A company that began three decades ago trading above a shop in Guisborough, east Cleveland, has become a trusted supplier of life-saving equipment to the largest submarine fleet in the world. Business correspondent Andy Richardson looks at the success of Analox and its founder, Alan Harbottle.

WHEN you are 70,000ft above the Earth’s surface or in the depths of the Atlantic, you need equipment that you can trust.

From its purpose-built premises in the small North Yorkshire market town of Stokesley, Analox has earned a global reputation as an authority in the design, manufacture and supply of specialist gas analysers, winning the business of clients ranging from record-breaking balloonists to the pub trade.

Alan Harbottle, the founder and creative force behind the company, has built a business that, during its lifetime, has earned the title North-East Exporter of the Year, Best Business Award, and this month was a nominated finalist at the Orange National Business Awards.

Mr Harbottle’s ingenuity and eye for a niche market has helped him grow a world-class business in his native North- East.

Supporting his entrepreneurial talents is Mark Lewis, who joined the business as managing director four years ago. If Mr Lewis brings a process and structure to the business, then Mr Harbottle remains its heart and soul.

After studying physics and chemistry, Mr Harbottle learnt the basics of international trade and shipping during his time working for an exporter supplying surgical equipment. That stood him in good stead when he began to develop his own empire.

On March 1, 1981, he purchased the gas detection division of Angus Fire Armour, creating Analox Sensor Technology, but, rather than continue supplying the firm’s US customers, he began to develop products for the commercial diving industry.

“I love the creative side of the business,”

said Mr Harbottle, whose hands-on approach to product development gave him his first major breakthrough when he co-designed an oxygen analyser that undercut the cost of rivals to such an extent that, within five years of its launch, the product had captured more than 80 per cent of the market.

Analox shareholders sold the business to Servomex in 1990, massively increasingly turnover, but Mr Harbottle took back full control in 1995.

Analox soon added the production of carbon dioxide (CO2) sensors to its portfolio, and the owner’s links with the licensing trade in Germany opened up a lucrative new market, using CO2 as a dispense gas in pubs. The new division helped Analox double in size.

A move into the sport diving market proved to be another shrewd decision.

Once again, Mr Harbottle developed a winning product and, by 2002, the company was the leading global supplier of nitrox diving cylinder analysers.

By 2006, the business had gone from employing eight people in Guisborough to a 15,000sq ft facility in Stokesley, with a staff of 50 workers generating £6m a year. Mr Harbottle realised that the scale of the business required some additional expertise.

“The development of products alongside identifying new market opportunities is my forte,” he says. “I would be the first to admit that I am not the strongest person in terms of business process and people management.

“That is why we brought Mark on board. He has taken that side of the business forward with great success, allowing me to get to grips with the things that I enjoy.”

Mr Lewis describes his role as “sweeping up” behind the owner to ensure the business has the processes and structures in place to thrive in the 21st Century.

He explains: “Entrepreneurs are very driven, focused people who deal primarily in the here and now.

“Things that aren’t going to impact the immediate future struggle to command their attention. That is where I come in.

“What I try and do is manage the business, rather than it being an extension of me.”

The company’s reputation for being an excellent employer is backed up by Julie Brady, who joined Analox from college, aged 17, and recently celebrated 25 years with the company. During this time, she has progressed from office junior to senior production technician.

Last year, Analox Military Systems was set up, to develop the strong links it had with military clients, which included the British, Dutch, Canadian and Norwegian forces.

A breakthrough agreement with the US Navy saw the Stokesley business chosen to provide its submarine fleet with emergency atmospheric monitors that measure levels of CO2 and oxygen, as well as air pressure and temperature.

The SUB MKIIPTM emergency analyser is used in the event of a submarine being involved in an incident known as a DISSUB scenario, which means the vessel has lost power and is unable to surface.

The analyser monitors gases in the air as the pressure changes so that the crew know the ongoing status of the air they breathe. The information it provides can save lives.

The company adapted the technology for Indian millionaire Dr Vijaypat Singhania, helping him to set a new altitude world record for hot-air ballooning.

Thirteen miles above the Earth’s surface, the air pressure is so low it makes blood boil, but, thanks to Analox, Dr Singhania piloted his balloon safely to 69,852ft.

Analox boosted the safety of workers in the hospitality industry when it introduced a dual gas analyser – the Aspida – designed to minimise the risks to staff working with the potentially-fatal gases involved in beer and soft drinks gas systems.

The Aspida, named after the Greek for shield, detects both high CO2 levels and low oxygen, which can be life threatening.

The unit includes a “man down” alarm, which is activated if it detects no movement.

If the wearer does not respond to an initial alert by the unit, it will sound a 110 decibel alarm to alert others in the building.

In October, representatives of the Analox team attended the commissioning ceremony at Faslane Naval Base for HMS Astute, the first of the new Astute class of submarines. The firm designed gas analysis equipment for the submarines.

Recent deals include the appointment of a new distributor to develop market opportunities for its products in China and a distribution agreement with Amron International, a leading manufacturer and supplier of equipment for the commercial and military diving industry worldwide.

“We have been in the right place at the right time, and hopefully that will continue,”

says Mr Harbottle, who expects Analox to top the £15m turnover mark over the next five years.