Full Throttle Performance
As a young man, Dan Fleetcroft learned his engineering skills at one of the world’s most prestigious schools – the design team at Ferrari. Looking back on the two years since setting up performance engineered solutions, Dan sees very few rivals in his rear view mirror. Report by John Yates.
A conversation with Dan Fleetcroft is like being driven round Silverstone in a Formula One car: exhilarating, challenging and bloody good fun in equal measure. If he occasionally takes a corner too late, or finds himself throttling back a little too hard, he reacts instinctively and the conversation is backup to speed. “Where were we?” he asks after taking a brief but illuminating detour around the aerodynamics of motorcycle fairings. He is asking me?
Dan is one half of Performance Engineered Solutions Ltd (PES). The other half is former bomb disposal expert, Royal Navy diver and Operations Director Mike Maddock, who is out on the road meeting a client to talk composites when we meet.We are in the headquarters of PES: a large, open plan office in the Advanced Manufacturing Park, Rotherham, where they are near neighbours ofAdrianAllen and Keith Ridgway, the founders of, and driving force behind, the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre.
The relationship between the two organisations and the four men is clearly a close one. They all breathe the same high octane, can-do atmosphere that has made the AMRC a model that government has tried to export to other parts of the country. Dan talks about Adrian and Keith in almost the same way he talks about John Barnard, his early mentor and the presiding engineering genius at Ferrari in the early to mid 1990s.
It was under Barnard’s tutelage that Dan got his first taste of engineering. A boarder at a private school in Witley, he got a week’s work placement with Barnard and so impressed the team that he was invited back to work on Saturdays. “I got permission to get out of Saturday morning school and went and sat in the drawing office with them, I loved it,” he said. Although he had little interest in motor racing, he had always had a passion for things mechanical. “I was always taking things apart and putting them back together and finding myself left with a few nuts and bolts. I guess I was already looking to make things lighter.”
Barnard sponsored Dan to study aerospace engineering at the University of Bristol providing a year out to do an intensive, hands-on apprenticeship. “It was a totally incredible experience. I started in the drawing office, when CAD was just coming in, and I just moved around the business. So I went in to the fab shop, into the machine shop, was in the test lab, into the wind tunnel, I went to the track, I went to the composite shop, just doing whatever I could, learning all along the way, but that full spread is probably quite rare these days from drawing office through to race track and everything in between.”
It is this broad experience of every aspect of the business that makes Dan such a gifted all-rounder. But, looking back at those halcyon days, he realises that he was something of a rarity on the engineering course. “I would say that 60 per cent of my fellow course mates were going into the City – they graduated and the next thing they were on a plane to New York to be trained by whatever bank to work as a trader. They had no interest in engineering, but they were very, very bright and great with the mathematics and the physics. They did the course because it was the most challenging thing you could take.”
Even then, some 20 years ago, the lure of the financial sector was pulling ambitious and bright young people away from advanced manufacturing into the City where real fortunes could be made. To change this situation, and to help rebalance the economy, Dan has teamed up with other dynamic entrepreneurs to take the engineering message into the region’s schools. “Very few young people know what they want to become in later life,” says Dan. “And for them engineering is a great choice, because it allows them to keep their options open. You come out of A Levels with maths, physics and chemistry and can go and do whatever degree you want. It is the analytical, problem solving side to engineering that makes it so versatile and relevant.”
Dan clearly had no such doubts about his career trajectory. His first ten years after school were spent exploring the frontier of advanced engineering, finding ways of making racing vehicles faster and lighter and much more likely to win the Championship. But all good things come to an end. When Barnard retired in 2009 from a business he had spent over a decade building, the recession was really beginning to bite. The consortium who took over the company were all experienced hands, but not even they could steer it through what the Bank of England was calling “a difficult and unprecedented time.”
What finished the company off was all too apparent to Dan and his colleagues. “Cash flow killed us,” he said matter-offactly. For the first time in his life he was without a job.“I had never been to an interview,” he laughs. But the team’s connection with the industry meant that few, if any, of its members would be without a prestigious position in a leading F1 outfit for long.
For Dan, the collapse of Barnard’s old firm presented a different kind of opportunity – the opportunity to chart his own direction. “Looking back it was probably the kick in the pants that I needed.” As an expert in composites and aerodynamic designs, Dan had been working with World Champion skeleton racer, Kristan Bromley, to refine and improve the design of his equipment.
“We had been discussing setting up a sports product business combining what we had learned in Olympic winter sport and Formula One World Championships, so this seemed the ideal opportunity,” he said. As a result Kristan and his brother Richard teamed up with Dan and his now business partner, Mike Maddock to form what would be become Bromley Technologies.
“Mike and I were directors of the company but based down in the South East – Mike at Sliverstone and me at Guildford. It quickly became apparent that I had to come up here; the network, and the opportunities in engineering up here were fantastic so I moved here in 2010,” he said. Ironically, the move coincided with a decision of the four men to segment the business.
“The business was growing in other directions and we were getting more and more inquiries for engineering solutions but we were being torn about where we should invest in developing the company so Mike and I and Kristan sat down and said let’s segment the business. PES was already working as a subsidiary of Bromley Technologies – so we said right we will take PES and you continue with the winter sports and let’s split the education business in half and create a new joint venture company.
“Mike and I own the business and now have a senior designer and two younger engineers so we have gone to a staff of five in two years. We could probably do with another couple but it is just that balance,” he said. And while much of the focus currently is on bespoke consultancy work for a range of clients that stretch from Yorkshire to New York, “ultimately we want to develop our own products and technologies to bring revenue streams back into the company.”
The two men started with “a business plan and a rudimentary website” that didn’t really say what services PES offered. “There was a perception that all we did was design racing cars, potentially due to fact we used our F1 experience as a level of accreditation, which couldn’t be further from the truth, so people could be put off talking to us because they thought we were too ‘high tech’ for their requirements.”
Changing that perception required legwork. “We would be out all the time, talking to people, we would go out to the Lyons Den events, which are absolutely brilliant. It was all about getting out there and presenting as often as we could. It was hard at first but now I get a buzzfrom it.
“We were doing a lot of business internationally but wanted to develop the business at a regional level too. The challenge for us is that we might be looking at a motorbike today, a table tomorrow, reverse engineering one day and creating something from scratch the next, so every job that comes in the door takes time to scope and sometimes the biggest challenge is how do you price it because it has not been done before?
“We were doing lots of higher value, higher risk contracts with short lead times. Novel work where you could literally be starting from the notorious ‘clean sheet of paper’ – still a chance you won’t come up with a solution in the time scale and to the budget. So we looked at the mix and now have a strategy that is based on continuing to deliver the high value, technically challenging projects, whilst looking for more basic tooling type jobs, things where we are going to turn around smaller projects in a shorter time. This helps flatten the cash flow peaks and troughs, gives PES a spread of projects that allows us to train and develop our own engineers and ultimately creates the foundations from which we can create our own products and IP”
But it is the knowledge, experience and energy at PES which will be the key to its success.
“When people say to us how can you possibly deliver across so many sectors, the simple answer is that we have four key skills. We have knowledge of CAD as a tool; but really important behind that is aerodynamic design, structural design, and mechanical design experience.
“Linked into design is an understanding of reverse engineering, data capture and inspection; second we have a deep knowledge of testing and simulation; third is our experience of materials – composites, metallics, ceramics and plastics; and finally there is our understanding of manufacturing techniques including machining, composites, plastic moulding and additive layer manufacturing.”
With these four skill sets, Dan and his team believe there is not a problem out there they cannot solve. “Given the right amount of time and money,” he adds with a smile.
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