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Data Plastics tangles with the best

Winner - Family Business Awards 2015 - Oxfordshire Winner - 2

Data Plastics tangles with the best

Data Plastics designs, tools and manufactures injection-moulded plastic parts for over 1,500 UK and global customers. It’s even got one over on the BBC Dragons

Carl Reeve could be forgiven for feeling smug. Not that he does, he’s far too enthusiastic to waste his energies on negativity.

His Witney-based company is now profiting from a fantastic invention that the BBC’s Dragons saw fit to reject.

Data Plastics manufacturers the Tangle Teezer, a brilliant product invented by hair colourist Shaun Pulfrey. Having been turned down on TV, the company is now turning over around £25 million annually, and every Tangle Teezer is manufactured at Data Plastics in Witney.

Carl explains. “Shaun visited us in 2005. He’d come up with a new idea for a brush to untangle hair. We could see the potential so we worked with him to develop prototypes and look at costs.”

Shaun had very little money. He’d spent a few thousand on product development but didn’t have the cash to buy the necessary tooling for manufacturing in quantities, so he seized the opportunity to go on the BBC’s Dragon’s Den.

Watch the clip on the BBC website and you’ll see his pitch. He deeply offended Deborah Meaden by suggesting her hair colour wasn’t natural. I winced as I watched it. Despite that, I’m surprised the dragons failed to see the glorious simplicity of his product.

More fool them. Carl believed in Shaun and his product. Shaun re-mortgaged his house to get the business started. Fast-forward seven years and the business is now worth around £65 million with new products coming through.

It’s these start-up entrepreneurs Carl loves most. And over the last 25 years the business, started by Carl and his father who has since retired, has supported hundreds of inventors in bringing their ideas to life.

They don’t just work with start-ups. Data Plastics, which now turns over around £7.5 million annually with 70 permanent staff, has some very big clients in a range of sectors, including medical: The company manufactures millions of plastic items used daily in surgical and medical settings.

There’s a whole array of products displayed on shelves in the company’s meeting room, from a globe-shaped musical instrument that performs like an electronic synthesizer, to trainer spoons and forks for small children. It also has a small array of rather more racy medical items (which had to be removed from display during a recent visit by his local MP, Prime Minister David Cameron in case they caused un-necessary headlines). Data Plastics is also the UK’s biggest manufacturer of gum shields for rugby and hockey.

Every month Data Plastics has inventors knocking at its door, and sometimes Carl’s job is to gently advise if an idea won’t work. “Recently someone came to us after spending a whopping £75,000 developing a product. The tooling for that project alone would have been in excess of half a million pounds. If they’d come to me a couple of years before, we could have talked it through before they’d spent so much on a financially unviable product.

“An inventor might be willing to spend their life savings or remortgage their house to carry on with an idea, but if they’re not going to make money or worse, lose money, there’s no point progressing the idea,” says Carl. “We take people through step-by-step, looking at the costs involved and considering those against how much they can sell their potential product for.”

Data Plastics started 25 years’ ago importing caps and plugs designed for product transit protection: the sort of bits that consumers throw away as soon as a piece of equipment is unpacked. As the business grew, the company bought an injection moulding business, but after running the machines for about ten days, work dried up.

It was a difficult time. “Then we got an enquiry from IBM to solve computer cables from being accidently pulled out of the back of a computer,” says Carl. “We came up with a brand new design, they loved it and it flew.” The business went from no work to loads of work and Data Plastics hasn’t looked back, thought it’s taken strong financial controls to ensure that it hasn’t met the fate of thousands of injection moulding companies. “When we started there were 5,500 moulders in the UK, now there are probably less than 1000,” says Carl. With much manufacturing going overseas, some went out of business, others fell foul of the recession.

“We survived because we worked really, really hard and had good financial control of the business,” points out Carl. Unlike the myopic banks, Data Plastics saw the downturn coming as its order books shortened, and took evasive action even before its bank manager thought to pick up the phone.

“We cut staff, overtime and stopped buying anything. In 2008/09 we were 9% down but since then we’ve had massive growth and are now running a three shift system, 24 hours, five days a week.”

Data Plastics has an unusual approach to recruitment. “We tend to employ on attitude, not on qualifications. We give a new recruit three months, and if they have the right attitude we can train them to do anything.  One of our toolmakers worked in bars, he was a bouncer then he came to work for us in the warehouse. Now he’s an apprenticeship toolmaker,” says Carl. “My production planner started on a moulding machine but wanted a job in an office. Her maths is excellent but she’d never used a computer so we sent her to classes and computer studies. Now she’s doing a business management course.”

It’s about encouraging staff to go into the roles which they enjoy the most and where they are most talented. And he doesn’t let gifted staff go lightly. When his designer wanted to move to Scotland, Carl didn’t want to lose him so he now works remotely.

“Since implementing this policy our productivity has shot up.”

A tour around the factory confirms Carl’s approach to staffing. Everyone on the production lines is friendly and some respond to Carl like indulgent relatives. He only arrived back from a business trip to China at 6am in the morning. Our interview is at 10am and he’s bouncing about enthusiastically, wondering first why one piece of equipment isn’t running, then burrowing into half full boxes of product trying to find me a sample to take away.

Data Plastics’ job is to pick a winner from all those who approach the company to design and manufacture new products.

“We never know who is going to walk through the front door. Will it be someone who just wants a few parts and we’ll never hear of them again? Or could it be another Shaun Pulfrey who turned into our biggest client with a global market?”

“We do all our upfront tooling and design work at cost and we’re good at designing a product for manufacture, stripping costs out where we can, with an idea of price at the end of it.”

Carl loves the UK’s diverse manufacturing base. “We have some truly gifted designers and engineers, along with individuals with wacky ideas who need someone to turn them into a saleable product and we’re pretty successful at doing just that.”

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