When the going gets tough

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In conversation with Chris Busby

Sue Rees in Conversation with Chris Busby

ICE Oxford was founded in 2004 by Chris Busby and Paul Kelly to design and manufacture specialist Ultra-Low Temperature (ULT) and High Magnetic Field equipment for the cryogenic research community. Since then the company has grown to become a leading supplier of custom design, high-performance cryogenic systems to scientific and cryogenic research groups throughout the world.

ICE has received several business and innovation awards, including the Institute of Physics Innovation Award and the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Innovation. Chris has been on quite a journey, so I wanted to find out more about him, his business, and some of the lessons he’s learnt along the way.

Sue Rees: Chris, thanks so much for sitting down with me to talk about you and your business. Can we start with your journey? What was your background and did you always want to be in business?

Chris Busby: Well, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. My father had passed away so I didn’t really get any support or advice on a career path. Following a talk from a local engineering company at school I found myself being accepted as an apprentice toolmaker in Oxford. After I completed my apprenticeship I was quickly elevated to running the tool room, still wet behind the ears! Basically, that was because the place was full of older guys who didn’t want the job! They were happy just to clock in and clock out and wait to retire, whereas I wanted to crack on and do things. I suppose I’ve always had a bit of a spark like that. So I was made a chargehand and was designing moulding tools just months after I’d completed my apprenticeship.

A year or so later I was having a chat with another young guy who said he’d been for an interview at Oxford Instruments, and the job sounded great, but he had to turn it down because he hadn’t quite finished his apprenticeship and was still under an indenture. So because I had finished mine, I cheekily rang up Oxford Instruments and talked my way into the job instead!

SR: Very cheeky! What was it that attracted you to them?

CB: In the 1980s, Oxford Instruments was an exciting place to be, it was young, quite cutting edge, and growing. And that’s pretty much what we’ve got going here at ICE, so there’s always been that attraction to those kinds of environments. It was there that I meant my business partner Paul. I found I got bored with roles and so would always look to move around and experience other parts of the business. So after my initial role making instruments (that Paul had to test to make sure I’d done it right!) I had stints all over the place – in purchasing and stores management, operations, production management and more.

I got to a point in my career where I went for the job of Operations Director for one of the smaller group companies and didn’t get it, so I decided to do an MBA. I didn’t have a degree and hadn’t done anything academic since school, so that was a bit of an adjustment. In the end, I did a 2-year diploma in management at Oxford Brookes and stopped short of the full thing because I felt I’d got what I wanted from it. I found the whole experience really useful and very enjoyable, and it set me in good stead for starting ICE.

SR: So do you think it was always your intention to set up on your own at some point?

CB: I always thought I’d love to do it, but the cryogenics industry needs some major funding to get involved with, so it was always a bit of a pipedream. Plus I worked for a big company, so I had a bit of a blinker on that it wasn’t the sort of thing that could transfer to your own business. I remember saying to my wife that it’s not like I’ve got a trade where I can buy a van and set up on my own. But even then, Paul and I had talked about it in the pub in a bit of a wishful thinking way – there were always plenty of reasons why not, though.

Then there came a crucial point where Paul had left to go and be a self-employed consultant, and then I was made redundant in a restructure. I gave him a call and said “let’s do it, let’s take them all on, I’ve got nothing else to do now!”. So we did!

SR: And what was the motivation to set things up in the way that you have?

CB: As I said before, from my time with Oxford Instruments I realised that big organisations tend to lose the close communication between the people who design the hardware for them and the customer. Once you add layers of salespeople or customer service, you lose that link, and key messages can get lost.

So “proper” customer service was something I am very passionate about, and to me, that means having a direct link between engineers and system designers and the user. As a young, lean business there’s never more than one other contact between me and a customer, and putting myself in the customer’s shoes that’s an attractive proposition if you’ve been used to dealing with the big players with their layers of management, representative, and customer service teams.

I also saw a gap in the market for “dry” cryogenics which wasn’t being serviced by my then employer, so we decided to go it alone and service those needs. Traditional cryogenic systems are using liquid helium or liquid nitrogen, with the whole attached supply and storage chain requirements, so anything that reduces the need for that was going to be attractive to customers who were researching cutting edge developments like quantum computing, for example.

We’ve got some of the best products in the world at the moment. Our challenge now is to maintain that industry leadership!

SR: What did you learn from the early days of setting up ICE?

CB: A lot! We had a constant financial struggle up until just a few years ago. At one point in the early years, my son was doing his apprenticeship in the business and I had maxed out my mortgage to support the business and we were literally hours away from running out of cash. That would have meant me losing my job, my son losing his job, and me losing our house. I managed to rescue things at the 11th hour with a fairly frantic pitch to a couple of investors who thankfully saw the potential we had.

At one point we also had some aggressive people on the board who had an equity stake but didn’t believe in us. I don’t blame them, we were taking on some risky projects and made some losses. Effectively they were just looking to get some cash out of the business before it folded. But we believed in ourselves and although it was a massively stressful time we stuck to our guns and were able to wave them goodbye in the end.

In terms of the nuts and bolts of the business, I’ve learnt that it’s all about building product research, design and build processes that allow you to make regular, marginal gains. Looking to make things modular where you can and continually updating your procedures to make sure that you’re always delivering the results you need.

You also need to invest money back into the business – not only into tools like software or R&D equipment, but also investing money into your people. We do give out performance bonuses, we do throw the odd party for our team because rewarding hard work is important. It’s even more crucial that you invest in your recruitment process to make sure that people who come into the business are going to fit.

SR: So in the darkest hours of those early years what made you get up in the morning and keep pushing on?

CB: Look, we have things go wrong all the time – that’s the nature of the business we’re in, cutting edge engineering. So setbacks are things you come across a lot, be they financial, production-related, or something else. But once the initial disappointment has hit I’m the sort of person who then gets excited by the possibility of solving the problem. That’s the same whether it’s an engineering issue, or a cash flow issue, or a people issue.

So when things were getting close to the wire financially it drove me to find the solution, to fix the problem, to make it happen. Most problems usually need some sort of change to happen to sort them out. And I’ve always been someone who hasn’t had a problem with change – I tend to be able to find the positive in almost any situation, no matter how bad it seems on the face of it. I think that helps a lot. Plus, the bottom line is I’m not ready to give up yet!

SR: So given all you’ve learned from your journey, what advice would you give to someone starting a new business today?

CB: Get a mentor. You need a sounding board, someone who’s been there and done it, and someone you can benchmark yourself against. It’s something we didn’t really have, and I think we might have had fewer bumps in the road if we had.

Also, I think it’s tougher to go it alone, so it was great that we started the business as a pair with our different strengths. Paul wanted to be the Technical Director, and I was happy to be the CEO. Having that good relationship was really important for me. We have bounced ideas off each other so many times, and having two viewpoints can really help you to clarify the next direction you need to take. Still not as good as having the wise counsel of someone with experience from outside the business, but better than having to fly solo.

Also, it’s massively important that you make sure that the people you bring into the business are a good fit. That doesn’t mean they need to be the same type of people as you – it doesn’t even mean they need to like each other as people – but as far as the business is concerned they must gel and all believe in your vision and come together to be working to the same end.

Luckily I’m in the position to have a fantastic team of talented and lovely people, many of whom have been developed and nurtured in house. Our turnover is quite low, and although that’s not always a good thing in all phases of a business, it does tend to show that you’ve got your culture and your recruitment about right.

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