The latest addition to our Manufacturing Team, Chris Manka, explains why manufacturers should be more confident in celebrating what they do, and how his diverse career in international trade, marketing and arguing with the Prime Minister gives him a fresh perspective on the creative power of manufacturing.
Let me start with a question: Do you consider your manufacturing business worthy of attention?
I ask this because I’ve worked in marketing in one form or another for most of my career and it’s my firm belief that most manufacturers are selling themselves short.
I’m willing to bet you’re far more interesting than you imagine, which is why I’m making it my mission to give Greater Manchester’s SME manufacturers a much-needed ego boost.
From dairy in Saudi to festive lighting in Huddersfield (and a brief argument with David Cameron)
I was exposed to the world of manufacturing at a very young age. My parents ran a small business making handbags and I spent many of my school holidays helping out, then worked in the business during my teen years before heading off to university to study mechanical engineering.
After a year, I decided mechanical engineering wasn’t right for me. My head had been turned by a brand-new, shiny subject called ‘business studies’ and I switched over to a marketing degree. It has taken me to some exciting and often bizarre places, but the pull of manufacturing has never been far away.
In the early 90s, I found myself in Saudi Arabia helping the New Zealand dairy board set up a canning facility to supply milk powder in the Middle East. It was challenging at times (I had my luggage packed and ready to go home on three or four occasions!) but the international outlook it gave me was a gamechanger.
Since then, I’ve spent the better part of the last three decades consulting on international trade – helping businesses in food, clothing, giftware and festive lighting (more on that below) sell into every continent, from Europe to Oceania.
At the same time, I’ve been lucky enough to be a regional chair for the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), which has given me the opportunity to really get to grips with the support SMEs need and get involved in government policy (this once included a ‘robust’ hour-and-a-half closed-room discussion with David Cameron and George Osborne, where I gave them both barrels on what was wrong with how small businesses were being supported on international trade).
Now I’m back in the world of manufacturing and, in one way or another, I plan to put all of these experiences to use.
Don’t neglect your soft skills
Being exposed to completely different cultures (whether that’s the Middle East or Downing Street) has taught me a lot about how to cooperate with people from different backgrounds.
It’s obviously crucial if you’re trading overseas, but even if you’re not, those soft ‘people’ skills are vitally important in business development more generally – right down to being comfortable picking up the phone to ask someone a daft question or discuss a new idea.
This brings me to my key point: there are so many manufacturers out there who are great at what they do, but aren’t necessarily comfortable putting themselves out there.
You’d be surprised how worthy of attention even the smallest businesses can be. I’ve worked with companies where enquiries have come in from the middle of nowhere on the other side of the world and transformed their prospects overnight, just because they had a website. Make yourself visible to the world and anything is possible.
There’s a whole skillset around marketing, communication and other soft skills that I’m hoping to support as many manufacturers with as possible over the coming months.
Your ingenuity is worth shouting about
During my time as FSB region chair, it always struck me that the businesses doing the most interesting things tended to be engineering and manufacturing companies, yet it’s engineering and manufacturing companies who are usually the ones we hear the least about.
Manufacturing in the UK is still perceived by too many people as a dirty, out-dated line of work that’s part of Britain’s past, not its future. They couldn’t be more wrong. For one thing, we have an incredible array of engineering skills in this country, especially here in the North. We’ve got the foundational industries, we’ve got the research base and, most importantly, we’ve got the ingenuity.
A great example of this ingenuity was a festive lighting supplier in Huddersfield I had the pleasure of working with before the pandemic. It was an astonishingly creative company, using mechanical and electrical engineering along with AI to create the wackiest of products (an 8m-high perfume bottle hung from the ceiling of the Trafford Centre and a four-storey grotto ‘castle’ in Bristol being my personal favourites). Working there reminded me of the endless creative possibilities that engineering offers.
This can-do spirit is something I see time and time again. More recently, I was helping a client to develop a nursery product that ended up locked away in a Chinese factory during the pandemic, so instead we took a cover for pushchairs and turned it into a personal isolation device for the medical sector. A completely new product for a completely new market, developed under lockdown conditions. Creativity is everywhere, we just don’t hear about it enough.
There are massive opportunities ahead for our manufacturers here in Greater Manchester – we just need to grab them. We need to celebrate what we do and shout loud enough for everyone else to take notice. That’s what I’ll be bringing to my new role in this fabulous team.
Ready to grow your manufacturing business?
If you’re an SME based in Greater Manchester and want to learn more about how to improve your marketing, identify new opportunities, explore international markets and become more profitable, don’t hesitate – get in touch with us today.
Chris Manka, Manufacturing Advisor
Chris has over 25 years of business experience, with a background in marketing. He has worked in different sectors, including FMCG, food, retail infrastructure and medical devices. Chris has also worked as a business consultant, specialising in international trade and business development.
Chris was brought up with manufacturing – his parents owned and ran a small textile business, and the experience has stayed with him throughout his career, being able to relate to processes when developing products, and being able to communicate effectively with suppliers. In addition, Chris has been an active member of the Federation of Small Business and has held the position of region chair NW for two terms. Chris was a founding member of the team that wrote and delivered a Northern Powerhouse manifesto for small businesses and he remains a passionate advocate for the North.
Chris has a very can-do approach to progressing projects, with an ability to see potential and structure a sustainable route for progress.