They’re on target to turn over more than £9 million this year and have more than doubled their workforce since a management buyout brought the company into local ownership in 2002.
Nitronica are one of Northern Ireland’s most enduring manufacturing successful stories, and yet possibly one of the least well known.
Now in the first year into a five-year growth plan, they’re in position to exceed targets.
According to Managing Director John Mellon: “We’re targeting £10.5 million in revenues next year and we’re planning to continue to grow. We’ve got some good new customers on board and we have some really nice products too. We’re very, very confident that we will have a good future.”
Originally founded in 1952 by Plessey Telecoms in Ballynahinch, Nitronica now provides contract electronic manufacturing services to 55 customers across 12 industry sectors around the globe.
“It’s great to work out of a small town like Ballynahinch where we are probably the biggest employer in the area. Pretty much every family in the town has had someone working with us at one point or another.”
John Mellon joined the company in 1997 as Financial Controller. At that stage, the company was a subsidiary of US group Viasystems producing cables and PCBs for the semiconductor, professional audio and telecoms industries.
But when the dotcom bubble burst, Nitronica’s fortunes changed almost overnight.
“In 2000, we came back after the Christmas to find the fax machines were filled with order cancellation messages. At that point in time, we realised we couldn’t simply depend on one market – we had to diversify into different markets,” he says.
This strategy was impossible to pursue within the US group structure so John Mellon – alongside John Hutchinson, Neil Harvey and Seamus Mooney – led a management buyout.
“We recognised there was a real potential to go into the marketplace and sell our services – we started picking up work in different sectors like audio, oil &gas and aerospace,” says John.
The strategy worked. Nitronica entered local ownership with a headcount of 65 and an uncertain future ahead. Now the workforce stands at 130 and the company just posted 35% growth in sales making 2017 their busiest year.
John says the “game changer” arrived in 2005 when B/E Aerospace – which owns a site in Kilkeel – ran into a circuit board problem with their business class seating.
“We were able to help them and this eventually led us to supply cable harnesses for aircraft seats. Once we had supply links into Kilkeel, US companies asked for us to supply to them as well. And that has grown into a huge part of the business for us. That was a game changer for the company we’re still making that product for B/E Aerospace,” he says.
Success for the company derives from the emphasis it places on customer service.
“We know that we’re not going to be able to compete with the very high-volume manufacturers in China – it’s just not possible to compete on price,” says John.
“Where we differentiate ourselves is offering extra services to the customer. Recently, an oil rig safety system went down in Singapore and the operator had no one to send out. So we said leave it to us and later that afternoon one of our engineers flew out and fix the problem for them. They stayed with the rig in case anything further went wrong. That is a still growing account for us,” he says.
The second plank to their success as a company is the strength and continuity of the team. The original management team are still in place and have developed a “very good way of working with each other”.
“Of course we have our disagreements, and it wouldn’t be healthy if we didn’t, but the secret for the team is that we know we’re all here for the same purpose and want to take the business forward,” he says.
“And there is a very good senior team just below us who work very, very hard over the years. They all believe in the business and where it’s going,” he says.
While international exports fill a sizeable proportion of the order book, the company can also work with smaller companies and start-ups prototyping new tech.
“We worked a lot with SeeSense on their bicycle light design. It was important for them to work with a local engineering company so that they could come down, see the process, tweak elements and control the development process a little bit more,” he says.
“It’s always very exciting to have somebody come through the door with a new idea.”