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Hush Heath Estate near Staplehurst grows production levels 700% in four years as confidence returns to manufacturing sector

By Chris Price

With production set to reach 80,000 bottles by the end of this year, Hush Heath Estate winery has seen its production levels grow 700% in four years.

It has launched four more wines in the last 12 months and has just signed a deal to distribute its products to the USA.

Its story is typical of a buoyant manufacturing sector across the UK, which grew to a new three-year high in April after a 4.4% surge in output on the same period in 2013.

Wine maker Victoria Ash at the Hush Heath Estate winery near Staplehurst

It was the fifth period of month-on-month growth in a row – the longest run of continuous expansion since June 2010, according to the Office for National Statistics.

"There’s generally a growing confidence,” said vineyard owner Richard Balfour-Lynn, who lives on the 400-acre estate near Staplehurst.

"Consumer spend is generally growing again. Also, the consumer is spending slightly more on quality rather than cheapest choice."

Mr Balfour-Lynn is planning to expand the acreage at the estate this year to meet the demand for English still and sparkling wine, especially in Hush Heath’s specialism of rose.

Supermarket giant Waitrose says it expects to double sales of rose this summer, after a record-breaking year for the English industry.

The Hush Heath Estate winery near Staplehurst

English wineries produced just under 4.5m bottles in 2013, the highest volume ever, thanks partly to high-profile endorsements.

Chapel Down wine from Tenterden was served at the Royal Wedding and Hush Heath’s Balfour Brut Rose is served on British Airways first class – not to mention being the English sparkling wine of the London 2012 Olympics.

The ambitious winery has also made its first inroads into tourism opening for public tours and tastings.

Mr Balfour-Lynn has begun buying pubs in London to sell his products and is set to open a bar in Kent soon.

However, success is down to much more than returning confidence in the UK.

Hush Heath Estate owner Richard Balfour-Lynn

"We are seeing increasing export opportunities for our English wine," said Mr Balfour-Lynn, the former boss of MWB Group Holdings, which owned department store Liberty and the Malmaison and Hotel du Vin chains before tumbling into administration in 2012, six months after he resigned.

"That’s a macro signal of growing interest because it is more expensive to import English wine than a local product.

"We have to match that with increased production but in our industry it’s a slow burn. You have to anticipate things in three or four years’ time."

"You have to anticipate things in three or four years’ time..." - Hush Heath Estate's Richard Balfour-Lynn

Despite the positive signs, manufacturing remains 7.6% below its pre-downturn peak at the end of the first quarter of 2014. However research from the CBI says firms expect output to grow faster in the coming quarter, with 44% predicting growth and 12% a decline.

Mr Balfour-Lynn said: "Within the UK we can see growing demand for English wine. There is a growing awareness globally of local provenance and the desire for a lack of air miles. That is a long-term trend."

Construction work has just begun on a new headquarters in Dartford for electric motor maker SEM.

The Orpington-based firm hopes to move into a 122,500sqft building in the Bridge business park next year, after needing new premises to cope with its plans to expand staff numbers and quality of production.

Work begins on SEM's new headquarters in Dartford: from left, SEM chief executive Michael Laming, Buckingham Group project manager Colin Overall, Buckingham Group director Clive Bailie, Dartford Borough Council leader Jeremy Kite, Dartford Borough Council managing director Graham Harris and Prologis director Jamie West

The 100-year-old company has invested tens of millions of pounds into the project and also aims to set up its own apprenticeship scheme with Leigh UTC, which is moving to the site in September.

"We tend to invest heavily during a recession because you know that when you come out of it you will be in a good position," said chief executive Michael Laming.

"After a recession people want products as quickly as possible. If you have pared everything back during the tough times then you are not in a position to take advantage of the uptake and you lose business.

"If you have pared everything back during the tough times then you are not in a position to take advantage of the uptake and you lose business..." - SEM's Michael Laming

"It is a vicious cycle if you are an independent manufacturer who doesn’t have the money to ride out the bad times."

The company exports the vast majority of what it makes and Mr Laming says the UK’s economic recovery has little to do with his firm’s success.

He said: "We are more subject to world demands than to UK demands.

"The world is in a better place now. There’s a sense of confidenceBut the fact the UK is doing great does not help us as a company. It actually makes our profitability less because we sell in euros.”

Industrial doors manufacturer and repairer C-Mech has tripled its turnover in the last four years to £1m.

As new start ups picked up smaller work during the recession, a strategy of providing a top-of-the-range service to larger clients has fueled the firm’s good performance.

C-Mech founder John Churcher, left, and his son managing director Paul Churcher at the business' new home in Eurolink business park

The company – which employs 16 people – has just moved from Newington to the Eurolink business park in Sittingbourne and celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

It has received £4,500 of Manufacturing Advisory Service money for three projects in recent years, which it has used to increase its web presence and develop new products.

Managing director Paul Churcher said: "We used to spend a lot of money on the yellow pages but now we have stopped that and directed our cash towards advertising on the internet and web development.

"That has spread the geographical area we cover to places like Hampshire and Wiltshire.

"These organisations have no agenda. They are just helping small companies to grow..." - C-Mech's Paul Churcher

"The money helped us make our web presence much better than before which is part of our growth."

Mr Churcher says companies should not be shy about approaching the Manufacturing Advisory Service for help.

He said: "It is about the people they know and the ideas they give you.

"It is reliable independent advice. If I scout around for an IT company, everyone will have their own take and might not be reliable.

"These organisations have no agenda. They are just helping small companies to grow."

However, not all firms have kept faith with manufacturing in the county.

German lens and spectacles maker Rodenstock took the decision to close its manufacturing facility in Kent last year.

Eye wear maker Rodenstock's general manager Niels Jensen and marketing manager Debbie Bathgate

The company made the move as part of a group-wide consolidation to centralise manufacturing at European facilities able to work 24/7.

The firm made 20 staff redundant at its base in Springhead Enterprise Park in Northfleet but has recouped those numbers by employing people in customer services and sales, which is now the focus of its UK operations.

It employs about 90 people at the site, which also has a lens repair centre, and had a turnover of £11.5m last year.

Marketing and communications manager Debbie Bathgate said: “Technology in manufacturing spectacle lenses has moved forward so much and the equipment used here was becoming outdated.

Rodenstock has invested in customer services and sales staff rather than manufacturing

"We ran five shifts a week here from Monday to Friday but in Europe we could run it 24/7. We had to make a decision on whether to introduce technology in the UK and we decided to invest in sales and customer service instead."

General manager Niels Jensen said: “It was nothing to do with the economy. Technology has changed so much that it would require a big investment to keep it here. Also the knowledge of people who worked on the old machines was not immediately transferable to new equipment.

"The UK was the last bastion within Rodenstock where this change took place. Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Italy, Holland, Austria and Switzerland had all gone before.

"This has been a process that has taken place in the business over 10 years and it is primarily driven by new technology and better logistics throughout the world."

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