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Canford – the next five years and beyond

In the run-up to IBC 2011, manufacturer and distribution company Canford's recently appointed chief executive, Leif Friestad, talks to Kevin Hilton about five year plans, new sales and marketing structures and his take on the broadcasting market.

Canford is among the most familiar names in the audio and broadcast industries. From its origins as a manufacturer and supplier of sometimes unglamorous but always necessary equipment for the radio sector, it has expanded into television and theatre installations, with the same intention of offering a wide range of gear for just about every job. As well as this market expansion, over its 35 years in the business Canford has been through management changes and moved into new areas, including computers and IT, through acquisition and co-operation. As with any organisation some of this went smoothly and some didn’t. Canford has survived where many of its competitors have not and is still independent, with its headquarters in the northeast of England. Employing 185 staff across the main offices in Washington, Tyne and Wear, a manufacturing plant in Portland, Dorset and offices in France and Germany, Canford last year posted sales of almost £17 million. But there is the realisation that the market is continuing to change and Canford wants to ensure it is responding appropriately to maintain its position. In March this year the company’s long-time chief executive, Charles Kennedy, retired. Kennedy, commonly known as “Chas”, joined Canford in the mid-1980s after a career in both BBC and commercial local radio. The chairman and founding director of Canford respectively, Hugh Morgan Williams and Iain Elliott, also have roots in broadcasting but Kennedy’s successor, Leif Friestad, comes from a broader industrial background. Originally from southern Norway, Friestad was previously with United Technologies, where he worked with brands including Chubb, Pratt and Whitney, Sikorsky and Otis. Friestad describes himself as “the first catalyst” in planning for the long-term future and security of Canford. Soon after taking up the post he instigated a strategic review of the business, appointing a panel of 16 members of staff from different departments of Canford. “I come from a non-broadcast industry background but I’m not blind to the industry,” he says. “I guess I take a little bit more of a helicopter view than perhaps has been the case in the past. This took me down the road of looking at what are the values, drivers and opportunities of the business. That’s why I engaged individuals who represented a talent and knowledge pool within Canford to look at where the business should be going.” The result was a five-year plan. Friestad acknowledges that it will also prepare Canford for inevitable changes that will have to be made considering that the current shareholders are approaching their 60s. “There are the generational shifts to accommodate in the business strategy,” Friestad says. “We want Canford to have the right home in the future and to secure the business and the position of our employees.” In the shorter-term the strategic review has set out three goals and a list of 30 objectives to be achieved over five-years. Friestad says the goals are “very clear” but commercially sensitive. The first involves increasing turnover, productivity and efficiency. For any company in any business attaining such an ambition means examining its operations and approach. For Canford part of this means reviewing the products in The Source, the catalogue first published in 1981 that not only lists all its wares but explains the technology behind them. Friestad observes that there may be some “narrowing down” and removal of older items. “We want to maintain a strong, broad portfolio but at the same time focus on specific segments and develop sales both internationally and domestically,” he explains. “Internationally it is more of a geographical expansion, whereas in the UK it is more a focus on specific markets.” Perhaps more significantly the roles of sales and marketing are being split to allow for greater concentration on particular areas. A new sales director is being recruited, which will allow David Holloway, who was previously in charge of both areas, to give his full attention to product development, management and communications. “Canford’s own manufacturing output is now 40 percent of sales turnover,” Friestad comments. “The strategic plan for the next five years has clearly highlighted the need to increase that further and also to maintain our focus on product development and introduction. Another critical need is to keep abreast of the rapidly evolving needs of our customers. To achieve both objectives we’re seeking a sales director, which will enable David Holloway to concentrate fully on his preferred portfolio.” Friestad sees the broadcast market as “evolving” and this assessment is partly informing the evolution at Canford itself. “We have quite a lot of work to do on the video side,” he says, “but that also represents an opportunity for us. I see a very fragmented market on the video side, lots of small players, and I think we could play a role by having more clout through dealing with a number of blue chip customers. We could be a strong partner for a lot of the video companies.” Canford has grown through acquisition in the past and Friestad does not rule this out for the future. Among the companies Canford has bought on the audio side is Panamic boom poles and Friestad emphasises that sound is still “critical and core” to the operation. “We are known for audio and want to maintain that position,” he says. “I think we can add value by bringing other elements to it but that will be in a very controlled manner. Audio is where we come from and we want to keep our place in the market. That means infrastructure as well. The cabling side is still a critical area for us. We have a strong position and want to retain it. But in all of this, although we’ve been in business for 35 years we have to be relevant to today’s market otherwise the history doesn’t matter.”