Tunbridge Wells is home to many innovative companies, but only a handfull export around the world and even fewer have ties to the military.
TEK Group, however, does both and still remains a family-run businesses – 33 years after its Chief Executive, Paul Fleming, and his father bought out a small two-man firm based in Kingston upon Thames.
And with the opening of a new state-of-the-art factory in Rearsby, Leicestershire, two weeks ago, Mr Fleming (51) said he is looking forward to watching his companies grow ‘significantly’ over the coming years.
Key to this growth is the expansion of TEK Military Seating, one of three main businesses which operate under the banner of TEK Group, alongside the original company TEK Seating Ltd and its subsidiary SitSmart.
Mr Fleming said: “This is where our significant growth will come from, as there is really only so far the other parts of the business can expand because their reach is limited to the UK.
“Although I am very proud of what my traditional businesses have achieved, with TEK Military Seating we are, for the first time, a global brand.”
The military focus, and the fact the firm is not limited by any distribution rights, means the firm has ample scope to tap into foreign markets.
Most recently the company designed 2,000 seats for a military contractor in Abu Dhabi, with other projects in the United Arab Emirates either in the pipeline or underway.
Part of the reason for the Middle Eastern focus is the relative speed of securing contracts compared to the rest of the world.
“We have interest from companies in Europe and North America but the gestation period for contracts in this line of work is painfully slow and can take many years.
“For example, we have made seating for a vehicle used by the Dutch Special Forces which is currently going into production, three years after we secured the contract.
“There is a lot of design and testing involved, such as blast testing and using a drop tower to simulate the velocities incurred during blasts, and standards naturally have to be very high.
“But securing contracts are slightly quicker in the Middle East which is why it is currently our largest market.”
Despite the vast size of the con-tracts and their length – which can span up to 25 years – there are only four people directly employed in TEK Military seating, including Mr Fleming.
The employees at the company, which was founded seven years ago, are specialists in their field.
They include former Grenadier Guardsman David Parkman as Sales Director; Mr Fleming’s brother Mike, the Senior Product Designer, who held a similar job at an international vehicle seating manufacturer for 16 years, and Operations Manager Sean Magee, a former Metropolitan Police Officer.
Part of the reason why such a small workforce is able to deliver such large procurements is the fact their products are relatively interchangeable. “We have a very modular product which can fit in many different vehicle types with only minor adjustments, and this feature has been well received by our clients.
“Many of our competitors make seats which are only suitable for a specific vehicle.”
The firm also outsources much of its work to TEK Seating, which operates under the TEK Group brand but works completely separately and employs around 30 people.
“TEK Military Seating has become the largest customer of my original business, which is part of the reason behind the need to expand our factory in Rearsby, added Mr Fleming.”
It was seven years ago that Mr Fleming first ven-tured into the world of military hardware after the Motor Industry Research Association (MIRA) tasked the company with making a product for the British military.
“They wanted us to make an anti-blast, anti-vibra-tion seat for one of their vehicles and the MOD were very enthusiastic about our product.”
From that moment on, the company has continued to expand, but it has not always been easy.
“With hindsight, perhaps my timing of going into this field was not so good. It was 2009 and just as the wheels had started to come off the global economy.
“Plus Afghanistan was winding down and so we missed the MOD’s emergency funding.
“Growth has been slow but that has meant I have been able to fund it myself rather than go cap in hand to a bank, so we are now operating with a posi-tive balance sheet and are in a good place.
“If you had asked me three years ago whether starting TEK Military Seating was a smart move, I would have probably said no, due to the unexpect-edly long time it takes to secure contracts while still investing heavily in the business. But now it is 100 per cent yes.”
TEK Seating was formed some 45 years ago and acquired by Mr Fleming 12 years later. It functions mainly as an independent distributor for major vehicle seating companies. Now the UK’s largest distributor, it continues to support the work vehicle sector including the Truck, Bus & Coach, Agricultural, Construction, Marine and Industrial sectors, whilst its core product remains suspension driver seating. It currently provides seating for the Ultima GTR Supercar (pictured above).
SitSmart is the office chair, furniture and ergonomic accessories-focused subsidiary of TEK Seating, offering quality ergonomic chairs for the workplace and home office with the accent on personal service. As well as its
single consumer sales and large business client portfolio, it also supplies such places as 24/7 control rooms, signal boxes, surveillance areas, sch
ools, colleges, the NHS and the MOD.
THE REARSBY CONNECTION
With the military side growing at a fast pace and more manufacturing capacity required, it was decided that the existing premises in Melton Mowbray had to give way to a bigger purpose-built facility in the more rural location of Rearsby Industrial Estate, some five miles away.
The fully-operational facility occupies 15,000sq and was opened on May 25 by Her Majesty’s Lord Lieutenant of Leicestershire Jennifer, Lady Gretton JP.
The secure site has led to staff numbers being boosted to further support the increased production demands for the manufacture of both seating and complementary products and there are plans to ramp up production over the next 12 months.
Mr Fleming said: “This move represents a major investment in our company, allowing us to grow our global business and open new markets while bringing in house, some out-sourced production, which will enable us to become even more competitive.”
TEK GROUP TIMELINE
1983 – Paul Fleming, aged just 18, and his father Jonathan bought a small seating distribution business that was up for sale called Transportation Equipment Kingston Ltd and later renamed it TEK Seating.
1990 – The company established its presence in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, with a ‘man in a van’ before a permanent unit was opened one year later.
1992 – Jonathan Fleming stepped back from his role in the firm while his son ‘cracked on’ with growing the company by diversifying its suppliers.
1995 – TEK Seating relocated to the Spa Business Park on Longfield Road, Tunbridge Wells, and started to develop its own products as opposed to purely distributing on behalf of others.
2001 – The company acquired SitSmart, an office chair, furniture and ergonomic accessories business.
2005 – It moved again to a bigger purpose built freehold property in Decimus Park on Kingstanding Way, where it remains.
2009 – TEK Military Seating was established.
2016 – A new factory was built in Rearsby, Leicestershire, to cope with the booming demand.