Smiley Monroe…Giants Of Belting
Smiley Monroe’s ‘Giants of Belting’ slogan is a clear hint that this is a company which puts marketing right up there with research, development and innovation when it comes to priorities.
In fact, the Lisburn company’s professional approach to corporate identity and customer image can be seen on its signage, its vehicles….even the branded shirts and other garments its employees wear.
“We may be in a specialist niche sector, but we realise that the image we portray to our customers and potential customers is very important,” says Marketing Director, Tim Monroe, one of a three-strong father and two sons team at the helm of the family-owned firm.
Based over two sites in Lisburn’s Knockmore Hill Industrial Park, Smiley Monroe ranks as one of the world’s leading manufacturers of ‘endless’ conveyor belts for customers in the mobile crushing, screening, washing and recycling marketplaces.
Formed back in 1979 in a garden shed, not far from its present site, Smiley Monroe has grown in scale to employ 125 people in Lisburn and a further ten at a satellite manufacturing facility near the Indian city of Bangalore.
The company was featured in the London Stock Exchange Group’s 2014 report ‘1000 Companies To Inspire Britain’, a celebration of the fastest-growing and most dynamic SME’s in the UK. The list highlighted the UK SME’s that have not only performed strongly since 2009 – an exceptionally challenging period – but have also outperformed their sector peers.
It’s all a far cry from the early days when Vaughan Monroe and Mark Smiley started up a two-man business acting as distributors for rubber conveyor belting and providing a local vulcanising service.
“Dad was the salesman, my mother handled the bookkeeping and Mark looked after the stock and together they fitted conveyor belts for the local stone quarries who were our first customers,” Tim Monroe explains.
After a brief spell in a rented ‘lock-up’, the partners took the plunge and purchased their first premises, former stables in Lisburn, and that’s where Smiley Monroe remained until relocating to its current £1.2 million Invest NI-backed Knockmore Hill facility in 2002. More recently, the company has added a major production and distribution Hub around the corner from the main production plant, where its main raw material – rolls of conveyor belting – is stored, overseen by the company’s supply chain team, in their newly refurbished Hub offices.
Today, some 80% of Smiley Monroe’s revenues come from the manufacture of conveyor belts and custom rubber parts for OEM’s – original equipment manufacturers of screening and quarrying equipment. A lot of those customers are in Northern Ireland, where County Tyrone has a highly successful cluster of quarrying equipment manufacturers accounting for a remarkably high proportion, 40%, of the worldwide marketplace. That means names like Terex, McCloskey International, Sandvik, Telestack and CDE Global. Beyond Tyrone and Northern Ireland, Smiley Monroe exports to European and North American OEM brands such as Keestrack, Metso, Kleemann (part of the German Wirtgen Group) and Astec Industries.
That 2002 move into the purpose-built Knockmore Hill plant was Smiley Monroe’s biggest leap of faith. It took the company from being a distributor of conveyor belting to a manufacturer of customised ‘endless’ conveyor belts. It also eventually led to Vaughan Monroe being joined in the business by two of his sons. Tim had been working as an art director in the film industry in Glasgow, while Chris was practicing as a solicitor in England.
In addition to producing belts and rubber parts for its customers in the crushing, screening and recycling sectors, Smiley Monroe also supplies the environmental and road construction sectors. Any sector, in fact, where belts are required for mobile machinery. “We’ve invested in new equipment and processes to customise these ‘endless’ belts with other features as required by our customers and the equipment they will be using them on,” he adds. “For instance, we might add hot moulded rubber cleats or side rails to the belt’s carrying surface, called the top cover, to suit a specific application.”
Between direct and indirect export, Smiley Monroe can claim that 95% of production from the Lisburn plant goes overseas and that its products are in regular use in 42 different countries. In 2012, in response to the importance of the Indian subcontinent to one of its biggest customers, Terex, Smiley Monroe established its own Indian manufacturing operation.
“Setting up in India for the first time isn’t without its challenges,” says Tim Monroe. “But we know that there are huge opportunities for us out there and we’re currently investing in building up our capability and the team that we have on the ground.”
In terms of OEM’s in the quarrying industry, Smiley Monroe’s biggest customer is the American-owned Terex Group. End user customers include Ireland’s CRH Group and the UK’s Aggregate Industries and Hanson Aggregates.
But the company’s oldest customer is Irish Salt Mines in Carrickfergus. It’s a business relationship that dates back to those early days in the Lisburn shed back in 1979. Research, development and innovation are all important to the company’s continued development. Smiley Monroe has a current Knowledge Transfer Partnership with Belfast Metropolitan College, which has resulted in the placement of a materials engineer into the Lisburn operation.
The company also has a close association with the Polymer Processing Research Centre at Queen’s University and with the Northern Ireland Polymers Association, headed up by Dr. Gerry McNally.
“It’s an industry driven by innovation, but certain fundamentals have remained the same. You can’t really change much about the chemical process of hot vulcanisation – the curing of rubber at 150 degrees centigrade under 100 psi of pressure to produce greater strength, elasticity and durability,” says Tim. “But what we can do is add value through customisation and quality, we can manage our work flow, we can train our team in lean tools and best practices and we can involve everyone in our improvement programmes.
“The fact that we can offer competitive prices to our customers is partly due to the fact that we’ve adopted lean manufacturing principles and that we have a skilled and experienced supply chain team. In fact, when our US customers benchmark us against their local suppliers of ‘endless’ conveyor belts, we’re still competitive….even though we have to ship across the Atlantic Ocean.
“And we’re problem solvers for our customers. We help them to find solutions based on years of field experience in conveying and screening applications in quarries, mines and cement plants.”
The company also boasts a rigorous testing facility to test both incoming raw materials and finished products. It’s ten years since the company was first awarded ISO 9001 and OHSAS 18001 quality and health and safety management accreditations. Its next goal is to achieve ISO 14001 environmental accreditation and plans are also in place to recruit the company’s first professional rubber technologist.
“We’re intent on staying at the top of our game in a very competitive marketplace…..retaining our existing customers and winning new ones at the same time.”