IoD East Midlands Rob Beswick talks to Rob Bokros, owner and managing director of Lobo Systems and Lifetime Member of the IoD, about the company’s growth, why you always have to listen to the customer and his bold ambitions for the future.
You’ve got to start selling your product somewhere – and where better to start than with the people who put a man on the Moon? It probably sounds a bit ambitious, and it’s unlikely that there are many businesses whose opening sales ledger starts with the words ‘NASA, Edwards Air Force Base, California’, but that’s where – and excuse the pun – the Lobo Systems story really began to take off. But it wasn’t as if Lobo’s MD Rob Bokros had deliberately targeted the US space giant either. “I received an email from a chap called Rob Garcia at NASA saying he had come across the Lobo System on the internet and was interested in buying one to use as a stand for an aircraft fuselage while it was worked on. “However, he had to see it in the flesh. I asked him, if he saw the system and it was what he wanted, would he buy it there and then. He said he would – he’d put it on his credit card! – so I had the kit shipped out to Los Angeles, caught a flight over, hired a van, picked it up from LA’s dockside and drove out through the Mojave Desert to the airbase to meet him.
“I assembled the system, showed him how it worked, and he got his card out to seal the deal. It was one of those occasions when you drop everything to clinch a sale.”
It’s the type of ‘flying by the seat of your pants’ story that most small business owners will find familiar, but as well as Rob’s willingness to drop everything for a sale it highlighted his passion for what he stills believes is a unique product. He first became aware of Lobo Systems in 1998 – though things weren’t going well for the business at the time.
An engineer by trade but running an IT company, Rob had come across Lobo Systems at a time when the company was basically bust – it had run out of cash and was going out of business. But what it did have was a brilliant concept for a new style of, well, scaffolding… “It’s not scaffolding,” laughs Rob, “but if I say scaffolding to anyone, they understand the idea behind it. “I prefer to refer to a Lobo System as a work platform that is a flexible and safe alternative to scaffolding. Think Meccano set consisting of strong steel posts that is configured to meet your exact requirements…” The point about the system is that it is entirely modular and is so simple to fit together that customers assemble it themselves and can use it time and time again. Just like meccano!
But it’s not the type of kit you’d expect to see on a building site or use to fix the drains at home. “If you’re doing that, get yourself a traditional aluminium tubular scaffold,” says Rob. “Our customers are factories, warehouses or manufacturing facilities where they need a frame or work platform for either support or to give them access. “As an example, say you needed to service the gearbox on a large factory assembly unit. The days are long gone when you could just lean a ladder against it and have someone run up and down while they worked on it. You need to create a platform for your service team to gain access to the parts that need attention. “In the past you would have had to call in a traditional scaffolding team. They would have arrived – when they were ready – you’d have paid a lot of money to have their team assemble the scaffold and then they would have left it on your premises until they could return to take it down, potentially long after it’s been used. All the while you’re paying for it. It could mean your machinery is out of action until the scaffold is taken down, it could be getting in the way of the rest of the factory; it’s inconvenient, probably inflexible and costly. “Lobo Systems can be put together by your team and meets your needs. You tell us the dimensions of what it is you need to work with, or around, and we will design a system that meets your requirements.” The NASA deal is a case in point; the platform was to provide access to an aircraft fuselage while engineers worked on different parts of it. “Other companies use Lobo Systems for maintenance or to access parts of the plant room. It can be built to meet unusual shapes – but always assembled by your people and taken down and stored for next time as soon as it is no longer needed – and all considerably cheaper than traditional scaffolding.”
The roll call of clients is impressive: as well as Nasa add Airbus, Amazon, Ford, General Motors, Tesla … we’re talking high-tech businesses from across the board. The system is so versatile, everyone can find a use for one. What has been key to its success is Rob’s desire to constantly evolve the product. “When we first started out, as we’re Derby based, my first thought was to approach Rolls Royce. They were happy to let us in, thought the system was great but said straight away, ‘we’re not buying; it hasn’t got a built-in ladder for access.’ “So, I went away, and we re-designed the system to engineer in a ladder system. “We went back, and they said ‘great - but if our people are going to use it, we need a training programme we can use’. We went away again and devised one for them – at which point they bought it.
“It was a great example for us, of the importance of listening to our customers, of evolving the system and refining it until it’s perfect for everyone.”
Is it still evolving? “Not as much. When you’ve supplied systems to NASA, Airbus, Ford, Tesla, you’re talking about cutting-edge businesses who are very demanding. We’re meeting their needs, so we’re pretty sure we’ve got it right. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not open to new ideas. Usually, our platform boards for standing on are wooden topped but that’s no good for food processing operations, for instance, so we have aluminium options. They are worried about cross-contamination, so aluminium is better for them.
“We think we’ve got it right but we’re always open to develop the product more to meet customers’ needs.
“We’ll push and push the product until we’ve ticked all the boxes and the customer buys. “It’s something every business has to remember: you have to build a product that people want to buy.”
The growth of Lobo Systems has coincided exactly with the growth of the internet – and that’s no coincidence.
“When we had the system ready, we were regular attendees at Expos and business shows around the world and picked up a lot of sales that way. But we were also early adopters of web-based remote demonstrations so customers can see how Lobo Systems work, how safe and easy to assemble they are and how you can reconfigure them. We use web-based demonstrations regularly, so we can take the product around the world, without leaving Derby!” The day we spoke was a classic example: “This afternoon I have a video call to South Africa, then after that one to a company in Canada,” while a recent sale was to a client in Costa Rica: “We gave him a demonstration over the internet, he sent us photographs of his requirements and we designed a system for him.”
With global orders increasing, Rob uses certified distribution agents to boost sales. “We have three in the United States, and one in Australia. They have lots of stock they can use to demonstrate on customer’s premises. Mind you, both countries are so vast they still use video demonstrations!” The growth of Lobo Systems has been fed by a talented 20-strong workforce, all of whom have come through the company’s in-house training programme. “We don’t take in people with all the skills we need. We take in the right people, those who will understand our values and live them. Everyone goes through our induction process which takes them through every part of the business so whatever their role, they understand the systems, how they work and their uses.”
What about the future? “I want us to go global.” Considering the company already operates in the US, in Central America, Europe and Australasia, an ambition “to go global” seems like one that has already been met! “No, far from it. We’ve more areas in North America I want to target, I want to build on our position in Australia, and Europe is an area we want to exploit further.”
Will Brexit confound this latter goal? “Not in my view. I’m very confident that whatever happens, the UK will still be able to trade freely with Europe. Let’s face it, it’s in Europe’s interests to make sure they can access the UK – we’re important to Germany, to France, and their businesses won’t want to be shut out of our market. I’m confident I can take Lobo Systems further in Europe.” Interestingly, Rob didn’t mentioned China in his future hit list. “It’s a market I’d like to get into but at the moment, there are other areas to tackle.”
Ambition for growth isn’t the only value Rob holds dear. He has as the company’s cornerstones “honesty, integrity and ethics. We live by these values. I have no time for people who aren’t honest, about themselves or in their business operations.” As for leadership, he sees his job as “sharing the vision” with his team.
“I make sure they all know where we are going, our goals for the future. It gives us a dynamism and drive.”