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Pearls of wisdom...

JS Humidifiers is celebrating its Pearl Anniversary. Operations director Rik Prowen tells Ian Vallely how 30 years in business has taught the company what it needs to do in order to operate efficently and effectively in a ferociously competitive HVAC sector
To survive and thrive in today's business world, companies need to get the balance right between retaining valuable experience within the workforce and bringing in fresh talent to revitalise the business.

Striking this balance requires the application of 'knowledge management', in other words, engaging in practices that identify, create, represent and distribute knowledge within a business or sector.

Rik Prowen, operations director of humidification specialist JS Humidifiers, is a particularly strong advocate of knowledge management.

He explains why: 'My main concern is losing the body of knowledge that we, as an industry, possess. Maintaining this is vital to the long-term health of all businesses. But we also need to bring in the right number of new people of the right quality and provide them with a stimulating environment.'

However, this is proving a challenge for the aging HVAC sector, says Rik: 'I look at the people I deal with now and they are very often the same people I have been dealing with over the last 20 years. It's encouraging and inspiring to come across young talent within the industry, but it is relatively rare...

'We actively foster links with local universities to encourage this but I don't think many people leave school saying 'I want to go into building services'. I believe our sector could present itself as a far more attractive career option. After all, we all live and work in premises that are strongly influenced by the work done in building services and there is a great deal the industry could do to promote a positive image.

'However, it's also critical that the knowledge and experience we already have is not lost as people get older and retire.'

Rik is encouraged by Government funding of apprenticeship schemes: 'That kind of practical investment particularly helps smaller businesses take on people where previously they might not have done.

'I really like the idea of being able to employ inexperienced people and give them the opportunity to flourish in a stimulating environment.'

Attracting the right talent is also critical, says Rik: 'You hear talk of 'Generation Y', the generation of youngsters who spend a lot of their time in a virtual, computer environment. I believe that understanding their talents and capitalising on them is something that we, as an industry, could do better.

Keeping up with information

'The pace of change within the h&v sector is significant - new technologies are constantly emerging - and we are an innovative sector. There are new challenges coming along all the time and it may be that there are applications for the sorts of talents that Generation Y youngsters have that we don't exploit.'

Social networking is an example. Rik again: 'Think of Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, for instance. It might be that there are opportunities to harness the power of these technologies more effectively within the h&v sector.

'As a specialist SME, we want to communicate information about our products to consultants, contractors, air handling unit manufacturers and so on, and ensure that they understand the technology and apply it appropriately. Social networking is one way to do this and it's something we could do better.'

Indeed, smoothing the transfer of knowledge along the entire supply chain is something Rik believes the industry could do better 'although there are some things happening that are very good from that point of view'.

Building information modelling (BIM) is an example. 'It is bit of a chore for smaller suppliers to provide the data that will make BIM work, but I regard it as a real opportunity for the industry. The idea of designing for whole-life use including disposal at the end of the building's life as well as considering the energy costs, maintenance costs and so on, has real potential.

'I find it impressive that building services consultants keep up with the mass of information and data emanating from a wide range of manufacturers, not to mention all the legislative changes taking place. But is it reasonable to expect that they can do that without positive support? BIM helps to support the design process and I regard it as an important means of knowledge transfer.'

But innovation isn't just about product development and new blood, it's also about processes. 'There is a danger that you work in the business so much that you don't work on the business,' says Rik. That's why he believes it is important to look inwardly at business processes as well as outwardly at threats and opportunities.

'It is important that we always look for new ways of becoming more efficient and effective, and learn how to work with fewer resources. End users are putting pressure on all of us to do more for less money. To stay afloat, organisations have to put in place new processes that work more effectively and efficiently than the old ones.'

Working on its operation

In 2005, JS Humidifiers turned over around £5.5 million and employed 70 staff. By working on the way it operates and achieving lasting efficiencies, the company saw turnover rise to £9.5m last year with 20 per cent fewer staff than in 2005.

Rik explains: 'We accomplished that by looking at business processes and cutting out waste, working smarter, planning our days better and using the resources that we have to their fullest capacity. We are always looking at ways of improving our business processes. For all our staff, it is a part of how they work. The concept of continuous improvement is an intrinsic part of JS.'

Indeed, the company takes continuous improvement so seriously that, last year, it employed a business improvement manager whose job it is to look at how the company works and help improve its working practices.

Rik again: 'Her brief is to encourage and support an environment where everybody is involved in continuously improving how we work. Ultimately, that means that our customers get better service and better value.'

JS Humidifiers' milestones

· 1982 - Registers company as JS Industrial Services Ltd, manufacturing the JetSpray humidifier, selling to print and textile companies, operating out of a lock-up garage and spare room.

· 1985 - Purchases first proper factory in Bromley, Kent, and enters HVAC market with a range of electrode-boiler humidifiers.

· 1986 - Exports first JetSpray to Holland and appoints first overseas distributor.

· 1988 - Moves to a larger factory in New Eltham, London, reaching £1 million turnover in 1989.

· 1994 - Relocates to larger premises in Rustington, West Sussex. Almost 90% of JS staff moves with the company. Expands presence in HVAC with resistive humidifiers.

· 1995 - Commences manufacture of the HumEvap evaporative humidifier. Becomes the first UK specialist company to offer a complete range of humidification products.

· 1996 - Achieves the Investors in People award, the first humidification company to do so.

· 1997 - Changes name to JS Humidifiers plc

· 1998 - Gains ISO19001, the quality management standard accreditation.

· 1999 - Co-founds the Humidity Group, working within FETA.

· 2000 - Becomes first UK humidification company to gain ISO14001, the environmental management standard accreditation. Launches JS Air Curtains.

· 2002 - First humidification company to launch an e-commerce website, www.airandwatercentre.com

· 2003 - Turnover reaches £5 million.

· 2009 - Gains OHSAS18001, the first UK humidification company to achieve this Health & Safety Management standard accreditation.

· 2011 - Turns over £9.4 million, employs 65 staff with sales throughout the World. Joins the Walter Meier Group as part of its global humidification and evaporative cooling arm, Condair.

· 2012 - Celebrates 30th Anniversary.

JS Humidifiers celebrates 30 years of growth

JS Humidifiers is celebrating 30 years in business having started solving dry air problems for printers back in 1982. Operations director Rik Prowen says: “Taking JS from a one-product, one-industry business to the UK’s leader in humidification, with exports all over the world, has been challenging, but continues to be great fun.”

Steve Verney, JS’s founder and managing director, adds: “Our success has always been based upon an innovative and forward thinking philosophy of developing new products and expanding into different markets. As well as helping to maintain a healthy and productive indoor environment for many office workers over the last 30 years, JS has kept the printing presses rolling on Fleet Street, prevented static in the Jute mills of India, helped preserve works of art in Buckingham Palace, improved the testing of Formula One engines and kept flowers fresh in the deserts of Dubai.

“We are looking forward to continuing to meet our customers’ needs for the next 30 years and are excited about developing new opportunities, such as adiabatic cooling with cold water humidifiers.”

Time to unshackle the supply chain

Specialists face pressure from contractors, FM companies and others to deliver more for less. Rik Prowen understands that this is a fact of business life and his responsibility is to respond through innovation and change.

However, there are some aspects of the industry that really don't help product suppliers and sub-contractors. One is protracted sub-contractor approval.

According to Rik, every main contractor and end user has a different method of assessing the suitability of subcontractors to work on their sites: 'Although there have been some really good initiatives in the last 10 years with things like the Safe Contractor scheme, CHAS (Contractors Health and Safety Assessment Scheme) and Constructionline - all of which we adhere to - gaining approval from each individual client organisation is, nonetheless, a laborious and costly process.'

But a lack of standardisation doesn't end there. An increasing number of JS's customers will only accept invoices through an online portal. Rik says: 'Entering data on bespoke online portals is time consuming, labour intensive and costly. Having gone through a process of automating the production and despatch of routine documentation such as invoices, seeing our people having to manually key in invoice data into customer portals is a step backwards. What's more, each company that insists on trading like this uses a different system: there is no common way of automatically uploading data.

'It would make sense to work together throughout the supply chain to work out ways to maximise efficiency and effectiveness, keeping costs down for everyone concerned.'
1 October 2012

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