Towers & more: Youngman Group's John Bungay on expansion beyond access towers
By Murray Pollok09 May 2012
Youngman Group is a famous name in access towers and ladders. The company's John Bungay explains to Murray Pollok why it has moved into mini-scissors, lighting towers and variable message boards.
Remembering the really tough times can bring a healthy perspective to current conditions. For John Bungay, business development director at the access and lighting tower supplier Youngman Group, the benchmark low was 2008; "We were early into the downturn because Speedy acquired Hewden's tool hire business. Our number one customer bought our number three customer and realised that they had more equipment than they needed."
Although painful at the time, that turned out to be a "blessing in disguise, because it forced us to take action earlier than many others", says Mr Bungay, speaking to IRN at Youngman's headquarters in Maldon, UK, on the banks of the Blackwater Estuary in Essex, east of London.
That couldn't prevent 2008, 2009 and 2010 from being "very bloody", but 2011 at least saw the company make the start of a recovery, with revenues "approaching £40 million". That's a long way down from the £50 million peak in 2007 but still more than in 2005 when Youngman's management team bought the business from previous owners SGB (now part of Harsco Infrastructure).
The 2007 peak was fuelled not just by heavy sales to the rental sector but also by big orders with Harsco for its GASS aluminium shoring product, which Youngman supplies as a sub-contractor.
In fact, Youngman had already started changing things at the business before the downturn, having diversified its product line and invested in production technology.
Best known for its access products such as ladders and access towers - including the famous BoSS tower - the company has since added mini scissor lifts, which are made in China; events products such as staging and crowd control barriers; lighting towers through a joint venture with neighbour TCP, and most recently variable message boards made by Bartco in Australia (see box story below).
Youngman has also invested between £2 and £3 million in robotic welders and cutters for its aluminium access products, meaning that "the production constraint now is how fast we can fill the supply chain", says Mr Bungay. It also enabled the company to gear up quickly when demand rose last year without the problems of having to find highly skilled - and difficult to find - aluminium welders.
Sales last year were up around 30%, driven mainly by buying patterns of the big UK rental chains that have historically been so important for Youngman. Mr Bungay likens it to a light switch being turned on; "It got turned on again, even if the bulb flickered."
The smaller independent rental companies also saw an upturn last year, although not to the same extent. "It's moved from caution about 2012 to concern about 2012...What we're sensing is that nobody has been assuming that 2012 would be good, and the closer we get the more likely it is that it will be a lean year." (Mr Bungay was speaking to IRN in December.)
Youngman's reliance on the UK market - it sales are split evenly between rental/hire and sales to builders merchants - and the fact that it already has a "good share of a tough market", mean that growth opportunities will lie primarily outside the UK. It already exports its BoSS towers, but the smaller ladder products do not travel so well. This means that the export focus is on expanding further its sales of towers, mini scissors and the TCP lighting towers.
"Gradually were building up distribution of the X-series mini scissors, but it is still small scale", says Mr Bungay. It has customers in the Middle East and also France, where Kiloutou is a big-name buyer.
These export activities are accelerating, with Youngman exhibiting at an Indian exhibition last year. That will not be an easy market; "In India an aluminium tower can cost more than a car and wooden scaffolds are still common.
"But economic growth is bringing many international companies and they are starting to bring with them the safety practices and approaches common to developed economies. It's not a complete groundswell, but there is an opportunity. For us it's a long term plan."
The mini scissors have done well for the company - a "few thousand machines are out there" - so is there an opportunity to take them to the world's biggest access market, the US? "We've looked at it, but the reaction is one of curious interest" Mr Bungay tells IRN, "The feedback now is that they are not really sure about the mini scissors yet, and it's also a fiercely competitive market."
The company continued to develop its mini scissor range. It started with three X-series push-around models and last year added a self-propelled version, the X3X-SP, a 3.14 m working height model. This year some further design improvements will be made, including providing a low battery charge protection system and a shift to die cast aluminium wheel centres.
The development of the self-propelled units was targeted at customers outside the UK, where self-propelled is more often required.
Mr Bungay is clear that the move into mini scissors was a defensive move to protect its share of the access market, with ladders and towers being substituted for small mechanical platforms; "We could see the migration of low towers to small machines", he says.
The same shift downwards has occurred with access towers. In the early 70s a typical tower was 8 m high. "Today its 4 m on average", says Mr Bungay, "A huge number are just single heights - 2 m" - the kind of height used for internal fit-out work.
The other big initiative recently has been a new joint venture with TCP, the UK lighting tower manufacturer whose own headquarters is next door to Youngman.
Under the venture, TCP continues to design the towers while Youngman builds them, with most of the components made at Malden - including the hydraulic mast, which was previously outsourced.
Mr Bungay says that instead of developing a completely new range of lighting towers the focus will be on further improving the Ecolite range, which he describes as an "excellent product".
The Ecolite was so named several years ago because of its environmentally friendly features, including low energy use ceramic discharge metal halide lamps, and an auto-on and -off system that conserves fuel. "The Ecolite was ahead of its time", he says, "but the time is now."
There has been a flurry of LED lighting tower launches over the past year - with at least three lighting tower companies showing LED towers at the Executive Hire Show (EHS) in February and Terex launching an LED tower last year.
Youngman is now among them, having used the EHS to show a new LED version of the Ecolite using lamps developed by Greenhouse Strategies, a US company, which will itself be able to sell the LED Ecolite in North America.
Each of the four lamps comprises 100 individual LED lamps and although light output is comparable to conventional lamps, the price increase is significant, upwards of 60% more expensive.
Mr Bungay acknowledges that LED could ultimately be the technology of choice for lighting towers because of its low energy use, but says the economics still favour its ceramic discharge metal halide lamps. And in fact the company has also just updated its Ecolite with the use of new Polaris lamps, which use the same ceramic discharge technology but in a smaller, lighter package. (TCP/Youngman's lamp partner is Sweden's Prismalence.)
He says the "dream scenario" is an entirely autonomous, solar powered lighting tower. Youngman will no doubt be there, but refuses to be rushed.
Youngman Group is starting to market an Australian-made, five-colour variable message board that it thinks has enormous potential in the rental market.
The solar powered trailer mounted message boards are produced by Bartco in Australia and Youngman has started trials of the product in the UK and France early this year.
John Bungay, Youngman's business development director, tells IRN that the five colour capability differentiates the product from competitor models on the market, allowing the sign to be used to specify speed limits and lane closures as well as applications in events and advertising.
"They offer advantages over conventional message boards", said Mr Bungay, "They have fuel autonomy, and the five colour laps open up applications to advertising and events, and for mandatory signs on roads.
"It's much better at producing effective safety signage and offers up so many more uses than conventional message boards."
He said the target customers would be general rental companies and specialist traffic management rental firms; "The initial reaction has been good. We have approached the people we know who are potentially interested."
The message board uses LED lights, which are powered by solar panels on the roof of the message board. The panels will provide sufficient power throughout the year, even in northern European climates.
The signs can be monitored and controlled remotely, with rental companies and end users able to change messages remotely as well as turned on and off.