Still an engineer at heart, Phil Carroll had a difficult learning curve setting up his company – but it has now set a turnover target of £35m by 2020
By Mike Cowley
Mechanical engineer Dr Phil Carroll knew he was on his way career wise when his chemist father stopped telling him he needed to get a proper job with a pension. For the successful entrepreneur had transformed his life-long passion for metal – as a youngster he once burned his nose because he enjoyed the smell given off by a red hot poker – into a Cheshire-based metal powder company that has become global thanks to an award winning track record in exporting.
His big break came with the realisation that 3D metal bed printing offered a major market opportunity but needed a refined powder product, rather than the conventional output of steel mills of the dark Satanic variety, to become fully accepted in critical performance sectors such as aerospace, medical, and automotive.
With the realisation that small batches of sophisticated parts can be produced by 3D print machines more cost effectively than through traditional machine tooling, the likes of Rolls- Royce and GE have now fully embraced the technology and turned to LPW of Runcorn to supply the metal powder.
After gaining his PhD at the University of Sheffield – the city recognised as the Mecca of Steel – Phil Carroll chose to spend his working life in metal and more latterly in 3D print applications. He was arguably the first person to see there was not only a problem in terms of the quality of powder available but was also able to provide a solution for it.
“This issue is simple,” he explains. “If you put garbage in, you get garbage out.”
Today he not only provides the most advanced quality of metal powder available thanks to in-depth analysis and screening of the metal powder at his plant but is also building a new £20 million high spec factory to produce the next generation of powders to feed into banks of metal 3D printers.
And that is only part of his dream. For his plan is to eventually deliver his own metal powder in “cartridges” which can fit into 3D printers – just as ink cartridges fit into conventional desk printers – and has large metal prototypes already developed to achieve this breakthrough.
This, in turn, he believes could eventually provide the basis for a futuristic scenario in which mobile 3D printer assemblies will be found close to locations where specialist parts are constantly needed as replacements such as oilfields.
Whereas stories of 3D printing have hit the headlines by suggesting a world where human parts can be reproduced, this may well happen eventually but in the here and now it is the use of metal that has become a commercial reality. And it is a process that has enabled Phil Carroll to build an international empire by supplying the powder ingredients through LPW.
For he was well aware that the UK was only a tiny part of a global market – and that America dwarfed the UK in terms of the pool of potential engineering company customers.
Not only that but he knew that unless he quickly put roots down in the US, there was always the danger that the competition might gain a foothold there and come back to bite him in the UK.
So today exports account for 75% of all LPW sales thanks to a global footprint in the form of a subsidiary in the States, a sales office in Germany and a network of resellers in China, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Russia, Singapore and Turkey.
That’s why last year LPW received the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in International Trade and also entered the Sunday Times Hiscox Tech Track 100 for the first time.
Having scraped a profit of £11,000 in its first year of operation, LPW reached the heady heights of a turnover of £7,380,000 when it entered Tech Track 100 and has now set itself the target of £35 million by 2020, with 80% of the growth coming from overseas.
And all this thanks to a man who readily admits that when he started LPW 10 years ago, he was so clueless about business that he didn’t even know what rates were.
What Phil Carroll brought to the table though was an in-depth knowledge of the market, having worked for The Welding Institute before deciding to go off for “an easier life as a subby”, globetrotting the world either installing or fixing advanced steel processes.
He gave up a full time job to go it alone on the day before he married his wife Sue – not the wedding present she expected – but she was a freelance journalist which meant she was aware it might mean ships passing in the night.
The arrival of their first child, Lily, which would see Phil home for a couple of days, before having to leave again, finally made him get ‘serious’, and LPW came into being. But it was no easy ride as lack of business experience made him a somewhat uneasy entrepreneur as did the experience of living on and maxing out his credit card for the first six months.
Taking on staff was a real concern at first as he was initially inexperienced about employment law and its obligations but today LPW employs around 75 people and this will rise to around 200 when the new Widnes factory opens.
Yet Phil Carroll remains an engineer at heart who still prefers to get his hands dirty than sitting in a boardroom.
“It’s all about playing with shiny toys for me,” he says. “And my toys are my machines and I’m happy because we are getting a lot more of them.”
For more information visit lpwtechnology.com
DIT help comes from three directions
Exporting is easy these days, thanks to the fact you can be anywhere in the world in 24 hours, according to Phil Carroll.
And he believes no company that wants to grow in the global marketplace can afford not to go down that route.
Phil readily admits that LPW’s success story has been underpinned by help from the Department for International Trade.
He singled out three areas in which their assistance has proved critical.
First off was a contribution to the cost of their website. “Hard cash is always good and we simply didn’t have it then,” he recalls.
Second came the critical overseas contacts.“DIT is a knowledge driven service that allowed me to isolate the best options. They were with me all the way when we got into America and will be when we put a footprint down in Asia. You don’t realise how much impact say an invitation to the British Embassy can have in places like Japan.”
And finally, it is DIT as a sounding board.
“I know I can pick up the phone anytime to Kevin (Kevin Finucane, LPW’s assigned DIT International Trade Adviser). It is an intangible benefit but a most important one.”
Exporting is simply a no brainer for Phil Carroll.
“Why fight for some ever decreasing margin from some guy up the road when there are no barriers to exporting to a global market with DIT’s help?”