Q&A with ISF founder, Iain Scott: Reflections on a 35-year journey

schedule18th Jun 24

Q: Tell us about your early career
A: I left school in the early 70’s when I was 16. At the time, I wanted to be an electrician but there weren’t many opportunities and so I took the next available apprenticeship at White Rose Metal Fabricatory to become a sheet metal worker. I worked on conveyors, hoppers, and more, mainly for flour mills. Eventually I was working on various sites installing equipment in flour and animal feed mills.

Q: How did you start your own business?
A: I left that role with the intention of setting up my own business, but I needed to understand a bit more about the feed milling industry that I was working in, so I went to work in an animal feed mill for two years. That’s how I got to know the basics of a feed mill before I went on various courses at Greenwich University, which covered feed milling and powder technology.

Q: Why engineering in animal feed milling?
A: I realised that I enjoyed that type of work as it was varied, and I had an interest in it in comparison to the repetitive production line work I was doing previously. I now knew and understood how a mill ran, and I felt it was quite an asset to have. To put it in simple terms, you were talking to customers that understood how the feed mill ran, but they didn’t know the engineering side of what machinery to use, how to make it, or how to install it. So, because I knew an element of both sides it fit perfectly. It became my niche, because most people could make what I made but they didn’t know what to make.

After gaining this industry experience, I bought a van, became self-employed, and worked on farm and mill projects. Eventually, I subcontracted for larger companies and secured a significant job with Daylay Eggs (now Noble Foods). This was the start of things to come, and eventually meant employing a team of staff to help manage the growth of the business.

Q: What challenges did you face as the business grew?
A: Bird flu, salmonella, foot and mouth – during those periods we had to diversify into the construction industry supplying and installing balconies, railings etc. on large developments in Leeds, Harrogate and York. We were still doing an element of feed milling at the time, but there was just less work and so we adapted to survive.

Then came the 2008 bank property crash. We rebranded as ISF (formerly Ian Scott Fabrications) to expand beyond personal perceptions of us just being a small company because at the start it was me in a van! Soon after this we were back to our niche working for the animal feed industry.

Q: What do you think have been the secrets to ISF’s success?
A: Having and respecting good staff is key. At the end of the day, you are only as good as the people you employ! We’ve always made sure we embrace our customers problems as if they were our own. If a client has a breakdown, we understand what that could mean. So, we react as quickly as we can and by doing this, we have managed to build a strong reputation in a niche market.

At ISF, we have always planned for the worst and hope for the best. I’ve learnt to never take anything for granted. You have to be prepared to listen to others, but also never afraid to ask questions. Plus, you have to be continually improving – complacency can be dangerous.

Q: How do you ensure long-term relationships with your clients?
A: We prioritise customer satisfaction and build trust through reliability and responsiveness. We aim for job satisfaction and treat clients’ problems as our own. You’re trying to build up a relationship, so no matter what size the project is, you’ll aim to do a great job and look after the client’s needs!

Q: What can you say about the ISF team over the last 35 years?
A: Everyone that has worked here, from day one to today, has helped us steadily improve and move forward. Without them we would not be where we are today and for that I will always be grateful.

Q: How many of the original team are still with you?
A: One or two have retired recently, but 3 or 4 of the team have been here 30 years or more, which says a real lot as when you’re on the shop floor or installing on site its hard going as you get older. Some of the guys have left and made good careers in different industries and I’m happy for them. Work can definitely be stressful at times. So, we do try to make sure we have some fun too. Its uplifting having a good laugh together – even when it’s at my expense!

Q: How has technology evolved over the last 35 years?
A: Many years ago, customers used to have their own drawing offices and draughtsmen and they’d send out drawings for us to quote and make things. So, we used to manufacture things to a customer’s drawing and if they’d made a mistake and it was wrong, they’d pay us again to remake it (I wish it was still like that ha-ha!)

The large companies soon changed so that contractors took the risk not themselves. They reduced costs at the same time by closing down their own drawing offices. So, we took the risk away from the customer. It was a no brainer on their part – if we got it measured and we made it wrong, we had to make it right at our own cost. We still had staff that were able to develop and make things themselves from every aspect, from a simple drawing. They’d have to mark things out on the floor, form it all and make it all from start to finish, which was very labour intensive and expensive. Then technology came along with the CAD and CNC machines.

Now all the development work is carried out on CAD, and everything cut on CNC, hence that’s why we’ve got five people in the drawing office. We’ve only got five people on the shop floor because most of the work’s done in a drawing office and then everything’s cut for them, with the holes in and everything and shapes. This has cut the manufacturing time at least in half, just with technology alone – and reduces the risk of errors too.

CAD software and CNC machines revolutionised manufacturing efficiency. We invest in technology to enhance quality and reduce production time. Site-wise, there’s been big changes. In the early days you used to be able to employ people off the books, self-employed, labourers coming along, anybody who was fit enough to carry something and install things. Now probably the most skilled job is the installation side, because the installations are so diverse this is where the skills sets are required.

There’s also a lot more focus now on the health and safety side of things – as there should be. Which means a lot more investment in training on health and safety for the different environments and types of operations our site workers do. Our site fitters are all trained to IOSH managing safety standard.

Q: Where did you think ISF would get to all those years ago?
A: I aimed to match industry standards initially, but now I believe we’re among the best in the UK. What we’re trying to do now, rather than expand, is trying to sustain everything that we’ve got by investing in training and enhancing the business in that way. I didn’t initially foresee this level of expansion and investment, but it’s all about contributing to the future of the industry for the next generation by trying to bridge the skills shortage gap.

Q: What advice would you give your younger self?
A: Be tougher and more discerning in decision-making. Experience is invaluable, and everyone’s different. I’ve had a few misjudgements, but I’ve learnt from my mistakes, and I won’t make them again. At the end of the day, you can’t buy experience!

Q: Any tips for running a business for 35 years?
A: Plan for adversity, remain humble in success, and never stop evolving. When I was young, my mum would tell me there will be days when you’re happy and gleeful, but don’t ever forget about your down days. Don’t get carried away when your business is flying because then you have no safety net.

Iain Scott’s journey from a sheet metal worker to the founder of ISF reflects resilience, adaptability, and a commitment to excellence. His story highlights the importance of customer and staff relationships, technological innovation, and strategic evolution in sustaining a successful business over decades, whilst most importantly never forgetting the value of people, staying humble and learning from experience.

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