INNOVATION is the lifeblood of Shildon-based Bignall Group.

Building on more than 40 years' of proud family tradition, the entrepreneurial business is looking for the next phase in its evolution and managing director Steve Pugh is helping to lead it to new heights.

A chartered mechanical engineer by trade, Steve’s background is full of entrepreneurial nous.

His passion for innovation and growth, combined with values based on empowering people and creating positive and creative cultures, is what is helping to take the firm to the next level.

His appointment was the perfect opportunity to exploit his experience and came at a time when the group was looking to grow and expand into new markets.

Made up of three complimentary businesses, Shildon Manufacturing Company provides CNC machining in the oil and gas, automotive and rail industries; Cobtec Cubicle Hardware supplies cubicle ironmongery into construction projects all across Europe; and Masterlube Systems designs, builds and distributes grease and oil lubrication systems worldwide from their 30,000sq ft facility in County Durham.

It is clear from its history that design and innovation is at the heart of everything Bignall Group does.

Founder John Bignall said: "The business is where traditional values and quality combine with cutting-edge technology.

"We solve customers' problems using our core skill as designers, developers and innovators."

This combination of traditional skills and modern technologies is used to great effect.

Each of the businesses is a leader in their field, but they also have engrained IP, which the company is looking to grow and develop.

Upon joining the group, Steve, working with the Bignall Group board, realised there was huge potential in the three businesses to utilise their skills in new ways, but also to innovate how the company operates to support future growth.

He said: “We have great research and development expertise in our team here, but our innovative approach is not just kept within our four walls.

"We love to work with other companies in the region.

"The North-East is full of innovative companies who are each leaders in their field.

“As an example, we have a close working relationship with a number of local businesses, including Thomas Swan, based in Consett.

"They produce some of the world’s best fine chemicals and products, and with our lubrication business we are exploring a number of areas where we can work together to add value to our core businesses, but also allow us to enter new high-value markets, such as the aerospace industry.”

In 2017, the company gained its patent on a ground-breaking grease block, Blockmaster2, which distributes lubricant for machinery in the agricultural market in particular.

“The innovation comes from the way we can regulate the amount of grease from each piston," said Steve.

"It doesn’t sound sexy but it could genuinely revolutionise an industry.

"Clients have already tested the units and they are about to go into mass production.”

Designed and made in County Durham, the new Blockmaster2 product demonstrates major innovation, which could be a major force in sectors as broad as agriculture to offshore wind.

Throughout Steve’s career his passion for problem-solving has been applied across both the public and private sectors.

He says his career highlight was the lightbulb moment that resulted in the creation of the Tees Valley Catalyst Fund.

The first of its kind in the world, the £10m fund helps North-East companies bid on bigger projects through removing limitation from performance and warranty bonds, a major issue post-financial crisis and oil price crash.

Using money secured from Regional Growth Fund, the fund aims to unlock £700m new work over ten years supporting many North-East businesses and creating hundreds of jobs.

The fund runs until 2023 and is now managed by FW Capital.

In keeping with his desire for innovation and employee engagement, Steve introduced new employee relations initiatives to ensure the whole business sees new opportunities and how they can best be exploited.

He said: “From a new employee feedback scheme, the business has had a number of quick wins as it looks towards continuous improvement and employee-led culture.

"Suggestions have ranged from new products and services, to shopfloor layout changes to increase productivity and efficiency. On joining the business, we also brought in company ‘town hall’ meetings, where we share the performance of the group and each of its three divisions, once a month.

"This allows us to both share knowledge and engage the workforce in the future of the business."

The firm also recognises ‘Workplace Heroes’, to publicly highlight ongoing commitment to the company and exceptional passion within the month.

Steve said: “We are trying to create something special, creating a trusted and creative space for career progression and growth.

"We are trying to create a culture that goes far beyond our reach to benefit society as a whole.”

Steve also says the business has a strong commitment to the next generation.

He said: "We have two apprentices and one of our new team leaders was a former apprentice.

"We are trying to build a culture where anyone can join the business at any level and progress all the way through to my job.

"With our current growth projections we hope to increase our workforce by up to ten per cent by mid-2019.”

The business also has a keen eye on the future as well, with a recent £120,000 investment in a new fourth-axis CNC machine.

It was supported by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development on the investment, which will increase capacity within the workshop and also help Bignall to become globally competitive in CNC machining capabilities.

Since joining the firm, the new initiatives have already resulted in improved business performance.

Steve said: “In the year-to-date, our turnover and net profit up are up significantly, largely through applying lessons learned from the oil price crash, running a more sustainable lean business structure and dramatically improved sales processes.

“Being an international business, the company has also benefited from currency changes in 2018 and an uplift in some of its main global markets, such as the global agriculture machinery market, which many of Bignall’s lubrication systems are bought by global original equipment manufacturers in the sector. "The business has plans for strong growth and a consolidation of its Shildon-based manufacturing facilities with dramatic improvements planned on production efficiency and cost.

"We are really investing in this area.

“I believe the future is bright for North-East businesses," added Steve.

"We need to build on our heritage of innovation and working together to put our best foot forward in the world.

"Although it is never easy, we believe every business in the region has the chance to achieve something special and working with partners like the North-East England Chamber of Commerce, we are looking forward to a bright future.”

The Chamber supports Bignall in its exporting procedures.

Les Dixon, Chamber global relationship manager, said: “This business is an exceptional example of North-East innovation.

"They really blaze a trail and contribute so much to our regional economy, not just in terms of what they do for their own business, but the added value they bring to other companies as well.”