An interview with Stuart Tickle, By Sean Hannam
“We’re 85 but, to me, AWE feels like a young business.
We still have so much more to do and I am excited about what the future holds.”
During its 85-year history, AWE, which was founded in 1935 by Stuart’s great grandfather, as Radiomenders Ltd, the company has had to deal with a lot of challenges, including the Second World War. Not able to sell radiograms, it manufactured components that were in short supply and was involved in the early days of radar.
Aside from WW2, global recessions and, more recently, Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic have all demanded change.
“The things that businesses find the hardest to deal with are uncertainty and rapid enforced change. The reason AWE is still here today is because past generations have been able to adapt to changing situations – it’s in our DNA,” says Stuart.
“Some companies who have grown quickly and become massively successful have later fallen by the wayside, because they haven’t been willing or able to adapt quickly enough. You can apply to that all industries.”
Stuart recalls that the 2009 global recession created big challenges for the business.
“It had a huge impact, as two of our biggest product lines, which were worth 50% of our business, withdrew from the market – one with no notice at all and no easy replacement. We had to build new business to replace it and make some substantial adjustments – it severely hurt us at the time and handed close competitors a break. However, with determination, as a tight knit team we overcame it and are even stronger and sharper than we were before. It may not feel it at the time, but I have seen that all things can be used for good.”
Stuart says that the COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis that still yet needs to pan out to understand the full impact, but having been through other severe circumstances he’s optimistic about the future of both the business and the industry when we emerge from the other side of it.
“We’ve had some strong years of growth since the last major recession. There are things you can influence and things you can’t. The things that hurt us before were things we had no control of. The current COVID-19 crisis is one of those, but we can influence our position within it by what we do. We don’t know for sure what’s going to happen in the coming months, but, looking ahead, I predict we’re going to be increasingly strong within a healthy residential tech sector,” he says.
However, he points out that “many integrators and retailers have been massively impacted due to the coronavirus outbreak. Retail shops have been closed and integrators have not been able to go into consumers’ homes in the way they were before.”
“Businesses’ need to evolve their work practice as lockdown opens up, but within that, some will thrive.”
“The Government’s announcement on 10th May means many will start a phased return to installing, but in a considered way adhering to the strict new guidelines. Some feel it is best still to wait, whereas a number were navigating the lockdown and seeking the limited opportunities that fitted within the restricted circumstances. It is up to the head of every business to assess the latest guidelines and determine what is appropriate for their individual circumstances”
He adds that “Electrical retailers who had invested in the online and custom install side of their business are well placed to deal with the ongoing closure of retail stores. They can pivot their efforts to those income streams. But retail does have a future – what the shops themselves do, is utilise the power of the demonstration and leverage sales staff knowledge to sell more premium products much better than online only – so that remains important”
“As we emerging out of lockdown, there will be great opportunities. Any integrator or retailer must utilise their valuable time to plan and think. Is there an opportunity they’re missing now, what training should they be taking to learn and improve skills, and how can they come back stronger? Our Smart Home Academy has provided over 400 hours of small group training in the past 8 weeks, so the good news is, many are using this time to get their house in order, both home and business!”
AWE has always been a company to seek out new opportunities ahead of many of its competitors. During its 85-year history, AWE has embraced many of the significant innovations in CE, including the arrival of large-screen, flat panel TVs and surround sound in the late ‘90s.
“That was a milestone – the emergence of home cinema and the ability to get bigger and better TVs in an average home. It spurred us on to do what we’re doing now,” says Stuart.
So, does he have any favourite tech – old or new?
“You can always look back with rose-tinted glasses at the good ol’ days, but there used to be some really cool portable music players – stuff that had a really high quality mechanical aspect to the engineering,” he says. “I remember fondly saving up to buy a new portable metal MiniDisc player – portable digital music was a really significant change.” Obviously the iPod later revolutionised that sector entirely, but there is definitely something less tangible about the download/streaming formats.
And in more recent times? “The most exciting recent development has been the widespread delivery of High Definition video, multi-room music and immersive audio in the home. It’s fantastic that there’s so much more music, movies, and content being consumed in the home than there ever has been. And we are only ever one CODEC away from widespread enhancements”
What does Stuart think is the next big change in technology that’s on the horizon?
“It’s happening now – it’s the continued emergence of IOT, and specifically for us, the integrated home. It’s been coming more mainstream for the past five years or so. The smart, or should I say, connected home, used to be a niche market that was only for the ultra-rich, but now the huge change is the ability for everyone to have some form of connected devices. You can now get a really high-quality system for what was the price of a control solution 10 years ago. The challenge is ensuring it is integrated in a way that really benefits and works long-term for the home owner, which is where trained professionals are as essential as ever.”
Although it’s a major player in the market, AWE is a privately owned SME, employing around 25 staff.
“There are advantages to being an SME rather than a giant, multinational corporation – we’re nimble and able to implement ideas more quickly,” says Stuart. “We’ve just had our most successful year ever. Being independent, we have to make what we have work and be successful off our own backs. That’s what’s made us who we are – it’s given us a diligent work ethic and an appreciation for the relationships we form.”
Understandably, the COVID-19 crisis has meant that a number of physical events that AWE planned to celebrate its 85th birthday have had to be put on hold.
“At the beginning of the year, we had lots of plans to celebrate our anniversary by holding some really exciting events – we’ve had to postpone those. However, we have a superb loyalty scheme promotion running with over £50k of prizes to give away! We hope to recommence our usual activities and some additional special events for our anniversary later in the year.”
So how does it feel to have reached 85?
“I think there is a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment to have got this far, both for myself and for my parents. We’re 85 but, to me, it feels like a young business. We still have so much more to do and am excited about what the future holds,” says Stuart.
“We’re still the ones who are being emulated by others and we’re always looking at how we can differentiate ourselves and be better than the rest. We often lead the way and others follow. And, we have some great new things in the pipeline”
Stuart’s come a long way since the days of selling midi systems and getting excited about Top Gun on LaserDisc, but he’s still a maverick.
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