‘We’re independent, trusted and still have so many things to do.’ A spotlight on Adam Darling.
Since founding aae technologies in 1989 after spotting a gap in the subsea beacon market, our Group Chairman and Managing Director has seen the company steadily evolve from a one-man operation into a growing team of experts where everyone makes an important contribution.
Adam strikes the perfect managerial balance – overseeing all aspects of the business while trusting all staff, specialists and managers to meet the needs of our clients. And, if there’s ever an issue, everyone at aae knows they can come to Adam for advice and solutions. We caught Adam at the start of the week to get his insights into the early days of aae and how he sees the firm developing.
How would you describe your role at aae technologies?
I started the business as an engineer many years ago and I supposed it’s a shame I don’t get to do any engineering any more! It’s just one of those things where you progress away from where you started, so now I sit at a desk rather than a workbench, and piece together plans rather than equipment.
What was your vision for aae when you started in 1989?
I felt there was a gap in the market for a particular product and I’d had it in mind for a while to start my own business. The opportunity arose and so I went for it in Spring 1989. As I didn’t have children at the time, I could focus on the work and setting things up.
The first year was particularly difficult as I was still developing the products I needed to sell, but some anticipated work fell through, so I was stuck in a goat shed trying to do the best I could. When the product was ready in 1990 and I started to get sales, things began to get a lot better.
What was the first piece of equipment you marketed?
The gap in the market was for a small, high-powered transponder for positioning purposes. At the time, you either had smaller products that were very limited in range and depth, or huge expensive things that were just way overboard for what people needed them for. So, the whole idea was to create something compact and powerful.
I launched those and they started to sell reasonably well – although not immediately, of course. The whole method of marketing in 1990 was very different to marketing today. Old fashioned adverts in trade magazines with reference numbers and ‘bingo cards’ where prospects could circle the ad number and post it pack to the publishers, who would then send that enquiry back to the advertiser.
Otherwise, I started picking up the phone and calling people. Obviously, as I’d worked in the industry for a number of years, I knew a few people and initial customers were those I’d built up a relationship with.
What was your background prior to starting aae?
When I left school I worked for my father’s marine survey company, Gardline, for a year before going back to college to study an HND in electronics, which I had always enjoyed as a hobby. After that, I had a couple of short jobs before going to work at Ferranti ORE, now GeoAcoustics, for five years as a workshop engineer before setting up by myself in 1989.
How has your role changed since those early days?
Quite significantly! When I started I was doing everything – sweeping the floor, making the tea and typing the invoices, as well as building the product. Which gives you a good grounding as the business grows, as you have that experience in all the various necessary roles.
Now, I have people doing those things as part of their duties in the business. I think everybody in the company has a unique and important role to play, because if any part of the business process is missing – from typing invoices to repetitive workshop tasks or getting goods out of the door – we don’t get paid. So everyone is important. Everyone has a role to play. And if anyone has a problem, they can come and knock on the door and speak to me, and I’m not going to turn them away. As far as I’m concerned, we are very much a team, all playing to our individual strengths, skills and abilities.
Originally, I was designing the product, building it, ordering the parts, putting it together and so on. Then my first employee (incidentally still with us) joined as a technician. So my work role changed – I’ve become less important to the production process as the company’s grown and I’ve learned to delegate. I do lead, but give the managers a fair amount of autonomy. The last thing you need is an owner-manager overseeing everything down to the number of bottles of milk ordered.
What’s been your biggest highlight?
I think the fact that we’re still an independent, owner-managed business. So many firms have been swallowed up by larger organisations, but we’re still going and still profitable. That might not sound very dramatic or exciting, but it’s significant. Having the same ownership over thirty-plus years is quite unusual.
A lot of firms get bought out or taken over, often because an owner-manager gets to a certain age and they want to sell up and retire. I’m not ready for that yet – there are still lots of interesting things we can do, and I’d like the business to continue in a similar vein. Perhaps it’s because I started the business when I was 28 rather than in my forties, I still have this level of interest and energy for the company.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Our biggest current challenge right now is keeping up with demand for certain products. This is usually a nice problem to have, but it happens to coincide with difficulties in obtaining some components. We’ve seen a tenfold increase in the price of some parts, and there are delays in getting others. Sadly, this is a worldwide problem and we expect it to continue for some time.
However, the new facility we’ve just taken on and our newly recruited staff will help us increase production, and our purchasing team are working hard to get supplies in. Fortunately, we generally operate with a high level of stock, which has given us a healthy buffer against shortages. Despite the problems, we have still been able to satisfy orders and will continue to do our damnedest to keep it that way.
“We’ve secured our position in the industry for the quality and reliability of our equipment, and also our integrity as a business in how we deal with customer service.”
Was there a defining moment for aae, when you saw a big change?
Two, in particular, come to mind. The first is when we got to about 16-18 people, which coincided with an office move. The social dynamic changed quite a lot and I found that I needed to have managers to deal with things because there’s a limit to how much you can handle at any one time.
The second was when we launched our first USBL positioning system in 2004, which was something that changed our business and people’s perceptions of us. A lot of customers had said, ‘when are you going to come up with a USBL system?’ And when it happened, it established us as a serious player in the industry.
What was most encouraging was how people looked at it but didn’t need to ask if it worked. They said, because it’s us, they knew it would. It was great to know we had that reputation, and our products and our company could be trusted.
On the back of that product, we’ve developed continually and now have a wide range of USBL systems in all market segments. We’ve secured our position in the industry for the quality and reliability of our equipment and also our integrity as a business in how we deal with customer service – ‘the customer is king’ is very much our philosophy.
Do you think technology has evolved in your favour, or made things more complicated?
Products are a lot more complicated than they used to be, definitely. But then you have to embrace new technology and look forwards.
New technology does facilitate new features and new capabilities, but everything is a lot more complex. I don’t think I would be able to start the business now if I was a 28-year-old because the products are far too complex for one person to design and make. The timing in 1989 was good for me in terms of technical knowledge – I could design and build products single-handedly – but there are very few people who would be able to do that now, as well as having the understanding of the market and the skills to get on the phone and sell them.
Very few things can be hand-soldered and made on a workbench anymore – components have got so small, you have to send them away to be made by a machine. This kind of delay is not very helpful when you’re young and hungry and have to wait for ages for a circuit board to come back, but that’s how things are nowadays in general.
What are you excited about for the future?
Firstly, the launch of our latest USBL system, Pyxis. It combines our expertise in subsea acoustics with an advanced inertial navigation system (INS), making it our most sophisticated system yet.
Secondly, as mentioned, we’ve also just taken on new premises to expand our production capacity to cope with demand. Our current workshop is full, so we’re moving things into the new place right now and looking forward to increased production next year as a result.
And finally, I’m feeling very positive about how a lot of what we do is going into service in the renewables sector instead of oil or gas. The number of sea-based wind farms going up around the world is ever-increasing, and our technology is being used to analyse the structure of the sea bed before the monopiles go in. We can’t say we’re saving the planet, but we’re fortunate the technology we have translates into that market and helps the energy industry go in the right direction.