Drifting from the more traditional motor factor business, this month, PMF talks to Steve Burton, Managing Director at Burton Power. Originally an engineering company providing specialist services to the high performance and motorsport market, the business grew into a thriving parts distributor with a particular focus on Ford components.
Q. Given your varied experience within the industry, perhaps you could begin by giving us some background information to Burton Power.
Steve Burton (SB): Burton Engineering (as it was known then) was founded by my father Lionel ‘Bert’ Burton in 1963. Dad was a skilled engineer/mechanic and had a passion for high performance tuning and the racing scene. After building up a highly respected VW agency in Abridge during the 50’s, he decided to split from his business partner and invest in a business of his own. Through his own experiences of the lack of services available to engine tuning enthusiasts like himself, he recognised an opportunity to offer some of these services to other motorsport businesses and individuals. Top of his list was to offer an engine balancing service, so an art school friend of mine drew me the sea lion balancing a ball image which we immediately adopted as the company logo and is now a registered trade mark.
We found a small shop premises on Eastern Avenue, Ilford, and took over the existing leasehold for the grand sum of £4 a week. Dad got stuck in setting the shop up with the necessary machinery, tools and fittings, while I continued working at the London Stock Exchange during the week and helping him out at the weekends. Dad was working long hours, 7 days-a-week as the business grew and he became busier and busier. By the summer of 1964, I made the decision to leave the Stock Exchange and join him, doubling the workforce at that time. Thankfully Dad was a very good teacher and I was soon able to operate the machines and help him carry out most of the work our customers’ had requested. Sadly, Dad would not be around to enjoy the fruits of all his hard work – he died the following year leaving an inexperienced 21 year old to step into his remarkably talented shoes.
Q. What are the benefits of keeping the business in the family?
SB: Dad had an enormous amount of integrity and passion for giving his customers the best service he was able to offer them. Although I do not consider myself as skilled as he was, I believe I have inherited his integrity and passion for doing everything to the best of my ability and maintain the highest level of customer service we are able to offer.
To my mind, these characteristics are found mostly in smaller family businesses and, to a large extent, diminish as companies grow and become much larger enterprises. Burtons has gone through periods during its 54 year history when other individuals have had directorships and shares in the company, some with good effect and others not so good. I am proud of where we are and happy that Burton Power is now, once again, wholly owned by the Burton family.
Q. How has Burton Power come to be so specialised?
SB: Burtons has always been primarily a performance engine based company and, to a major degree, we still are. However, during our formative years we were working on all sorts of engine types e.g. Hillman Minx & Imps, Jaguar, BMC, Lotus, Rover, Triumph, Vauxhall, Ford and many others including motor cycle and lawnmower engines! Being quite close to Ford’s vast Dagenham factory we were getting a fair number of Ford engine related jobs, but none of these compared to the constant flow of Mini engines being brought in for balancing and ‘big bore conversions’. Essex Speed Centre, Jon Mowatt and Keith Ripp (Ripspeed), to name just a few I remember, were regular visitors to our Eastern Avenue premises during those early days.
However, towards the late sixties when Ford introduced the Mk1 Escort, we began getting more and more involved with Ford and subsequently with the Lotus Twin Cam and BDA engines. Our sponsorship and development collaboration with Hot Rod World Champion Barry Lee over more than a decade was instrumental in taking the company further down the Ford specialist road which continues to this day.
Q. Do you supply components for other makes of vehicle?
SB: As major distributors for many leading names in our industry we do offer non-Ford products when requested. However, our core specialisation remains Ford, taking in most UK passenger car models from 1960 up to the present day. Most of the engine parts for the Classic market are no longer available from Ford and we retro produce hundreds of components to continue to service this area of demand. Similarly, we continue to manufacture most of the specialist high performance engine components for which there is a continued demand.
Although Ford engine components remain our core business and specialisation, our product range includes most other areas such as braking, suspension, transmission, electrics & instrumentation, steering, etc. We carry a very comprehensive range of transmission components for all the popular manual variants and a range of nine different ratios for the Ford ‘English’ CWP gear sets.
Q. Are there any downsides to having a niche product range?
SB: We have experimented with diversifying and having a wider vehicle range but we have always been disappointed with the results. I believe that our very long standing association with Ford and motorsport has an enormous influence on how we are perceived by our customers. Within the niche section of the automobile market that we occupy, we have to do much more than just shifting stock. A high proportion of our customers are carrying out non-standard upgrades and modifications to their vehicles and they often need professional help and advice before making their final choice of product. We also offer aftersales technical support. My sales team have an enormous amount of knowledge between them and many are hands on mechanics. As I have already said, customer service and support is of paramount importance, and by concentrating our efforts and attentions to just one (but nevertheless quite large) range of car we are much more able to achieve this.
Q. Who would you say makes up the majority of your customer demographic?
SB: I’m not too sure of the exact make up of our customer base, but it is pretty diverse and covers most areas e.g. motor trade, specialist service companies, motor factors, private individuals, professional engine builders, motorsport companies, motorsport competitors, etc. I would guess that the majority of our customers fall within the independents category.
Q. Were you ever tempted to move towards the more traditional motor factor model?
SB: During our earlier years, the majority of our custom came from other businesses i.e. the trade. As we progressed and expanded into adjacent units on our Eastern Avenue site, our machining capability expanded into the manufacture and supply of engine related products e.g. pistons, gaskets, bearings, etc. which we brought in from factors like FPS and Edmunds Walker.
We then progressed further with our own range of high performance camshafts and modified cylinder heads, supplying specialist retail outlets locally and countrywide who were all advertising these products at cut prices and competing quite aggressively with each other. Burtons did not advertise in this way and our margins were getting tighter and tighter in our efforts to maintain all their custom.
So we then decided that if we continued factoring our products to these businesses the future financial stability of our company would be put in jeopardy. Our reasoning at that time was to play them at their own game and launch our own national marketing campaign via the motoring press (websites and computers were non-existent in those days). It was a struggle to begin with, but it paid off in the end and was instrumental in providing the impetus that has seen the company grow to where it is today. We have never considered ourselves a traditional motor factor as such and although our business is predominantly direct mail, we are a factor for our very large range of exclusive products to bona fide traders both in the UK and worldwide.
Q. How much of a part does Motorsport play in the business?
SB: Quite a large part! Because of our heritage, we have always been firmly established and recognised as a company operating within the high performance automotive market which, to a very large extent, involves the Motorsport industry. Our major involvement with Barry Lee during his very successful Hot Rod racing days (five World Championship titles) made the company’s name synonymous with high powered engines and Motorsport. We are event support sponsors of Spedeworth International (Oval Race promoters) and have sponsorship arrangements with a selection of drivers and events. In more recent years, we have been holding Burton Track Days with four or five events each year (we held our final event for 2017 at Snetterton in October).
Q. What would you say are the biggest changes to the industry over the years?
SB: From my own company’s perspective, the technological changes and needs and expectations of our customers have changed enormously. Back in the sixties where it all began for us, most engines needed a ‘decoke’ after around 30,000 miles, with few lasting beyond 60,000 miles before needing a major overhaul or replacement. Today, with all the advances in engine design, manufacturing methods, materials, lubrication technology and engine management systems, most will last the lifetime of the vehicle without any major repair and that’s before taking into consideration that service periods have been reduced from circa 5,000 mile intervals to double or treble that. Most of our customers’ back then were very hands-on, carrying out their own repairs, modifications and servicing. Our most popular request was to shave a large chunk of metal off the cylinder head face to raise the compression ratio, with the next being a request for a ‘big bore conversion’ where we would enlarge the cylinder bores to suit the biggest oversized pistons we could find to fit. These modifications certainly improved the power and performance of their engine, but this was usually short lived – they either prematurely broke down or, in some cases, ‘blew up’! But that was how it was, especially back in the sixties and seventies. Today it is very different, but the changes have been gradual and we have managed to adapt to keep up with them.
Q. Any big plans for next year?
SB: We have occupied this same site for 54 years and so we may have to consider trying to develop and increase our floor space or relocate. Either would mean disruption to the running of the business so while we are still able to operate successfully from here we will. We do have forecourt parking for our customers but it can be restrictive at times – luckily most of our sales are sent out via couriers. We have some major IT changes coming up soon which should greatly enhance our marketing and in-house sales operations.
Q. What do you think the secret to Burton Power’s success over the decades has been?
SB: I can only make a few guesses at this:
- Timing and location: Basically being in the right place at the right time. The 60’s were definitely a good time to start a business and being within the ‘Motorsport Valley’ zone and close to Ford’s Dagenham plant must have been an added bonus.
- Rival competition: To my knowledge, we were the only company in the south east of England who was offering our type of specialist services at that time.
- Customer service: We have always concentrated on answering the needs of our customers and giving them the best support and advice we are able to offer. You have to do much more than just shifting boxes to succeed in this market place and to do that you have to have knowledgeable staff and the best sales backup systems you can provide.
- Forging ahead: Our involvement in Motorsport from early on helped us enormously in putting our name on the map so to speak. It hasn’t been plain sailing all the way to where we are now, but I’m pleased that our name is still widely associated as the place to go for specialist Ford parts.
- Keeping stock: We have always tried to maintain a good stock inventory wherever possible. This is especially important today, where customers are constantly ordering online and expecting it to be on their doorstep the following day. This cannot be achieved if you are relying on your supplier to be your stock room – which is a common ploy with many companies today. We pride ourselves in being able to fulfil and despatch most of our orders the same day.