Sheppee International was crowned York Business Of The Year at the Press Business Awards last month. Also winning Large Business Of The Year and the Dare To Export award, Sheppee was this year the recipient of a Queen’s Award for Enterprise. Business editor Laura Knowlson visited Sheppee’s site at Elvington’s Airfield Business Park to find out what lies behind the machine manufacturer’s success.

DECEMBER brings to an end a year of award wins and recognition for Sheppee International.

However, the success of 2013 stands in stark contrast against the bleak back drop of 2009. Only four years ago the business, which now employs 45 staff, was forced to make redundancies and reduce working hours for staff as orders across its dominant European market dried up.

The business is now back on track after broadening its horizons, something which it has done through its 106-year history, resulting in the globally recognised brand it is today.

Sheppee was founded in 1907 as a mechanical engineering firm, creating various engines. It was named after the original founder Colonel Frank Sheppee, and in its early years made steam engine vehicles, some of the first motorised bikes and washing machines.

The current management team took charge in July 2008 following a management buyout as a result of the retirement of the previous owners John Pratt and Jeffrey Yoward.

Mr Pratt and Mr Yorward had acquired the more than century-old business in their own buy-out in 1993, building it into a £4.4 million turnover supplier to some of the world’s leading players in the growing glass bottle industry.

Mr Pratt and Mr Yoward bought the business out of liquidation, prior to which Sheppee had been producing glass forming machines.

They moved the business on to what it does today, which is providing hotware handling machines for the glass container manufacturing industry.

When a glass bottle or container is made it is cooled rapidly leaving it extremely fragile at certain pressures, so much so they could potentially explode when touched.

Sheppee’s machines, known as stackers, take the bottles or containers in this fragile state and transport them into a huge oven, known as a lehr, where they are heated to extreme temperatures before being allowed to cool gradually.

Sheppee has grown to be a global market leader in this field, exporting its machines to more than 40 countries.

But it wasn’t all plain sailing for the current owners.

Sheppee International managing director Jon Wilson explained: “We bought the business in 2008. Our now chairman Elliott Seymour was MD, then I joined in 2009.

“The business nicely moved along for six months. Then the worldwide recession hit us.

“We went through a period of 18 months when we broke even month after month. We were just getting enough orders in and orders out and were just managing our cash flow.

“We had to make four or five redundancies and a number of staff went on to short time working hours.

“But they stayed with us, and come November 2010 the business really took off again.

“During the recession we didn’t just rely on our existing markets. We had a strong sales presence in Europe, 45 per cent of our turnover was coming from Europe, and that disappeared, it seemed to end overnight.

“Elliott did a lot of travelling to Asia and we secured some good orders from China and India.

“Then as confidence returned to the market and the budgets were being released by the companies we brought back on stream the previous markets we had. However we also had our new markets and in one month we more than doubled our turnover.”

Sheppee was then facing a new challenge; how to deal with such rapid growth.

Mr Wilson continued: “We had to very quickly go through the growth process to ensure we could cope with the work. We had to increase stock, and get more staff on board.

“We got ourselves on track and the orders are still coming through today. We have had good solid orders ever since that time.”

Sheppee now enjoys a turnover of £8.5 million, 95 per cent of which comes from exports. The business produces on average 50 machines a year from its site in Elvington, with up to seven machines being worked on at any one time.

The business has recently sent equipment out to Australia, and currently has engineers in India and the USA on installation projects.

Having enjoyed success from growth, the business plan for 2014 is unsurprisingly focussed on plans to expand into yet more markets for 2014.

Mr Wilson said: “We are looking to address markets where we are underperforming.

“We are looking to make a move into the USA. Our regional sales director will be focusing on the USA and South America. The USA has 50 glass making factories and we want to be getting our machines out there.

“Elliott will be based in China, and will be developing the Asian market.

“Going forward we have to make sure we are keeping up with the technology on the production lines.

“We want to make the product more robust, more capable and more reliable to meet the customer’s demands, and we have a full time research and development department trying to push barriers.

“We have just signed a production agreement with a Swiss company. They have broken into the American market so we are hoping to utilise their contacts.

“That’s our main ambition for 2014, to be doing orders and work towards dominating the American market.”