Strategy of innovation and exporting enables Martek Marine to survive stormy seas and smash £1m profit barrier

As MD Paul Luen explains, it’s not always been all plain sailing for the 54-strong Rotherham-based business which has steered a strategy of innovation and exporting through unchartered waters to achieve its current trailblazing success.

Since picking brambles at the age of seven and selling them to shoppers outside my local supermarket to supplement my pocket money, I’ve always been ‘insanely driven’ and possess a cast-iron self-belief that you can achieve absolutely anything if you put your mind to it.

Since setting out to create and grow a company which manufactures and supplies environmental and safety monitoring technology for the global shipping industry, this self-belief has endured some rigorous tests – particularly over period spanning 2008-2011.

I and two fellow directors founded Martek back in the heady days of 2000 when the spectre of economic downturn was little more than a bad memory of the early ‘90s.

With a background in the marine industry but absolutely no experience of running a business, we launched Martek with a tight budget of £6,000. We made up for a severe shortage in cash with an abundance of energy, drive and commitment to be the best at what we do, be a great employer – and attract outperforming robust management teams. We also wanted to do some good in the world as our products help to save lives and reduce environmental pollution.

For eight consecutive years we’d enjoyed year on year growth so we were more than rudely awakened when, like millions of fellow SMEs, we sailed head on into the financial storms. It was a stiff test and we rose to it.

Although we made some hard decisions, on the positive front, the soul searching we underwent as directors about Martek’s strengths and deficiencies, made us more creative, innovative and more productive than ever. One mantra that we’d always held as a constant went to the core of who we are as a company. A commitment to teamwork, ownership, improvement and enjoyment had always been central to Martek’s identity – but could these qualities really give us what we needed to succeed when the chips were down?

We ramped up our innovation and exporting – as a result of which we are pushing towards a £10 million turnover for the 2012-2013 financial year (February 2013).

A milestone 12 months have included expanding to Asia Pacific headquarters in Singapore where an eight-strong team is making waves across China and Singapore – and heading a European consortium which is developing disruptive technology for shop ballast water treatment in a £25bn market.

Innovation and investment continue to chart our success as we are poised to launch a series of new products including electronic chart navigation for ships whilst forging a partnership with Orange to pioneer telecom technology in ships.

A £250k injection into an enterprise resource planning (ERP) programme is further enhancing our business processes and a recruitment drive continues apace with a staff increase of 40 per cent in the last twelve months alone.

Ongoing strategic expansion and cutting-edge products have enabled us to out-perform the market supported by over 50 sales and service partners internationally. Now exporting to over 80 countries worldwide we are seeking to attract top talent who relish an exciting career in international trade as we continue to buck the trend of recession in the global market and create opportunity.

Reflecting on the tough times, as it turned out, we didn’t have to sacrifice any of our ideals, and we didn’t have to change Martek into the kind of company that none of us would have wanted to lead. Nevertheless, there have been changes – some of the most important being the way we think as directors, which have seen us adopt a savvier approach to decision making that navigated us through the stormy waters of recession to emerge a stronger business than we were in 2008.