Solent Engineering was started by Dave and Lucy Middleton in 2010 – and over the past decade, they have seen their business grow from strength to strength, reports John Periam
The company is based in a small five-unit production facility in Birdham near Chichester in West Sussex, where owners Dave and Lucy Middleton are supported by their dedicated staff of five, described by Lucy as ‘our second family’.
Solent Engineering produces on-site a wide range of products for the UK fishing industry, including net and pot haulers, hydraulics, potting blocks and railings. There are just over 200 items on its production schedule.
Engineering is what Solent is all about, and Dave comes from a background in specialist automotive engineering, at Dennis Specialist Vehicles in Guildford, where he learnt many of his skills. He qualified as a design engineer, which included the use of 3D modelling for the design and analysis of new products.
“We all need to reflect on life,” said Dave. “I felt a change was needed, and I moved to Selsey, where I started to crew on a 10m catamaran fishing boat. This really got me interested in fishing, and I found this life so rewarding. There is something special about working alongside such dedicated people. At the same time, I built my own single-handed boat, which I took to sea on the Selsey inshore grounds. It was a wonderful learning curve, and I felt I could perhaps use my engineering skills to improve life for those onboard vessels, by developing a range of products that would do this.
“On reflection, I felt the current gear was outdated and overpriced, and extra expense was often incurred by the fishermen in getting it repaired. The industry was changing, and fishermen were finding that costs were, too.” Dave decided to use his engineering skills, linked to his fishing experience, to produce a range of affordable quality products, and Solent Engineering was founded.
“We call ourselves a one-stop shop; our door is always open, and fishermen often pop in to have a chat about gear, or even a new boat build. We also made a name for ourselves in producing polished stainless steel railings for many other types of vessels, including super yachts and cruisers. To this day, ‘steel appeal’ plays an important part in many different types of vessel design.”
Running a small family business offers plenty of challenges, but the advantage of being a husband and wife team is that they have the future of the company to heart. Lucy does all the admin, accounts and sales work, while Dave looks after product design, production and development. He has a great team around him, and they work together on output, priding themselves on top-quality welding, machining and fabrication.
A real bonus is that they have five separate buildings, each of which is dedicated to a particular aspect of production. “No way could I see this working in a big single factory on a large industrial estate. It’s a cottage industry, and fishermen seem to like coming into our workshops and feeling part of it. Having been to sea, I know the way fishermen work and think, and they like what we offer and the way we do it,” said Dave.
Gear requirements from fishermen around the UK coastline are very diverse, and Solent Engineering works closely with each of its customers to meet their specific design requirements. Dave often travels to meet fishermen to see just how they operate in their neck of the woods. “It’s a 24/7 job, and our Facebook pages prove this by the number of enquiries and comments we get about our equipment. To succeed in selling, one has to communicate. I remember a friend of mine once saying, ‘It’s not the first order that counts, it is the second one’ – and this is now endorsed by the number of repeat orders we get.”
Where Dave has also scored is in building up a working relationship with respected boatbuilding companies such as Audacious Marine and Cheetah Marine. “Like us, they are family-committed and know about manufacturing vessels, with first-hand working knowledge of the sea.” Paul Cannon of Audacious Marine has often commented on the quality of Solent’s gear and the way in which Dave has considered the user in its development. Sean Strevens, who owns Cheetah Marine, feels the same, and says that he can trust in the quality of Solent equipment when fitting out his Cheetahs.
Lucy said: “I have watched Dave develop Solent with a great deal of pride. It has not been easy. There are competitors, but we strive to work together to make sure we are ahead of the market – it is a niche market, and a lot of our sales develop by word of mouth. Fishermen trust each other, and if one likes a particular net hauler, he will say so. Of course, we cannot please all. However, in my role in sales I make a concerted effort to listen to what people say – if someone is not happy, we will do our utmost to correct it. Each fisherman is treated as an individual customer, and we at Solent will go out of our way to help.” Solent Engineering attends the Skipper expos in Ireland and Scotland every year, which gives the company an opportunity to meet new clients as well as old, and see what is happening in the marketplace.
Dave and Lucy agree that times are not as easy as they used to be. The insecurity within the industry, partly due to Brexit, means that some new boat builds have been put on hold, and this of course affects their sales. Replacement of gear is likewise deferred. Every day, they hear of more hardships within the industry. “There is one rule for us and another for the EU fishermen,” said Lucy. “It does have an effect on us, and it is something we are very much aware of. We have fantastic overseas markets now. Shipping is so easy globally – we can pallet the goods for a particular customer, and within days it is there.
“The Nordic countries have shown great respect for what we do, especially our range of netting products. It used to be the other way around, with the UK importing, but we have now set up our own distributors overseas.” Both Dave and Lucy recently went over there to meet the fishermen first-hand. “We found out just how important word of mouth is – once one fisherman likes a product, he tells and shows others. Our products are even sold to Australia, Canada and the USA, and across a lot of Europe.”
Solent’s mainstay products are hauling solutions for both netting and potting, but alongside this range are supporting products for catch handling, catch sorting and sizing, as well as for vessel loading and unloading machinery. Its net haulers and pot haulers are well-proven and highly respected quality-build products which protect the catch as well as the fisherman as they self-haul. Its range of marine fabrication items includes catchers, railings, masts and radar arches, all of which match Seafish and MCA standards. This year Solent will be adding to its range, so watch this space for news of product launches.
Dave and Lucy have recently moved away from the coast at Selsey to a more idyllic country area, which gives them an opportunity to look at life from a different perspective. They can still see the sea! Lucy said: “It refreshes the mind, and has some nice dogwalking areas for our new working labrador Skye. It has been an exciting 10 years for us – as well as challenging. When I say challenging, I mean the way the industry has changed, often through no fault of working inshore fishermen.
“We at Solent have tried to evolve with the times, and have expanded our international horizons as a company. We will continue to develop new products into the next 10 years. To do this, we need the support of boatbuilders, fishermen, government bodies and, most important of all, local councils, who can look at returning the moorings many of our fishermen have lost. People need to see fishing boats leaving harbours and returning with catches. It can be done, and both Dave and I intend to be part of it. Sustainability results in survival, and that is what it is all about!”