In relative terms, Precision Refrigeration is still a newcomer in the UK commercial refrigerator supply sector. But in fact the company has been around in its present format for 10 years, when MD Nick Williams bought out the firm in 2008. It will soon be marking the occasion with celebratory events for staff and customers.
“Previously it was called Precision Tools Thetford Ltd, and it was a stainless steel fabricator for sectors like the car industry,” Williams told Catering Insight. At the time, his brother in law and ex-Rational MD Jeremy Hall, was running the firm. “The company had started to do a little bit of refrigeration, then I came in and finished that process off – that’s when we changed the name.
His original plan was to only have a small factory in Thetford, building the refrigerators at a plant in China. Drawing upon his experience and contacts from his time carrying out a similar endeavour for Williams Refrigeration, he got a way down the road to signing on the dotted line. But after re-checking the sums, he found that the Chinese Yuan exchange rate has gone up 25%, making it financially unworkable to base the manufacturing there
However, opportunity often comes from adversity, and the economic downturn which began towards the end of 2008 actually benefitted Precision. Williams was able to purchase the building next door to the original Thetford premises (increasing the working area from 15,000 to 40,000ft2) at a good price of around £400,000 to set up local production, due to the incumbent firm heading out of business. “I was in a fortunate position not to have to borrow money to grow the business,” said Williams.
Plus costs to buy machinery were reduced, as not many other organisations were buying this type of equipment at that point, and likewise attracting skilled staff was an easier process. The workforce numbered around 20 people at first, and has grown over the years to around 125 across its now-global offices.
This international expansion began 5 years ago. Williams’ links with China proved to be useful, as he helped to set up a Chinese subsidiary in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong. This sells refrigeration to the local Chinese market, along with South East Asia and Australia, where there is also now a sales office.
Back in the UK, the Precision product line has expanded rapidly over its first decade. “One of our biggest strengths today is the breadth of our product line, because we have so many different shapes, sizes and options available,” said Williams.
In fact, he revealed: “I somewhat failed in my original plan. I was quite enticed by doing something in the domestic high-end sector, but we have been kept so busy making commercial cabinets we never got round to domestic!”
Distributors have very much guided the development of the product line, with Williams commenting: “Dealers would come to us and ask for models that were a little bit longer or taller, so if you look at our latest price list, it just a combination of all those conversations and requests we’ve had.”
Indeed, dealers have been an important part of the Precision story so far, with Williams saying: “We see dealers as partners. When we first started we tried to sell to as many as possible, but once we became established we narrowed that down and concentrated on key partners. They are our only route to market.
“Our salespeople, Tim and Kandie, and our northern region representatives, Pro Foodservice Reps, who we consider an integral part of our team, are there to make dealers’ lives easier. Our key dealers around the country all tend to have a slightly different angle, in terms of geography or sector, so there’s not too much competition between them.”
Currently the bestselling product category is refrigerated counters, which Williams feels are popular due to the shrinking kitchen phenomenon, as they can be used for prep space as well as a refrigeration. He added: “We have a niche in the market, which comes down to pretty old fashioned traditional values. We try and supply people with the product they want at a reasonable price.”
One of the main decisions in this vein was only using stainless steel as the cabinets’ raw material, as against the aluminium within many competitors’ units. The manufacturer also standardises its stock as much as possible for production efficiency and therefore value for money, so whereas there would be aluminium and steel models in other companies’ portfolios, as well as a separate meat fridge, Precision has just one version of each line – in stainless steel and covering a -2 to +4°C temperature range, both the meat and standard refrigeration temperatures.
Simultaneously, it produces basic ‘shells’ for its customisable counters, which comprises the counter with the refrigeration system. Subsequently the manufacturer adds the doors, drawers and worktops according to individual specification. According to Williams: “We calculated we have around 20,000 potential products when we installed SAP software a few years ago and we had to create individual model numbers for every configuration.”
Nevertheless, Precision is always looking for improvements and so has partnered with government-subsidised research and development testbed, the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), to generate new ideas and perspectives. “The foam insulation is the bottleneck of any commercial refrigeration factory, as the cabinet has to stay in the jig for at least half an hour for it to set. It’s not financially viable to have automated jigs, so the MTC is looking at the process with us,” detailed Williams.
Precision’s overall financial performance through the years has been blockbusting too, reaching £15m revenue last year, representing a continual 25%+ year on year increase. Export has played a strong role in the business, with 60% of its current turnover generated by export, most of which is from the Middle East.
“Our flexibility has been key to our success,” Williams believes. “Not only of the product line but from a customer service point of view too. As I own 100% of the business we can take decisions quickly. We also go the extra mile for customers, so that’s definitely helped us get a foothold in the market.”
And one indication of market approval is Precision’s Catering Insight Award wins, with the manufacturer clinching trophies for the last 2 years. “I am particularly proud of that, because it is voted on by dealers, and when we were up against more established competitors, it was nice to come out on top,” said Williams.
Ever the innovators, with products like the popular Retro Refrigeration and the Meat Ageing Cabinet with Himalayan rock salt among recent additions, Precision is keen to stay at the cutting edge and so ensured its entire range was available as BIM models. These are available both via the Specifi platform and through the firm’s own Precision Configurator on its website, where dealers can configure any product combination they like in either DWG or Revit file formats.
Looking ahead, Williams predicted: “It is going to get harder to keep up the 25% year on year growth. At the moment it is still achievable. Obviously the market isn’t growing at those sort of rates; we are eating away at our competitors and sooner or later that is going to slow down. But there is still plenty of opportunity out there, in the Middle East and China in particular. I think in 2-3 years the Chinese business will be bigger than the UK.”
Nick Williams comes from what could be called a UK refrigeration manufacturer dynasty, as his father Mike was not only one of the driving forces at Foster Refrigerator UK from its inception in 1968, he also founded his eponymous firm in Kings Lynn in 1980.
This meant Williams literally grew up in the industry, travelling to trade shows with his father and visiting the firm in the school summer holidays. However, while he joined the family firm following his schooling, he did seek escape at one point in his career, when he was working for Williams Refrigeration in America. “I was excited about a new PLC coming onboard in 1999 and taking the company onto bigger and better things,” he recalled.
“But I soon became disillusioned with that and realised it wasn’t all I was hoping it would be. That’s when I decided to leave.”
Williams subsequently returned to university and completed an MBA in the US, before returning to the UK in the financial services industry. “When I worked in venture capital, it didn’t take me too long to realise that I preferred to play a much more active role in building and developing businesses.”
This was when his brother-in-law Jeremy Hall came calling with the offer to step into Precision, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Challenges and innovations
Precision prides itself on being at the technical cutting edge of the commercial refrigeration sector and so invested significant time and money in the EU energy labelling scheme. Testing and rating its cabinets in its onsite lab is an ongoing endeavour too, with the band ratings getting ever tighter.
MD Nick Williams detailed: “We have three people working on this full time. Unless we develop our refrigerators and keep making them more efficient, they will drop off the bottom of the labelling list and we won’t be able to sell them.”
Another continuing regulatory challenge is that of refrigerants. In 2020 the R404 refrigerant which is widely used in freezers will be banned due to environmental reasons.
Williams commented on the implications for Precision: “This isn’t a huge problem for us because we don’t make as many freezers as we do fridges. Plus 2 years ago we changed the vast majority of our product line over to R290, which is better for energy efficiency and future-proofs the refrigerant situation.
“But on a couple of our products such as blast chillers, there is not a viable alternative as of today. Right now, compressor manufacturers are going with R404 refrigerant, but this itself will be banned in 2022. The chemicals companies are still vying to come up with the next big thing.”
Brexit too has been somewhat of a challenge for Precision, as like the rest of the industry it has had to cope with steep raw materials price increases due to exchange rate fluctuations. But another way it has impacted the manufacturer is finding staff, in the same vein as the rest of the foodservice sector.
However, the firm is continuing to press on with new innovations, and will be entering the ‘connected kitchen’ field next year. Currently in the pipeline are internet-enabled refrigerators, along with an online cloud-based portal which will give real-time information as to status, performance, consumption and other measurements. The system will alert users if the set parameters are exceeded.
According to Williams: “For certain end users and especially chain customers who have got a lot of our products, it can definitely help on the cost of servicing and maintenance. We give a 2 years parts and labour warranty so it should cut warranty calls too, as we will be able to see for sure what any problem is.”