In 1920s America, scientist Dr Elmer Sperry made a remarkable discovery: he found a way to detect life-threatening defects in railway lines. Previously, the only method of detecting defects was by visual inspection which was often too late. Sperry’s discovery was a big improvement, and it led directly to the formation of Sperry Rail, which has become the world’s largest rail inspection service provider.
Eight decades later, the Hatfield rail tragedy made worldwide headlines. Caused by a broken rail it made Railtrack, the UK’s national rail operator, reassess their rail inspection regime. This highlighted the need for railbound ultrasonic track testing vehicles. After researching the market the contract for inspecting Railtrack’s lines was awarded to Sperry Rail.
That means Sperry Rail, with its fleet of four trains and almost four hundred pedestrian “Walking Sticks”, has responsibility for safety checks on every mile of Britain’s railways. The work is done in two ways. Firstly, special vehicles travel the lines scanning for problems. Secondly, operators on foot use handheld equipment, manufactured in the UK by Sperry, to find cracks using ultrasound technology. Sperry also tests tracks in Germany, Spain, Switzerland and Ireland amongst many others.
UKTI helped Sperry expand its contacts list overseas, set up meetings and attend exhibitions to meet prospective clients.
We spoke to Sperry Rail’s European Business Development Director, John Tansley, about working with UKTI.
What did you need help with?
We needed assistance finding the right contacts and getting initial meetings off the ground.
Railway business is quite difficult to complete. We are selling very high-tech equipment, and businesses can take up to two years to finally agree to sign the contract.
How do you choose which countries to target?
This is based on their proximity to us and the amount of rail track that they have. For example, Turkey intends to have 20,000km of track by 2013, so they are a good target for us.
Company name: Sperry Rail
Do you attend exhibitions outside of the UK?
Yes, we attend all the major shows for the rail sector including InnoTrans in Berlin, the international trade fair for transport technology.
Language can be a problem as not everyone speaks English, although I have found that quite a lot of the younger people in Europe do, especially in the smaller countries where they watch English and American television with subtitles.
I can speak a bit of French and Spanish but I have had help from UKTI with an interpreter on trips to Poland and Turkey.
The size of some of our equipment means it’s difficult to transport, so at overseas exhibitions we take some of our smaller pieces of equipment along, instead of the large vehicles.
What are your top tips for exhibiting?
Beware of timewasters. There are a lot of people pretending to be agents who don’t have real leads. Also, take at least one other person along so you can cover for each other on the stand.
We went to three exhibitions with UKTI in 2012 at which we shared a stand with around six other East Midlands businesses. This is great as you can make contacts that can help you out in the future.
Face to face meetings are incredibly important, and exhibitions can help to facilitate that.
What help have you had from UKTI?
UKTI’s Overseas Market Introduction Service OMIS has been very helpful. We joined UKTI’s first rail sector market visit to Turkey in 2010, and I will be making my fourth visit with them to Turkey again this year. I have also visited Poland, Serbia and Germany with UKTI.
During the Turkish visit, we explored the market, and set up meetings with embassies in Turkey. It was great to meet new contacts, who are now possible customers.
Would you recommend UKTI to other British businesses?
Yes, absolutely. They are excellent value for money, and they have real influence as they are government backed. They put you in touch with people you need to see and their help has led to potential new contracts. I have been back to Poland twice since the first initial trip with UKTI, which is very promising.