As husband and wife business teams go, Sandra and David Cunliffe really are a stand-out offering.
Not only have they created a successful organisation from scratch, provided employment and met a relatively niche demand – but they’ve done so internationally, and in the midst of a recession.
For David, a former RAF corporal, his role today as head of his own specialist company DC Electronics is a million miles from where he ever imagined his career might take him, and has chiefly come about through a combination of dogged determination and ‘right time right place’.
He launched his wiring loom manufacture business back in 1997, following a period at Nissan Motorsports Europe, where he first identified a gap in the market.
Always mindful of the need to research and call upon expert advice, David sourced useful information via the now defunct Business Link in those formative years of start-up. But it was when his mind turned to huge potential opportunity in the United States, that he struck up a rapport with a UKTI Trade Advisor for the first time.
“After 10 years of running the business and watching the demands of our customers in the motorsport world, I was increasingly of the belief that there were opportunities for us in the United States, so we organised to attend a trade show and even managed to get a distributor for our power steering system,” he says.
“What we were naive about though, was how very different the market was, and it was evident that we’d need to research harder and take destiny in our own hands rather than rely on a distributor selling ours and 200 other products – that’s where UKTI proved invaluable.”
Sandra and David began working with Simon Fennelly, a trade advisor who had himself had experience of the US market and was quickly able to set them running with the Passport to Export programme.
By then hand-holding the pair through the EMRS initiative, he ensured that the critical research was achieved with some very considered trips to and from the United States.
“We learned it was very much about mouth-shut-ears-open on those visits,” said David.
“We gained so much as a result of Simon steering us in the right direction and delivering us to the right contacts.
“Our early visits to the States included one where we assisted by both the UKTI and Motorsport Industry Association and gained access to people in the market that we simply would have struggled to get contact details for – let alone meet in person.”
He continued: “Although we’d been desperately trying to break into NASCAR and off-road motorsport, it simply wouldn’t have happened without the UKTI guidance – or the good fortune of NASCAR changing its rules.”
As luck would have it, NASCAR announced it would be moving to fuel injection.
This massive development blew the supplier market wide open, and left Sandra and David in the right position to seize the opportunity to push their wiring harnesses.
“It was a key time for us and we ended up with immediate business from the States because all of a sudden that sector of motorsport was in a position where it didn’t have an established supplier base for the requirements of running by fuel injection,” David explains.
“From there, the level of business commitment to us meant that we quickly needed to look at whether we could stretch to creating a US base for DC Electronics, because in NASCAR they race every weekend bar two, from February right through to November.
“That high level means that they would never want to be waiting for products to ship from the UK, so we used a second EMRS programme, researched again, and set up in North Carolina a year ago.”
The meteoric growth which now sees DC Electronics existing as a multinational business with 17 staff, is impressive by anyone’s standards.
Trade advisor Simon Fennelly believes their achievement proves the power of the UKTI programmes – when attached to passionate business people prepared to keep raising their own ambitions – is a recipe for success in a foreign market.
“There was never any doubting David’s commitment to wanting to explore the US market and to capitalising on motorsport across the Atlantic in whatever means possible,” he said.
“By the time we started working with them in 2005 they were already clear about that intention, so my job was to provide the right programmes – from EMRS to Gateway to Growth – and help advise against possible pitfalls or differences in trading practices.”
Where export was merely 10% of DC Electronics’ business back in 2006, today it stands at more like 80%, with turnover having doubled in that time, and more jobs continually being created.
As if all this weren’t enough of an accomplishment, the firm picked up a Motorsport Industry Association (MIA) award for Export last year, and for New Markets in January this year.
“The success in the United States has exceeded all our expectations,” said David.
“There have certainly been some tense moments along the way, particularly when trying to access funding for the North Carolina base, but we’ve been committed to our plans and we know that our research and the delivery of a great quality product can really reap dividends for us.
“We may have achieved a lot in this last few years, but we’ve certainly not stopped our growth plan. We have a great deal more we hope to achieve and are looking into some significant other areas overseas – all of which we intend to keep pursuing with the help of the UKTI relationship.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we wouldn’t be where we are if we hadn’t been working with UKTI on this journey.”
If you are based in the East of England region and are interested in developing your business overseas please contact:
UKTI East of England International trade Team
Tel: +(0)845 641 9955
Find your nearest International Trade Advisor via our postcode search facility in “Contacts in your region”.