Sam Sherwood-Hale spoke to Scott Harrison, Managing Director at Aquarius & Permaquip about the partnership between Aquarius and Permaquip, aligning company cultures, and new training techniques
You’re coming up on two years as Chief Operating Officer at Permaquip, how has the experience been so far?
With over 27 years of designing, procuring, using, maintaining, and refurbishing Permaquip equipment over the course of my career, I have to say it was fairly seamless when I joined the Permaquip team! I knew the equipment so well, and the team were really welcoming, so it was a real pleasure!
You worked with Permaquip during your time at Network Rail, how has the company developed since your time working with them ten years ago?
One of the great consistencies of Permaquip has been that the product quality has always remained high, and the behind-the-scenes investment in engineering services and MRP systems have definitely helped keep the design and manufacturing capability at the cutting edge. It’s easy to get complacent in an industry like rail, and I’m proud to say that in all the time I have been working with Permaquip products, both as a user and now as a team member, there is no letting the grass grow under our feet! There are a number of new products to launch in 2022 and beyond, and I’m excited to see them come to the market.
You’re also approaching one year as Managing Director at Aquarius Railroad Technologies following on from Permaquip’s acquisition of the company last year. You said at the time your plan was to retain the talent and experience within the business and listen to feedback from customers about where they need you to help them. How has this first year gone in terms of working towards
In 1998 I met with James Platt in Bristol, Keynsham actually where he had dropped in to borrow a range of tools to fix his first Landrover that was on hire to Amey. From that day the Aquarius products played a key part of my working life. This allowed me to understand the products and brand and what was needed to build on past successes.
In business there is always an element of staff churn, Aquarius being no exception – we are delighted that the majority of the team chose to stay with us for the next stage of the Aquarius journey and are grateful for the huge experience that they bring to the table every single day. There’s an incredible amount of product and industry knowledge within the Aquarius team, and that is
something we are always keen to build on and support.
Our plan from the start was to bolster staff numbers, we have supported this with the appointment of team leaders Julia Fryer in sales and marketing, and Mark Robinson in engineering design and support services. In Permaquip we have also appointed five new staff to support the new production facility, who also support the Aquarius team.
As we move forwards into 2022, following feedback from existing customers, we will roll out our strategic plan for the launch of new products and services.
What do you see as some of the cornerstones of what has made Aquarius such a success?
The continual development of a Road 2 Rail offering that meets market requirements is definitely the key to Aquarius’ ongoing success. The ability to seamlessly transport the vehicle, trailer, goods, tools and personnel from a depot to the worksite in one seamless operation provides a standalone unique offering in the UK.
That said, having some great designs and products to support this helps, and Aquarius is the industry leader in the provision of vehicles and trailers up to 3.5t in the global market.
How has the partnership faired, has it been a sort of ‘greater than the sum of its parts’ relationship?
I believe that every successful relationship should be greater than the sum of its parts, shouldn’t it?
Permaquip and Aquarius are natural bed fellows. Our joint facilities are now located together, which has allowed our efficiencies to increase, and our teams are now both aligned to a four-day working week – something which research has shown provides no drop in productivity, but delivers a significant boost to employee morale, something which in today’s turbulent world, we are keen to ensure! I think we can all agree that if the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that ensuring every person within an organisation has a good work-life balance, it’s as important as any corporate decision.
The next stage of our joint partnership is delivering the recent awards we have secured. There’s plenty to keep everyone busy, but I’m confident that the teams that we have in place will deliver over and above!
What does ‘seamless partnering’ mean to you?
This works both up and down the supply chain, with the customer, and with internal teams. Seamless partnering will fall apart if there’s not a perfect blend between these three elements. In order for it to work, there can be no gaps, no breaks in progress, and a bump-free operation has to be delivered from start to finish, over the full life cycle of the product.
In truth, although we source our materials within the UK it’s been near impossible during a worldwide pandemic and now as we face a significant international conflict to maintain seamless partnering in a real life context. However, I believe the important part is good, honest communication up and down the chain – everyone is in the same boat with the challenges we are facing and I hope everyone we work with understands that we will always pull out every stop to deliver safely and on time.
Bringing together the Permaquip and Aquarius supply chains allows us to reduce risk, build a more robust supply chain, all with the goal of providing just in time materials and services to support the customer’s end demands and needs.
What sort of challenges have you faced so far?
With both Permaquip and Aquarius the challenge has been the pure volume of new customers and opportunities to supply globally. Which is a terrible problem to have, I’m sure you’ll agree!
What are some techniques you’ve employed for aligning the different company cultures?
In relocating Permaquip to Aquarius we had the opportunity to standardise on one operating structure for staff, a four-day working week and a ‘one’ team attitude in employment, training, and appraisals. I have been open and honest with every member of both teams, whether incoming, outgoing or remaining. There have been stressful times, of course – moving a factory 200 miles up the road over a cold Christmas is never going to be entirely plain sailing, and there have been some moments where we’ve all been stood in the snow in Ripon, scratching our heads and laughing at a ball we’ve dropped, but you have to turn these hiccups into opportunities for pulling together. There’s no benefit in pointing fingers and apportioning blame, we’re one team and all in it together.
Add to this investment into sales and customer support CRM systems, enhanced manufacturing systems via CIM50 and one single process flow for staff to work to all allows for a clearer understanding of what we do and how we service our customers better.
The acquisition allowed for additional facilities to be made available to Permaquip, how have you made use of these new facilities?
Training, testing and development have been the main areas of our activity.
Product familiarisation and training are key to internal quality and understanding as well as to helping customers reduce damage and repair costs whilst getting the best out of the equipment that they can. Our Aquarius test track is ideal for Permaquip products to be familiarised on and our internal training workshop area has been completed in February. Our final stage will be the fitment of the IT to the existing training room, bringing classroom, workshop and trackside training all into one offering.
So far the training area has been used internally to support the development of the new battery power pack, lightweight stressor and existing stressor upgrade kits, our new rail trolley and iron man products. Allowing hundreds of hours to be clocked up in on-track use, all pre-proving Permaquip products.
Permaquip’s relocation has also given you access to a dedicated test and exhibition area: including an on-site test track. The move was recent, but have you had a chance to take advantage of the test track?
We have used the test area quite extensively with the development work on our stressing equipment. We have hosted a number of end-user product familiarisation and test days to gain feedback on our product modifications, we have also held a number of contract review meetings for new products.
To date, all the feedback has been positive, which is all to the credit of the Permaquip and Aquarius staff who arrange and run the event days on-site!
In terms of training, how have you adapted to the new environment?
With 50 years of industry supply in Permaquip and 25 years in Aquarius, both companies have some great processes. The first stage was to review the processes and look for where improvements could be cross implemented, quick wins, simple and effective.
All of Permaquip and Aquarius products are covered by detailed build plans that are then supported by RPA assessments and LOLER training for all staff. Refreshing the new team with the required training was as simple as following the procedure!
There have been some changes, we have promoted to staff the importance of carbon reduction, how we reuse or recycle certain materials. The change of location has allowed us to reset what we feel is important to the planet as well as to what is important to our business.
Looking ahead to the upcoming structural changes in the rail industry, what plans do you have in place to continue your role in working with the major players in the UK’s rail sector – both at the regulatory level and elsewhere in the supply chain?
The commitment from myself, Permaquip and Aquarius is to make sure a reputation of quality service and products are continued into the future.
In the months since acquiring Aquarius we have made considerable steps forward, especially in aligning with our customers.
We have a full vehicle and trailer build order book out to September 2023 and our hire fleet is pretty much booked out for UK and overseas work. On the Permaquip side we have a contract order book of around the same period, plus an expanding product line that will drive safety, improved ergonomics, lower whole life cost and long-term refurbishment cost to our customers. These contracted orders will allow us to work with key organisations during the industry structural changes.
Personally, driving safety, innovation, development, and reduced carbon-producing products into rail and highways are key for me. At regulatory level this driver will enable us all to bring change to the industry by supply chain alignment. For any suppliers who believe they have products or services that could be introduced to rail or highways, I hold a monthly roundtable to assess and review.
Without continual new innovation, we will never get to where we need to be. I am proud to work in an industry where there is always an exciting new innovation waiting at the next stop, and am always happy to work with and between suppliers who have a product and a passion for change!
Scott Harrison, Managing Director at Aquarius & Permaquip