Real Business Story: Tharsus

In line with the North East Local Enterprise Partnerships’ Strategic Economic Plan to deliver more and better jobs for the North East, we spoke with Tharsus Chief Technical Officer Dave Swan, about their journey of becoming an innovative, high-quality product development and contract-manufacturing partner. 

Sum up your business story so far in the time it takes to order a pint.

The business started in the mid-60s by two gentlemen who won the Pools! It was founded as a sheet metal fabricating firm, and saw success in the telecoms market, taking automotive-style logistics models like ‘just in time’ into the telecommunications market.

About ten years ago, a new owner got itchy feet and moved into finished products – part working in defence, and part working in billboard advertising. Tharsus Vision was born here, making outdoor advertising units, until the financial crisis.

Out of the fire, as it were, came the business we are now – a sub-contract design and manufacturing firm, making machinery for other people. We work with our clients to help bring their ideas, and their market domination, to the real world by doing the design, supply chain and manufacture for them. And it’s all done in the North East.

And how would you describe the business today?

About four years ago, we started getting into robotics and increasingly complex electromechanical solutions.

The North East is the UK hub for commercial robotics – between Tharsus and one other firm we make the clear majority of robotics in the UK.

For us, it’s not a sector, it’s a technology approach. What we’re interested in is the end users, and the commerciality of a problem. We help people who have a business problem to solve, where they can take the product to the market and be successful. And robotics is a field where people come to us.

Our main contract is the Ocado robot. We have developed and now manufacture all the material handling robots that they use in their state of the art home shopping fulfilment warehouses, and that was our first move into robotics.

They’re a great company; we work really well with them. They had a clear view of what the problem was, and they had the appetite and the ambition to solve it, and we helped bring that to life. Their first warehouse in Andover will have 1000 robots later this year and their next site in London will be three-times the size.  It’s a global product, being sold in the UK but also in France and Canada.

What makes your business really unique?

Nothing we make is ours. Everything we make is someone else’s. We build long term partnerships with our clients; 4, 5, 10-year manufacturing partnerships. We’re the exclusive designer and manufacturer of the products, our customers buy from us and we guarantee not to sell that product to anybody else.

They rely on us to bring the idea to life with design and manufacture; we rely on them for the market understanding and the passion and energy to sell it!

Good people are good at what they’re good at, so go and ask them to do it. We know what we are, and we know what we are not, and so we partner with people who can bring strengths that we don’t have – and respect the strengths that we do have.

All of our focus is on the commercialisation of that idea. We have a design function who create the thing we then make, we don’t just make designs, our purpose is to manufacture. For us, the true essence is the combination of design and manufacture in the same place, so the designers are held to account by someone who’s making it, and the people making it can really understand what’s special about what they’re making.

Who owns the intellectual property for your work?

By default, all of the intellectual property belongs to our customers. Although we create a lot of IP – usually supporting or integration IP – and we have quite a few patents to our name, and we’re the co-inventor, they all belong to our customers.

As part of that relationship, the only thing we reserve the right to do is to reuse that in non-competing applications, which gives our customers complete confidence, but means that we don’t compete with ourselves, so we can use it on different types of solution.

We’re not toy collectors; we don’t collect capital equipment or capabilities, because we want the ability to make the right decisions for the product, and if we had those capabilities it would lead the design process.

Where are you based and why does it work for your business?

Within the group, we have three factories in Blyth. We’ve also got satellite offices in Cambridge and in Durham in NetPark. Those are facilities that allow us to broaden our reach for customer support, and for recruitment. But our primary operations are done in Blyth in the North East.

What skill sets do you need in your business, and how easy is it to find them, or train people into them?

We have a really flexible workforce. Yes, we have high skills, but actually it’s more about attitude than skills. We don’t have heavy industry and heavy manufacturing processes, the work within the assembly hall is true assembly work.

Because we’re a batch manufacturer of all kinds of different things – vending machines, robots, x-ray scanners, rally cars, all going through the shop floor at the same time… our teams need to be flexible, comfortable with change and always driving improvements, but not on the same product.

We are always looking for flexible staff who are comfortable with change, and we have lots of highly skilled people in the technical roles but also in the broad aspects of the business.

The business actually started in Hebburn in the 60s, and it wasn’t until the mid-00s that we even considered Blyth. Within ten years we pulled out of Hebburn, as the town developed around us, and that’s now been regenerated.

Northumberland is a really good place for manufacturing operations. There’s a great pool of people to employ from. There’s a flexibility and a keenness to do ‘proper jobs’ and we’re a ‘proper job’!

We’re far enough away from the automotive world, both in geography and approach, that we don’t compete with places like Nissan for these staff.

What are the biggest hurdles you’ve had to overcome on your way to establishing a successful business in the North East?

Challenges for us are twofold; we’re really proud of being part of the North East, but sometimes we can feel a little parochial about being here and we have to raise our eyes to look at the rest of the country and the rest of the world.

Secondly, we do spend quite a lot of time convincing people from London and the South East to come to the North East! It’s a milestone for us when we get potential clients to come and see us. Our American customers don’t understand what the fuss is about, because a four-hour drive is nothing to them!

How easy have you found it to access business support and what do you think has had the most impact on your plans for growth so far?

Since the beginning we’ve always been comfortable with reaching out for help. We’re proud of what we are, but we know lots of other people have other experience, and we’d rather learn from them than make their mistakes over again.

We wrap support around us. We’re active members of groups like the Entrepreneurs Forum, and wherever there’s support around we lean on it, and we show other people what we’re doing as well. We’ve not done much of the more traditional business improvement activity, because we’re largely ex-automotive so we have a lot of background in these areas, but we reach out quite aggressively for support with strategy, marketing, business culture, approach, the broader kind of support.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started out?

We’re fundamentally a product development company; we develop the things we’re going to make. Through trial and error, we really understand how to do that. And if I’d known the importance of working out why you’re doing what you’re doing, instead of just cracking straight in, that’s the thing I’d tell myself.

We focused on pretty renders, but we should have looked at what success looked like, and what the fastest way was of getting there. The most effective way of working out what you don’t know is to try it, but you need to know why you’re doing it. Get absolute clarity about what it is, why you’re doing it, what you need to deliver. And get on with it!

What advice would you give to others in the North East that are looking to start their own business?

Continuously challenging yourself. Who else is doing this better than you? Be proud of who you are but be confident there are other people out there who can help you, and don’t be afraid to ask. There’s never a wasted conversation. Even if it doesn’t lead you to somewhere that time, I’m a big believer in serendipity, so just expose yourself to things that other people are doing and keep trying to improve.

We are incredibly self-critical. We know that things could be so much better than they are, and that’s what drives us.

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