We talk to Suzanne Blaustone, CEO of Barton Marine Equipment, about how her team is overcoming rising costs and raw material shortages to keep customers supplied.
What attracted you to working in the marine industry?
I was working with chemical coatings manufacturers in the US when I first met Barton Marine Equipment’s owner, David Coleman, at a trade show during 1991. We dated across the Atlantic for five years until we eventually settled together in the UK.
I was originally one of those marine industry spouses who had a lot of fun around the sector, enjoying the socialising and the boating. When David passed away in 2014, the ownership of Barton Marine transferred to me. I had a choice of whether to run it or sell. My background was in manufacturing, and I decided it was the right thing to get involved. So, I took on the CEO role and remain in that role today.
David was an icon in the business. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. Having met many of the people he was in contact with, I felt very comfortable. A lot of our close business collaborators were also personal friends, so I felt right at home. Once you’re in the industry, it feels like you are a part of something much bigger than your own little niche.
Tell us about your business?
Barton Marine is a global supplier of sailboat deck gear, selling through distributors in 37 territories. We make equipment to suit everything from dinghies up to sailing yachts of around 50ft length. I believe we are one of the few suppliers that still manufactures products in our own factory and am very proud that we are a UK manufacturer that exports around the world.
What interesting trends are you seeing in the industry?
The big positive is that many more new people are getting into boating. COVID restrictions opened their eyes to having fun and feeling safe out on the water. They suddenly had more time due to home working, which generated a boom for sailing, water toys, paddleboards, kayaks and powered boating. It was like a tidal wave. Our industry challenge now is to keep those newcomers interested in the boating lifestyle, ensuring they can afford it, stay safe and enjoy easy access to the water.
Other trends that I’ve seen as a manufacturer are much more challenging. Brexit, followed by the COVID pandemic, has seen a multiplication of supply chain issues for us over the past two years. Some materials we rely upon such as marine grade stainless steel in sheet and rod form and marine grade plastics are not made in the UK, so we are reliant on imports. Material shortages, tariffs and the need for much greater documentation post Brexit are all having impacts. In some cases, raw material quotations are only valid for two hours and we have seen prices rise within five hours of the original quote.
One thing that got us through the COVID pandemic was the fact that we purchased materials in advance to guard against anticipated difficulties with Brexit. We had so much stock and inventory that we could continue to manufacture and maintain good lead times on our products.
We’re continuing to buy raw materials in advance, in volume, to keep prices down and avoid supply chain delays. There is a risk on us of having over-priced stock if prices later fall. However, our importance as a supplier to the industry is to be able to manufacture and deliver on time. If we can do that, then our customers and our distributors around the world feel safe working with us.
The other more recent negative trend is the rapidly rising cost of energy due to market instability accelerated by the war in the Ukraine. We knew increases were coming and negotiated with many suppliers. The best deal we could secure was an increase of 97 per cent! We’re also assisting our workers with their higher commuting costs of getting to the factory. We could not have foreseen this big increase in overheads when budgeting for the year, in August 2021.
Nevertheless, we have overcome these issues, kept producing and only had one price increase this year against an industry trend for multiple increases and delays. We are having to reduce margin, but I'd rather do that and maintain stability with our customers to maintain trust and keep them in business selling. I'm very proud of the Barton Marine team here for getting that done.
What is the importance of METSTRADE to your business?
Barton Marine was one of the founder exhibitors METSTRADE and it remains our most important event of our year. We would not be able to function as successfully and proactively without this show. It enables us to present our range of products in one place to all our distributors and customers, based in nearby countries like France right out to the Pacific Rim.
METSTRADE provides the opportunity to look each other in the eye and talk about creating successful partnerships and businesses together in each territory we work in. Everything we do in research and development is based on what we're going to be able to display at the show and it forms our deadline for launching new products.
When the pandemic prevented METSTRADE 2020 we sent a hamper out to every distributor and invited them to a Zoom event. We even built our METSTRADE stand in the warehouse and showed all our products virtually. It was successful, but we just couldn't wait to get back to the real thing last year. We still need to see people face to face, to understand their opportunities and problems. It was wonderful to meet those customers again who could make it over to Amsterdam in 2021.
How do you plan for a typical METSTRADE?
We start planning for METSTRADE in January and we never stop. In fact, we commence even earlier because there is a hotel we like in Amsterdam so as soon as we check out, we check back in for the following year!
Our stand is never quiet. We schedule all METSTRADE meetings with distributors and customers at least three weeks before the show starts and plan a dedicated time for each of them. This schedule fills the whole of the three days and only slows around 4pm on the last day, when we hope to quickly get around and see some other stands.
Which METSTRADE areas and activities do you most look forward to?
We love meeting with our customers, so I most look forward to seeing them face to face and showing them product that they can touch and hold. I also love the camaraderie of meeting up at the bar for exhibitors’ drinks, as well catching up with journalists at our new products launch party.
I did enjoy sitting through some of the conferences during the virtual METSTRADE Connect 2020 event – however our schedule normally prevents the chance to get away from the stand.
This year I’m working with British Marine to create an international Women in Marine event, extending an important activity that we have held in the UK for some time now. Details are still being worked out, but we want to hold a strong global networking opportunity for women working in the industry.