Howard Venning, managing director of Aspen Electronics, talks to Steve Rogerson in our series of interviews for CIEonline. Venning joined Aspen Electronics in 1981 having spent five years at Cossor Electronics (now Raytheon Systems) as a quality engineer. At Aspen, he started as a sales engineer, taking on various sales and management roles before becoming managing director in 1997. He attended Cranfield University’s business growth programme in 2000 before taking ownership of Aspen Electronics in 2005. A year later, he acquired Admiral Microwaves.
His hobbies and interests include classic cars, music and cycling, taking part in a number of competitive events including mountain biking, time trials and the Brompton World Championships, with 2013 being the fifth time at the event.
1. What changes have you seen in the procurement process?
The most dramatic change is the move away from a really knowledgeable set of buyers who occupied various positions within the purchase departments in defence companies and large manufacturers. You would meet the semiconductor buyer, the passive buyer and so on, and they were really experienced people who knew the technology and often knew the market better than you. It was a slick operation.
What has happened is that large organisations have cut procurement down to the bone or subcontracted it out. They have lost the skill set.
The people there now who are willing to work with you benefit from our knowledge. We have become the knowledge base. Sometimes, you get engineers calling and you can thrash out a spec with them. But then it goes to the procurement department and sometimes you find these people who are tasked with buying the product are mainly interested in how much discount they can get. They are not interested in building a relationship. They are driven by accountants.
2. Has the growth of social media such as Facebook and Twitter affected how customers relate with suppliers?
Yes. From what we have seen, more younger people are coming into the industry. The way they communicate is via social media. They are not necessarily as able or willing to form relationships as previous generations. Their attention spans are often less. If your message is longer than three minutes, they switch off.
If you have people spending less time studying to any depth, they are never going to be proficient and will have to rely on others. If you are only interacting with them through social media, then it will be difficult.
In our industry, people are researching very specific technical problems by using the internet, but this is like trying to find a needle in an ever-expanding haystack. Earlier this week, a guy said he’d spent half the morning on the web looking for a specific set of components and in the end picked up the phone and asked us. There are people who request components that don’t actually exist and they can spend a lot of time on the internet looking for them.
3. Why did you attend Cranfield University’s business growth programme in 2000 and what did you get out of it?
I knew that if I was going to take over the company and succeed taking it forward, I would need additional training. I did have training in electronics engineering and business studies, but I needed more training to do this properly. I’m glad I found this course. It was every other weekend for three months. There were fifty managing directors and we went to learn what you need to do to run a small business from start to finish. The fact that I was working with fifty other managing directors was incredibly useful for bouncing ideas of each other. Cranfield is still doing the course and it is very useful. One of the experts on The Apprentice was on the course. It was very, very useful.
4. Is competing or keeping fit the most important element to you when it comes to cycling?
Taking part is important, but I like it because it keeps me fit. They touched on that in the Cranfield course. If you run a business, you need to know how to cope with the stress and have a strategy to deal with it; my strategy is riding a bike. I am a good twenty to thirty years older than a lot of people I am competing against, but it doesn’t stop me competing. I like the competitive element. You have to push yourself, whether in business or on two wheels.
5. How can UK electronics manufacturing compete with China and the rest of the Far East?
Easily. My own view is I think China is on a hiding to nothing. There are a lot of people presenting China as a country that will overtake the USA. I have been there and I can see them going into recession the same way Japan did but much quicker.
The UK has a stability and a heritage of being in business. We have seen recessions and know how to deal with them. UK design engineers are some of the brightest, innovative guys when it comes to inventing new products. We have a lot of people who are very clever when it comes to developing world-class products. I think we will always do better than China.
China is doing a lot of similar things to what happened in Japan, where they inflated property prices. Japan speculators invested a lot in office blocks and China is doing that with whole cities and towns. There are more than a million millionaires in China but more than half of them want to leave China and that is not a good recipe for sustained growth.