BATTLESPACE Editor Julian Nettlefold visited SC Group, which comprises Supacat, at its Headquarters in Dunkeswell, Devon, UK to meet Chief Executive Nick Ames a candidate for BATTLESPACE Businessman of the Year 2016.
“I was working for Serco when I received a call from my father’s first cousin David Clayton who had started Supacat with Nick Jones in the 1980s. Sadly David was very ill and he and Nick needed some support in the Business Administration whilst they focused on the engineering.” Nick Ames said.
“Did you have the background to manage a specialist vehicle engineering business?”
“My CV did not include vehicle engineering but I was a qualified accountant and my time at Serco taught me about project Management and I had the required academic qualifications from Eton and Cambridge to manage the rigors of managing a business. I was also schooled in teamwork having rowed at school and Cambridge where I was in the eight; rowing teaches you about strength, endurance and teamwork!”
“You arrived at Supacat in September 2003 at a time when the Company was facing a number of challenges, how did you cope with these challenges?”
“By its very nature vehicle engineering is a challenging business with a large amount of capital required to develop and refine the vehicles followed by a large marketing budget to sell the vehicle overseas. Niche vehicle engineering has its obvious challenges in that numbers sold are small, thus the capital pay off time is longer than in the large automotive companies. Add in the lumpy nature of defence and the long-term assessment phase and you have to manage your resources very carefully to avoid running out of money! That is what I was faced with when I arrived at Supacat. The HMT vehicle had been developed to a point where we had made an MoD sale of 60 vehicles in 2001 and some overseas, but it required refinement and further development to take it to the next level and to sustain the business.”
“How did you tackle these challenges?”
“I was lucky that Nick and David had created an excellent team around them, and my role was to work with the team to help win profitable work, refinance the business and allow us enough free cashflow to continue to invest in the HMT programme. We refined our relationship with the original HMT shareholders and assisted the transition to the new owners of HMT vehicles limited, Lockheed Martin.”
History of Supacat
Before we go to the next stage of the interview its worth taking a look at Supacat and its origins. The Editor has been privileged to be involved with Supacat and its investors since the very early days of the Company and has thus followed the ups and downs and successes at close hand. Of course every visit to Supacat always gave the opportunity for the Editor to test drive the latest product on the Test Track of which more later.
Supacat was formed by Nick Jones and David Clayton in 1980 following a need seen for an all-terrain vehicle to transverse rough and boggy terrain following experience by the British Army during the Falkland’s crisis. The UK MoD initiated the Jura All Terrain Mobile Platform (ATMP) Trials in 1983 which ironically coincide with the Editor’s arrival at Defence Magazine in Eton High Street as a military vehicle specialist. His first article was on the ATMP trials which Supacat, Land Rover, Bog Cog, Alvis and saboteur attended. The Editor was lucky enough to have an inside track to the trials as he knew Angus Hamilton an investor in Supacat and HMT vehicles!
The Supacat ATMP is a lightweight 6 wheeled drive rough terrain vehicle which exerts low ground pressure enabling it to traverse over steep ground. The vehicle can carry up to 1.6 tonnes payload, 2.4 tonnes of drawbar pull and weighs just under 2000 kg unladen. Maximum Highway speed for the MK III variant is 40 mph with front four wheel steering and also skid steering. The vehicle is able to float, fitted with inboard bilge pumps as standard and is normally propelled with the benefit of an outboard motor fitted to the rear tailgate of the vehicle.
The Supacat ATMP came out well in the trials and was soon selected by the British Army for a number of roles including drop zone recovery and support for airborne operations, Alvis then built the vehicle under licence.
Now in its third generation, the 6×6 All-Terrain Mobile Platform (ATMP) is a prime example of mechanical engineering simplicity. It also demonstrates Supacat’s ability to produce a straightforward and inexpensive solution to a unique customer requirement. Over 200 ATMPs were sold worldwide, some of which are still in service today.
“The ATMP offers supreme cross-country performance and is now a well-known workhorse used in a wide variety of roles worldwide. It can carry a substantial payload for a vehicle of its size which, combined with its ‘go anywhere’ ethos, has made it the vehicle of choice for many years. Already proven on a variety of military operations, the ATMP can be transported within and below a range of air platforms providing instant mobility support for airborne and air-mobile forces on the ground.” Nick Ames said.
Other engineering projects followed such as the lifeboat launching platform for the RNLI and then the HMT vehicle in association with HMT Vehicles Ltd.
The HMT vehicle project came about from a number of initiatives coming together: Angus Hamilton wanted to develop in effect a high speed military vehicle capable of extreme performance cross country. Supacat wanted to take the learning of the ATMP and take the next step in vehicle design and development. This required the expertise of racing car design coupled with cross-country ability and robustness. To that end Angus Hamilton introduced Val dare Bryan, a specialist racing car designer to team up with Supacat to develop the cross-country capability of the HMT. The result was a highly capable all-terrain high speed vehicle which met the requirement for long range recce missions of the world’s armed forces. The order for 60 vehicles from the UK MoD followed.
“So having stabilised and effectively refinanced the company to take it into the next stage of its development what followed”? The Editor asked.
“We had already built up a good relationship with DML, now Babcock, to build the vehicle and this stood us in good stead for the next stage of the project. The British Army in Afghanistan had seen a need for a fast long-range recce vehicle which could meet the arduous terrain faced in Afghanistan which was also protected against IED and RPG attack. The result was the Jackal a derivative of the early HMT, the Extenda 6×6 version followed and this evolved into the Coyote. Following extensive discussions with the MoD and Babcock we froze the required design which met the requirement at the same time as establishing production lines at Supacat and Babcock to meet the UOR’s of 2008, 9 and 10 for the supply of 4×4 Jackal vehicles and 6×6 Coyotes under the Tactical Support Vehicle (TSV) Requirement. In addition we expanded our Logistics Stores to meet the high demand for spares in theatre. Wincanton now operates our production Supply Chain from our Dunkeswell factory. We have now supplied over 600 Jackals to the UK MoD and have won new orders for Jackals and Extenda (the 6×6 variant) from DenmarkNorway and Australia with Lockheed building vehicles in the USA, giving a total of 1000 vehicles worldwide. We have enquiries from around the world from other countries and have been trialing Jackal type vehicle in the UAE in particular.”
“The Jackal success cemented your relationship with the UK MoD and other projects such as SPV 400 and LRV 400 have followed, thus broadening your offering. In addition, your capability was recognised by the Tata Motors in Indian who commissioned the SPV vehicle with a pod manufactured by NP Aerospace.”
“Yes, having established our success with the Jackal the next step was to broaden the company base with other vehicles and projects. The SPV 400 gave us the expertise to work with Tata for the Indian protected vehicle (LAMV) which we eventually hope will result in an order for over 800 vehicles, if we meet the trials requirements. This will then enable us to offer a protected vehicle on world markets at a very competitive price, manufactured in India. The LRV 400 which we are constantly evolving and hope to win an order soon meets the requirement for a lightweight helicopter deployable vehicle. Other vehicle projects are now in the early stages of incubation which has required us to develop a new department dealing in stress analysis and computer modelling techniques. We also purchased a specialist vehicle company in Australia specialising in crash simulation analysis, both companies are seamlessly linked to allow joint analysis of projects.”
“What of the future?”
“The company, now employing 200 people globally, has now grown out of its roots to become a diversified engineering group, SC Group, formed in 2015 comprising of four businesses, Supacat, the UK military vehicle company, SC Innovation delivering engineering solutions to the energy, marine and specialist vehicles sectors, Proteum a marine propulsion distributor and Blackhill Engineering a large fabrication business.”
“We have now developed SC Group into a global engineering business in the UK and Australia with a turnover approaching £35 million this year. Supacat’s engineering success is built on a culture of innovation, free-thinking, personal empowerment and accountability, backed up by rigorous process and systems engineering. Operating a complete engineering cycle from concept through to production and thence continuous development and through-life support, Supacat is a one-stop-shop for product innovation and excellence in engineering. Supacat’s product range is now solidly established. Our HMT vehicle is firmly regarded as the platform of choice for special forces worldwide. Our HMT range of vehicles have proven themselves on the most demanding recent operations including Afghanistan. Concurrently, we continue to develop and innovate which has led to our new protected vehicle, the SPV400 and our most recent high performance addition, the LRV400. Our aim is to build on this engineering capability and develop the Company into a turnover of £70 million by organic growth and acquisition.”
Nick Ames, 50 is married to Tanya and has four children, three boys and a girl.