Staying positive: Interview with Paul Cooke

Written by: Paul Fanning | Published:

There is no shortage of people at the moment eager to tell you that the economic downturn that has afflicted the economy over the last 18 months was inevitable and that they saw it coming. However, not many can claim to have been planning for it a year before it happened.

One company that can is drive and control specialist Bosch Rexroth. Says Paul Cooke, UK managing director: "We launched our downturn strategy in late 2007. We deal very actively with the mobile construction sector, which was hit very early. So we saw a decline early on and were able to react accordingly."
The form this strategy has taken has been simple, but effective. Says Cooke: "We're no different to our customers, so we look to provide the same things we need. We need reliable suppliers. We have to make sure that we improve our efficiencies and we have to make sure we reduce our costs because we've got less volume coming through. "And we have to focus on innovation because, if we really want to come out stronger, we have to have better products and to get ahead." Innovation has certainly been a key plank of the company's strategy. "The best companies are keeping their foot on the pedal," says Cooke.

"For instance, globally, we've spent as much on R&D in 2009 as we did in 2008 and 2007, which is 4.5% of our turnover. It's essential to do that if you're a technology-led organisation." Bosch Rexroth has not emerged unscathed, of course. "Like many companies, the growth track we were on has been interrupted. However, I would say that the downturn has thrown up opportunities," says Cooke. This is borne out by the fact that the company has grown its market share over the last 18 months, attracting more than 300 new customers in 2009. Key to this success has been Cooke's desire to change the company's approach to its customers. Since becoming managing director following Rexroth's acquisition by Bosch in 2001, he has implemented a number of strategic changes, the most important of which has been a greater emphasis on working more closely with its customers.

He says of this approach: "I think the UK manufacturing market has been a challenge over the last few years – even before the recession – and I'm very proud of our record in that period as we've managed to grow our business significantly in a difficult environment. "We've done that by adapting our business to offer the value-added services and the ability to offer complete solutions in a variety of projects. So we've really biased our business towards engineering and very importantly towards the after-sales service."

This change has taken a number of forms. For example, in 2006, the company set up service centres in South Wales, the Republic of Ireland and Bradford, complementing existing partner companies. Says Cooke: "We've had to get closer to customers. Most customers don't just want to talk about products, they want to look at the benefits of what we can do for them. I always say it's not just about great products, it's about great people. We've got to have both to be successful." The availability of such people, however, is something that worries Cooke. "There is a skills gap," he says. However, he is clear about the role industry has to play in overcoming this shortfall, saying: "Business leaders spend a lot of time talking about the role of the government, but industry itself has an equally, if not more important, role in attracting these people into our industry.

"We have to be really positive about the role we have to play. We have got challenges, but let's be really positive about engineering." Cooke and his company practise what they preach in this respect. The company operates graduate schemes, supports a variety of awards for young engineers and invites young people to its headquarters to get a feel for engineering. "I am passionate about it," says Cooke. "Too often, young people see engineering as being all about grease and spanners, but in reality it's about engineering our future.

"You've got to make simple points. For instance, we say to them that, here at Bosch Rexroth, we make the London Eye go round, we make Tower Bridge go up and down, and we're involved in ocean energy projects for the future of efficient energy. That's our technology, that's what we do." Looking ahead, Cooke is generally positive, saying: "The downturn has maybe acted as a catalyst to make people realise that we do need manufacturing. I'm optimistic about the future."

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