Entrepreneur Interview: with Brian Palmer, Tharsus

Posted on the 6 June 2017

Entrepreneur Interview: with Brian Palmer, Tharsus

Tell me a little about your background
I grew up in Chapel House, Newcastle, and went to the Walbottle Campus School. For as long as I can remember I’d always wanted to be an engineer. Our work at Tharsus encompasses a number of engineering disciplines; mechanical, electrical, electronic and systems, but it was mechanical engineering that sparked my interest. To me, forces and materials make sense. There was a time when I thought about Naval Architecture as a career, but my parents dissuaded me against it.

After leaving school, I won a place at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, which has now merged with the University of Manchester. Its mechanical engineering course was one of the top five in the country. I graduated with a 2:1 in mechanical engineering and an unconditional offer to join Nissan. 

Industry is in a constant state of change and this was more the case than ever in the UK’s automotive sector in the 1980s. When I joined Nissan in 1988 the site was a giant greenfield car plant. While British car manufacturers were struggling to enter the modern age Nissan brought with it Japanese quality and manufacturing that were years ahead of most UK manufacturers. At this time the site was being used to assemble Nissan Bluebirds, which were imported as kits.

In 1993 I’d been at Nissan for five years when I decided to go skiing. I had been thinking about it for a while. The time seemed right for a break and a complete change in direction, so I spent two winters at Meribel in the French Alps. It was while skiing I met my wife Trish, who later moved to the UK from America to work at the Northern Counties School for the Deaf in Newcastle.

When the time came to get a proper job once more, I wanted to return to mechanical engineering but in a different sector. I had enjoyed the work at Nissan and appreciated the value of the knowledge I gained, but working in such a large organisation wasn’t for me. I had no difficulty finding work in the automotive industry but it wasn’t so easy elsewhere. Making the change would have to wait. I got a job as an Engine Program Manager working for Ford, managing the Puma diesel engine design in Essex before eventually moving back to Newcastle.

What were your first business premises?
The story of Tharsus started a long time before I arrived, the company was formed by three sheet metal workers who had won the football pools and decided to set up on their own. When my then business partner and I bought the company in 1997 it was a small back street factory in Hebburn, and could not have been more different to Tharsus today. Back then it was a very traditional metal bashing business, with only one computer.

In 2007 the company expanded and moved to Blyth when we acquired a firm call Direct Message, which became Tharsus Vision. By the time we needed to move into larger premises we knew staying in Blyth would give us access to many of the skills we needed and so we bought a property just along the road. We’re expanding again; expect to hear a lot more about our new factory in the coming months.

How has the business grown?
When I first acquired Tharsus its turnover was less than £1 million.  Turning over more than £20 million in 2016 came after a few bumps in the road. In 1997 we had some really impressive clients, including Marconi, but the tech crash of 2001-02 had a devastating impact on us, a lot of our customers got into trouble and the knock on effect meant our staff level was reduced from 37 to 22; it was a case of fighting for survival. 

How did the recession impact on your approach to business?
The last financial crisis and the tech sector crash that preceded it in 2001 were difficult times for our company, as they were for many engineering concerns. After the first tech crunch my business partner left and I took sole ownership of the business.  By the time of the recession we were mainly working for clients in telecoms, defence and outdoor advertising. All of these sectors were badly hit and it became evident that we needed a new outlet for our people and their skills. This led to us becoming specialists in Original Equipment Design and Manufacture (OEDM), which led to us producing some highly-specialised, usually electromechanical, products for companies including 3M, SafetyKleen and Rapiscan.

How are you adapting to changing markets?
Increasingly robotics will change the way we work and live. We wanted Tharsus to be at the forefront of developing and manufacturing robotics for commercial use. Robots built at our factory in Northumberland are now in use in Ocado’s robotic warehouse. We’re exploring the possibility of working with companies on robotics projects in a number of sectors, perhaps one of the most exciting of these is agri-tech, where advances in technology and economic factors such as proposed limits on immigration and rising wages are making automation a much more viable option. We still have an active fabrication business; they too have evolved over time to focus increasingly more on complex metal fabrications.  

What would you say is your unique selling point?
I would say the combination of our design expertise, production capability and trusted supply chain partnerships make us unique. It allows us to guide our customers along the whole product development journey, from initial concept to volume manufacture. For example, when Ocado – the world’s largest dedicated online grocery retailer approached us to help them co-design and manufacture the robotic vehicle that now forms the foundation of the Ocado Smart Platform, we worked with them to fully understand the commercial and technical needs and constraints of the project.  We explored a wide range of solution options for them – what should work and what would work. We tested in pre-production and then we started manufacture. We made the entire journey as simple as we could for them and we’re now repeating the process with the next generation of robot.

How do you handle motivation within the company?
I’m a firm believer that you should always play to your strengths; my strength when it comes to motivating people is creating teams that work. Finding people who fit together well is the foundation of good team work and productivity. I’m also very open with employees about what’s happening with the business. Our company is growing rapidly so it’s important that everyone knows the direction we are heading in and the role they play in getting us there. We’re on a journey together – it’s an exciting time!