flow repeatedly as the primary barrier to small and medium companies’ ability to sustain themselves, or to grow or expand into new areas. While representative organisations such as NEPIC and CELS are doing ‘a fantastic job’, according to John, and they have a broad remit, there is no money for small or low level capital investment in SME companies such as Edwards’ Analytical.
Ask John what the biggest risk his company is exposed to as an SME and he’ll tell you cash flow. And the biggest challenges? Cash flow – oh, and being unable to meet directly with department heads. ‘They make the call on which service providers make it on to the Holy Grail that is the preferred suppliers list, but they’re notorious for failing to attend exhibitions and conferences to press the flesh.’ This is his personal bugbear.
Ironically, cash injections seem to be more readily available to large organisations whose need is in excess of £1 million. ‘Small companies like ours are desperate for 100% funding capital investment and grants. I don’t need consultants to tell me how to run my business, which is what I’m offered when I apply for funding. I know what my clients want and have already proven that – what I need now is the money to make it happen.’