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Control Techniques goes back to its roots to rebuild

22 June, 2018

Six months after he was appointed president of the Welsh drives-maker, Control Techniques, Tony Pickering is not mincing words. The company is half the size it was before its previous owner, Emerson, acquired it in 1994. CT which, in its heyday, held more than 30% of the UK drives market, is now down to around 2%. “People are asking: are you still in business?,” Pickering reports.

But the veteran of the UK drives scene – with a 30-year track record that includes periods at Lenze, Danfoss and, most recently, Schneider Electric – has ambitious plans to turn the business around.

He reports that CT is already “growing like hell” with double-digit growth in revenues during 2017, and a triple-digit growth in profits. “We are not a leading drives manufacturer, but we have leading technologies and we’re specialists,” he declares. “We’re a British drives specialist; we don’t want to be a Rockwell Automation.” 

Nidec, the acquisitive Japanese motors giant, bought Control Techniques and its sister company, the French motor-maker, Leroy-Somer, from Emerson last year for $1.2bn. Nidec’s traditional business has been producing small motors for applications such as computer hard drives, CD drives and fans, but this market is shrinking as PC manufacturers turn to solid-state designs. So Nidec has been diversifying into larger industrial and automotive motors.

For example, it has recently formed a joint venture with Europe’s second-largest automotive manufacturer, PSA, to develop and build motors for electric vehicles, with the aim of producing 900,000 motors a year by 2022.

Two key elements of Pickering’s recovery strategy are to rationalise Control Techniques’ portfolio and to rebrand the business. He plans to emphasise the company’s heritage with a return to its traditional green brand colour and the use of the strapline: “Drives specialists since 1973”.

In its early years, CT was a pioneer, producing the world’s first ultra-compact drive in 1982, the world’s first digital DC drive (the Mentor) in 1986, the world’s first “practical” flux vector AC drive in 1989, the world’s first “universal” AC drive (the Unidrive) in 1996, and the world’s first drive with on-board safety and a PLC (Unidrive SP) in 2003. More than three million CT drives have been installed since it launched its Commander VC150 model 45 years ago.

Pickering is hoping to build on this history by splitting CT’s portfolio into four “tribes”, bearing well-known names. So, for example, the Unidrive name will be used for high-performance drives, Digitax for servo drives and motors, and Commander for general-purpose drives. The fourth tribe, called Integration, will cover other products and services.

Big ambitions: the world’s strongest man, Eddie Hall, is Control Techniques’ new “brand ambassador”

One problem that Pickering inherited from Emerson was that Control Techniques had too many products. “There were six versions of a general-purpose drive,” he reports. “The salespeople didn’t know what they were doing.”

He is now “trying to put some logic in the way we go to market”. So, in future, there will be two main versions of the general-purpose Commander drives –­ with and without safety.

The Commander brand, which dates back to 1983, is now in its sixth generation. Pickering expects it will be two to three years before the next generation of general-purpose drives arrives.

In the meantime, he is already making his mark at Control Techniques Newtown headquarters, which is undergoing “a complete transformation”. CT is also taking on new staff, with about ten apprentices expected to start working at the drives company this year. Despite shrinking in recent years, Control Techniques still employs more than 1,000 people and is active in 70 countries around the world.

•  Control Techniques has chosen the world’s strongest man, Eddie Hall, to be its global “brand ambassador”. He will appear as the face of CT in a series of advertisements, public appearances and other projects. Tony Pickering explains that the company wanted a symbol to demonstrate its rediscovered confidence. “The idea of working with another British specialist who has competed – and won – on a global stage, appealed greatly to us.”

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