Another incredible story of surviving the ups and downs of export markets was told to members in Auckland last month.
At the After Five networking function we had the privilege of hearing from a Kiwi visionary and self-described ‘extreme engineer’ – Bill Buckley, founder of Buckley Systems that creates and exports precision electromagnets, charged particle beamlines and high vacuum equipment.
These futuristic-sounding technologies are integral to big machines with a range of industrial purposes, and for little devices like iPads. Buckley Systems is the single biggest user of steel plating over four inches thick.
Bill told us his story of innovation and adaptation that was inspirational for all in the room.
Sales over the past 12 months have been rocketing for Buckley Systems. The silicon chip industry is running pretty steady but with all the ups and downs Bill was always looking for diversification, he said.
When iPads came along the company developed a machine to improve iPad screens, which are now also being used for telephone and super high-definition television screens. Buckley Systems has captured the world market for those machines, which make one iPad screen every second, and run 24/7.
They are big machines at 6m long x 3.5m high x 3m wide. Buckley Systems have been asked to build one every 10 days over three years, in a contract worth approximately $26-30 million a year. Customers are Apple, Samsung, Sharp and LG.
He never expected success on that scale. So all the time Bill was casting around for other opportunities.
Buckley Systems has built a machine 112m in diameter containing 600–1000 tonnes of magnets for Monash University in Australia.
One year at a conference Bill was attending he was approached by some Canadians who were going to build a light source and because Bill was in magnets, they asked him to bid on the job. Bill looked at all their paraphernalia and refused, saying he didn’t want to build it their way. But some Australians present asked if Bill would build the machine for them.
Given it was a government job, he needed to tender for it. However, Bill said the Australians went out of their way to help. Buckley Systems was awarded the $8m contract over the opposition.
Subsequently, the Taiwanese approached Buckley Systems wanting a 500m diameter, 2000 tonne machine. This came at a time when things were pretty grim at work due to fluctuations in the silicon chip industry that led to Bill laying off three quarters of his staff. Then Buckleys landed this $26m contract two weeks before Christmas.
When the bank refused to put up a bond, a local New Zealand company put up the guarantee (using the same bank!).
From industrial goods to cancer treatment
Bill’s new focus for an innovative machine is to treat cancer using boron neutron therapy.
Bill envisages building a machine that can treat a patient using one treatment with no side effects, based on injecting boron into cancer cells then zapping them with a neutron: weeks later the body will have destroyed the cancer.
These developments are expected to be up and running in a couple of years.
Bill started out in business 37 years ago forming Buckley Engineering, doing simple engineering jobs.
By 1986, intent on entering the computer chip industry, he sold that business and created Buckley Systems to pursue the US market.
He has said, “Over the years, I have taken many risks in business, however, my belief in my ability to manufacture exactly what the Americans were looking for paid off. The more I got knocked back, the more determined I became and today, my business is a global leader in precision electromagnets.”
Planning for export
At another seminar for members in recent weeks we heard invaluable advice couched in real life examples of planning for the risks and challenges in overseas markets.
Our presenters on that occasion were the very knowledgeable and open SnapComms chief executive Sarah Perry, and Imake international sales manager Barry Cowen. Both companies have won awards for growth in their export markets, in our annual export awards programme.
We have a workshop this month on the EU - its economic status and doing business in those markets - as well as on managing distributor relationships in China. The presenters have expert knowledge and personal experience of their subject matter.
What these people share is gold! We are truly grateful for their collaboration with us to help boost New Zealand’s exports.
And our branch offices in Hamilton and Tauranga offer similar events locally.
Anyone can come along to gain from others’ wisdom and experience, and share their own. Be warned: a heavy focus is chatting over breakfast, or later in the day over drinks and canapes!
- Catherine Lye is executive officer of ExportNZ Auckland and manager of the ExportNZ Division of EMA. Visit www.exportnz.org.nz
(extract from September 2015 issue of BusinessPlus)