CEO Interview Neill Ricketts of Versarien

Neill Ricketts

Neill Ricketts - Credit: Archant

Neill Ricketts’ engineer father told him not to go into engineering - or play rugby. He did both. Luckily father and son are still talking.

Neill Ricketts

Neill Ricketts - Credit: Archant

Sound parental advice shouldn’t be ignored, but neither should it always be acted upon, at least that’s Neill Rickett’s opinion.

Neill, 43, is CEO of Versarien, one of the UK’s newest and most exciting technology companies and based in the Forest of Dean.

This £5 million turnover company which last year floated on the London Stock Exchange has, quite literally, come out of nowhere thanks to Neill’s drive and ambition.

Trained in mechanical engineering Neill worked his way up to senior management. In 2010 he was a director of the plc Elektron, heading up its division of engineering companies. It was a good gig. He looked after the UK operating plants and spent much of his time travelling. Part of his job was to grow the businesses and spend time in UK universities looking at new ideas.

In 2010 he came across an opportunity with Liverpool University. A researcher had discovered a new and cost-effective way to create very natural structures such as bone, coral or sponge through the established process of Lost Carbonate Sintering. The research had taken place thanks to a £600,000 Government grant and Neill saw huge potential.

“We had a way to deliver it to the market through one of my companies, Total Carbide. So buoyed up with great enthusiasm for this new manufacturing process that was going to revolutionise the world, I took it to my board of directors.”

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They didn’t share his view and would not take it forward. Neill found himself in a very difficult situation.

“I had an enthused team, what I considered to be a life-changing opportunity and I had to make the decision as to whether or not I left my existing, well-paid job to start a business.”

It was December 2010, in the middle of the recession and he grimaces as he tells of an uncomfortable conversation with his wife, which went something like this.

Neill Ricketts

Neill Ricketts - Credit: Archant

“That really reliable job I had with a good salary? I’m giving it all up to start

something new.”

A difficult situation at the best of times, but when you’ve got five children under 10, a little more complicated. She must have forgiven him though; they’ve got six children now.

The family was very supportive but also keenly aware of the challenges he was likely to face.

“It’s difficult to follow your dream and not to be sure whether you’ll be better or worse off than when you started,” he says. “But I knew it was something we had to do.”

The business launched in January 2011, with Neill, co-founder Will Battrick as chief technology officer and Jim Murray-Smith, chairman. Just two years’ later it floated on the London Stock Exchange’s Alternative Investment Market, which allows smaller companies to float shares within a more flexible regulatory system. In July 2013, Ian Balchin took over as chairman.

Why did it float so early? A simple enough explanation: Versarien needed the confidence of its customers, among some of the biggest engineering companies in the world.

“It was difficult to deal with large organisations when we were just three people working from a garage,” said Neill. “We are working with everyone from Formula 1 teams to computer manufacturers and they need to see a professional business.”

Versarien now describes itself as an advanced engineering materials group which harnesses proprietary technology to create innovative engineering solutions capable of having a game-changing impact on a broad variety of industry sectors. Put simply, Versarien technology is disruptive, it allows things to be done in a different way.

“What we make is three to ten times more effective at transferring heat than anything else out there,” says Neill.

“Devices can be faster and smaller, which means huge cost savings.”

Its biggest customer is currently Thermocore, a supplier into the medical and defence markets. But in fact Versarien’s market has expanded because everyone wants faster devices so Neill’s had conversations with the likes of Intel, Google and HP.

Since floatation, Versarien has also made a number of investments, most notably in the company 2-DTech from The University of Manchester. 2-DTech specialises in the supply, characterisation and early stage development of graphene, one of the most exciting new materials the world has seen for a generation.

So why is this high technology company sitting in the Forest of Dean? An area of great beauty, yes, but hardly known for being the silicon valley of Gloucestershire, and rather a long way from the research hubs of Manchester or Liverpool universities where Versarien’s core products have come from? It was partly an emotional decision by Neill, and partly pragmatic.

“I did my apprenticeship here and knew there was an available labour force due to some large companies reducing in size or closing down,” he said.

“I also wanted to create a business in my local area that had given me so much. It was a difficult conversation to have with my board; Jim was in Manchester and Will in London, but I won the argument and it has subsequently been shown to be a great place to do business.”

Versarien now employ around 70 staff members.

What next for Neill, and Versarien? Well, his institutional investors know a good thing when they see it and are still urging the business to spend, spend, spend on exciting new technology businesses. But after such a whirlwind four years, isn’t it time to take stock (if you will excuse the pun). Neill agrees.

“We now have five operating companies within the group,” he says.

Versarien is still on the acquisition trail, but for Neill it’s now a careful balance of making sure the businesses within the Group are doing well before giving themselves the distraction of embarking on buying more.

“Never in my wildest dreams when we started the business did I think that top investors would be interested in such sizable investments with us. It certainly bodes well for the future. The business is extremely well funded; we have some great supporters and can continue our fast-growth strategy.

“I have put a lot of effort into the business and I don’t think we have anywhere near reached our potential as a company.”