James Leckey Design is celebrating 30 years in business in which it has made a real difference to children and adults with disabilities. The Lisburn company develops and manufactures products that help people with disabilities to improve the quality of their lives.
Not only does it do good work, but the business is also highly successfully, with nearly 140 staff and a turnover that has increased by 20% in each of the last two years, and which is set for further growth.
Back in 1983, James Leckey was motivated by his determination to help people. He was assisted by his skills as a mechanical engineer and his involvement in the family florist business, which gave him a strong interest in design.
When James did a fundraising run for Mencap and gave the money into the charity, he saw the products they were using. He knew he could produce better ones himself. He gave them an offer the charity could not refuse – he promised to produce them free of charge.
Initially working part time on the design and manufacture, James gradually realised that he needed to charge for materials and then, as the project became full time, for labour. However, working closely with therapists, James was still able to produce items that were cheaper as well as better than other products on the market. “I just loved it,” explains Leckey. “It was incredibly rewarding. It’s a rewarding industry to be involved in, ensuring that disabled kids are supported.”
The key moment for the business’s expansion was attending the Naidex exhibition in 1988 at Alexandra Palace in London. “Then it just took off,” says James. “Within two or three years we were the UK market leader. When we got on the road and established ourselves, it really took off.”
In the early 1990s, Leckey started hitting the international markets, using a distributor based in Boston in the United States. As international trade increased, Leckey obtained a new partnership deal in the US and an international distribution arrangement with the German company Ottobock, one of the world’s largest manufacturers and distributors of prosthetic products. The UK remains Leckey’s core market – and it distributes the products of other prosthetics’ businesses in the UK.
As commercial growth continued, the business moved from James’ garden shed, to a unit in Kilwee, which then became two units, then three and eventually four. But operating across several adjacent premises constrained the company’s development. It has now acquired a new factory in Lisburn, which was opened earlier this month by Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and enterprise minister Arlene Foster.
“The recession did us a big favour,” explains Leckey. “Property prices came down and I was able to borrow. The new premises are just brilliant and have improved the profile of the business. We are very proud of them. Our previous buildings were dowdy. If we bring people into our new premises they want to do business with us because the premises look great.”
James, who remains the company’s chief executive and majority shareholder, is generous in his praise of his staff in building a great business. “The key factors for growth were getting good staff, both in production and management,” he says. “Having a real depth of brilliant people makes life easy.
“We work really hard on team building, ensuring everyone knows where they are going. I have 14 KPIs [key performance indicators], including customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction. Management are bonused against those.”
However, the company is now hitting its growth ceiling in terms of staff numbers, though not on turnover. Leckey is an advocate of anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who argues that no person can have a meaningful relationship with more than 150 people. As James Leckey Design is now close to that number, the business is looking to create a spin-out business to siphon-off some of the growth and additional employment.
The new spin-out will be an internet business, marketing products to individuals – whereas James Leckey Design sells mostly to institutions, such as healthcare organisations and schools. James says that he and his generation are not sufficiently “in touch” with web enterprises for them to lead the spin-out.
“A new, young, team will be pulled together to develop that business,” says James. “It would be like flying into fog for us. It’s up to the younger guys.”
Despite this, the core business will continue to grow revenues, insists Leckey. “We are very excited and there are great opportunities in front of us. The management is very focused on growth.”
Part of the future development of the business is to further strengthen ties with the charitable sector and the local community, which can help build the profile of the company and assist with future staff recruitment. “We have not been good at blowing our own trumpet,” says James. “We really do want to raise our profile with the local community and to interact more.”
Even at 30 years of age, James Leckey Design remains a dynamic and innovative business. It should be an example to many younger firms that aspire to be enterprising and long lasting.