Roland Carter, managing director of Smiths Connectors, talks to Steve Rogerson in our series of interviews for CIEonline. Carter is the managing director of Smiths Connectors, part of the Smiths Group and a supplier of interconnect products extending from integrated assemblies to micro-miniature connectors and spring probe contacts.
He has more than twenty years of experience in the Smiths Group, including over a decade of executive management roles. He has previously worked in Germany, France, Slovenia and the USA and speaks the languages with varying degrees of proficiency.
Since 2004, he has led the connectors business in the Smiths interconnect division, driving the shift from a group of individual connector companies to the current Smiths Connectors entity.
A chartered engineer with degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering, his main interest is in connectors and interconnect devices. He lives and is based in London. Carter has been a keen horse rider and he currently has a vintage wooden sailing boat and a vintage Land Rover. Both are over sixty years old and more often to be seen in parts than on the sea or on the road.
1. How easy is it for a western company to build a footprint in Asia?
It is very difficult for companies to build a footprint anywhere. When you have a value proposition with high reliability and a brand reputation such as us, it is still hard to set up anywhere. You have to learn from your experiences in other markets in how to understand the voice of the customer. That is why we have the same model everywhere in challenging the customer to get a better understanding of their needs. We have to get the technical support right.
We have quite a strong Asian presence and it is our fastest growing market and we have done a lot to ensure we have the right footprint in Asia. Customers can have their orders processed in Asia. We have people who can talk the local language. We have offices in Singapore and we have a factory in China with engineers there to service that market. We have been very fortunate that our value proposition is as good in Asia as it is in Europe and North America. That is the way we can be successful.
2. What challenges do the introduction of new standards bring to the connector industry?
Standards are interesting for the connector industry. They are valuable because they allow us to reach a broad range of customers with a common need. But we always find a niche within a standard. There are always particular parts where the standard doesn’t actually match what they need. The footprint is there but sometimes they find the most common products fail and we can get in. We have found people who have had failures with VPX products and we address the issues where the customer is having problems with, say, reliability, speed or other features.
Standards help the whole industry move forwards but for us we don’t want to compete with the commodity areas but where people need to push it to the edge of the envelope.
3. When managing a global entity, do you have to make allowances for local cultures?
Yes, we do make allowances. We have to be local with dealing with the customer, and that comes at a cost to ourselves. There are aspects where globalisation works – the engineering is controlled globally – but the customers are coming from different areas. There are obviously common themes, but the reactions and intimacy have to be within the customers’ regions. That is why we have different organisations – we couldn’t run everything from London.
Even North America needs localisation to understand the designs and markets; we have four major sites in the USA. We have a presence in different parts of Europe. In Asia there are differences between China and Taiwan. And Japan is a very different market culturally.
We need to be close to the customers in North America where many of the semiconductor design decisions are made. We need to make sure we understand the design considerations there. That is why we have design engineers in northern California so we can be on their shop floors working with them. We are there day in, day out as they bring their production up. But when that transfers to Asia with full production, we have to be there too. Then they are talking about things like yields. There is a difference in the level and type of support you need.
The other aspect is turnaround time. The speed the Japanese customers expect us to work at is much faster than it is in Europe. They expect us to react faster to their questions.
There are often differences in requirements across the different markets, such as, say, defence because of the length of procurement compared with, say, medical where the timescales and needs are different.
Even though English is common in most organisations, to bring out the nuances you need people who can speak the local language.
4. How often do you take your wooden sailing boat out and where do you go?
Very, very infrequently. I go sailing in the Channel. I haven’t had it out at all this year, because I have been working on it. I work on it more than I sail on it. It is a labour of love. It is well over half a century old and it needs a lot of care. I will probably go out in it next year but I have a lot more work to do on it over the winter.
5. This is the first time you’ve been interviewed by a journalist, how do you think it went?
l don’t know, I was going to ask you. As with all things, the proof is in the pudding. I am used to not having instantaneous feedback or results. And I am sure I can improve with practice.