Swaffham-based firm with a big role in the airline industry
When you travel on any airline, it is tempting to treat the safety briefing – where the air stewardesses wave their arms around, flap at exits and pretend to inflate a lifejacket – as pre-flight background noise.
But hidden somewhere in that briefing, is a critical line which links every airliner in the world to a small industrial premise in Swaffham.
At some stage, the briefing will refer to 'in the event of an emergency' – ie when the lights go out – and draws your attention to the illuminated strips along the aisle floors which will guide you to the nearest exit.
These are designed, manufactured and assembled in Swaffham, in small units in the shadow of the giant wind turbine, by STG Aerospace and distributed to all the major aircraft manufacturers and maintainers.
As mass producers for emergency and security systems for the airline industry, it is a company that has flourished in the past decade or so and is set to expand massively in the next five years as demand for this essential airline safety product peaks and it ventures into new airline safety products.
Yet its history is as humble as it is fascinating.
The company has been around since 1986, when it was a commercial signage company, manufacturing signs for factories and small business.
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'But one thing it did do back then,' explained managing director Peter Stokes (who joined in 1998), 'was to buy the rights for a product called safety glow from a US company that did not really regard it as part of their core business.'
Though 'bought for a song', STG did little with the product and though the idea of guiding people out of airlines in an emergency was there, the product was not developed.
On his arrival in the late 1990s, Mr Stokes looked at the business and saw its future not in the crowded commercial signage market. But he did connect with the safety idea for the airline industry.
From here emerged the company's core product of photoluminescent strips – now branded SafTGlo – along the floors of airline cabins to guide passenger to exits in the event of a power failure.
SafTGlo emergency floorpath marking systems is a non-powered alternative to traditional electrical systems which stores and simultaneously emits light giving highly visible exit guidance.
However, it nearly didn't happen.
When Mr Stokes started looking at the photoluminescent (PL) strips for airlines, STG was within two weeks of losing the rights to the patent because no-one had dealt with the product.
Worldwide patents were resumed in 1999-2000 for safety glow, and from there the company set about developing the business: making, marketing and selling the product.
He also recalled: 'When I arrived in 1998, the company was operating out of a little cowshed in Narborough at the side of the river Nar. On my first day in the job, it was a beautiful day. I was sat in my office and a duck with half a dozen ducklings behind her walked in the door and around the office and then walked out again.'
Since then, the company has moved to its present site at Swaffham, where there is a design and sales base with the product assembled and despatched to the customer.
It employs 21 people on site – and is taking on people in engineering and R&D – and also has five staff based in the US.
In 1998, the annual turnover was �300,000. Now it is about �7m.
At that time airlines still used electric lights, rather than glow-in-the dark strips. 'The product has been developed from there,' said Mr Stokes.
'We have improved it and its aesthetic appearance – making 15mm strips in whatever colour the airlines want.
'When it is dark and the power fails on an airline, the photoluminescent strips glow in a line along the seats and offer guidance to the exits. It is a great idea for airline safety.'
Over the past few years, STG has seen its business – and profits – grow. While Mr Stokes was not revealing profit levels, he described them as 'very healthy.'
The company has posted record financial results every year for more than a decade and as a very profitable and cash rich company it can spend 15-20pc on its revenues on research and development.
But he added: 'We are in an aviation based industry where there is a lot of regulation to ensure the necessary levels of safety.
'There are high risks and high costs but the other side of the coin is high margins and high rewards.'
In recent years, all has been going well for STG, particularly after an Intellectual Property spat with Lufthansa Technik, which is the biggest MRO (maintenance, repairs and overhaul) organisation in the world.
Lufthansa had become aware of the potential of PL strips and decided to embark on its own product but following negotiations, Lufthansa has agreed to make the product under licence and now supplies 25pc of the aviation market paying STG a royalty for everything it sells.
That leaves 75pc of the global market to STG.
Naturally, 50pc of STG sales are in America – where 50pc of the world's planes are.
STG aims to remain a market leader and is constantly looking to develop other airline safety and security products.
This has included power storage devices for emergency power such as the WEPPS (Wireless Emergency Primary Power System) and LED systems for airlines, which are set to be installed on the first aeroplane this month. There are other products in various stages of development that will be launched over the next 18 months.
'We look for the radical solutions that nobody else will and get the IP and patent protected.
'In some areas we are coming up with solutions where people do not even think they have a problem, we are making niche products,' added Mr Stokes.
'We are always coming up with new ideas and thinking of new ways to keep ahead.'
But in a market where there is high regulation, there are risks to investing in development.
For STG, that came with a cabin alert system, which is a wireless means of the cabin crew alerting the cockpit in the event of a terrorist incident.
After the September 11 attacks in 2001, American Homeland Security was interested in the system, but despite approval from the pilots, cabin crews and passenger groups, it was rejected due to 'commercial pressures.'
This cost STG three years development time and �200,000 in development costs – however, the product is not lost forever and may be introduced at some stage.
But future growth is planned for STG.
With the photoluminescent strips market set to peak around 2014-15, STG has embarked on developing other airline safety technologies and innovation to help it grow.
Mr Stokes said: 'Our forecast is that we will almost triple the turnover within the next five years.
'Our aim to be a one-stop source for emergency lighting and cabin lighting for airplanes, though anyone who flies on airlines hopes they will never notice our products.'
With a predicted �15-�18m turnover by 2014, the company will need to relocate to a new site but has pledged to stay in Norfolk as many of the suppliers are in the county.
'Norfolk it is a great place to be and we have a local skills base,' he said. 'We also do not have a labour turnover problem and in my time nobody has voluntarily left the company.'
STG operates a 'flat management structure' without hierarchies.
There is a commercial director, technical director, sales director and operational director and the office is open plan, so people know what is going on all the time.
'Everyone is a doer,' said Mr Stokes, who spends a lot of time with the manufacturers. His salesman are also out of the office for 60pc of their time.
To date 2011 has been a good year for STG.
It achieved a Boeing Gold Award for Supplier Excellence and has won key contacts from South West Airlines ($2.7m), RyanAir ($1.5m) and Alaska Airlines ($2.4m).
For STG, the future is not only luminous, it is distinctly bright.
But next time you fly, listen carefully to the safety briefing… and think of Swaffham.