Justin Levine, the managing director of Parvalux Electric Motors, is an aeronautical engineer with a passion for motorbikes and a sharp insight into the market for industrial automation and control products. Jon Severn meets the man for whom design is a mainstay of his strategy to rejuvenate Parvalu
Growing up near the British Aerospace factory in Warton, Lancashire, Justin Levine used to watch Tornado and Lightning jet fighters being put through their paces by test pilots. From an early age, he wanted to design aircraft. While at school he studied practical engineering and even started a small business repairing motorbikes, but his desire to design aircraft grew stronger still when he visited universities prior to deciding where to go and what to study.
He chose to read aeronautics at Imperial CollegeLondonwhich prepared him for his first job with British Aerospace. This was in a highly automatedflexible manufacturing facility where small components for the Tornado were machined to extremely tight tolerances.
While he was working herehe was in a team investigating why tolerances were not always being held on machined components. It transpired that the tidal flow of a river running close to the factory was sufficient to affect the machine tool foundationswhich was causing dimensional variations on some workpieces.
Within the factory were a number of Marwin machining centres with high-precisionliquid-cooled spindles that had a limited lifedespite their high cost.
Refurbishments were undertaken by BSL Engineeringso Levine frequently saw the sales engineer andafter a whilethought that life as a sales engineer seemed attractive – visiting a variety of different engineering companiessolving problemsand getting paid better than a graduate engineer.
Besideshe had realised that it would take a very long time to progress upwards through a company the size of British Aerospace.
When he first wrote to the managing director of BSL Engineering to ask for a job as a salesman he was turned down. So he wrote again – several times. Eventuallyhaving been with British Aerospace for a year and a halfBSL Engineering offered Levine a position based in Newbury.
Having successfully proved his abilities as a sales engineer with BSL Engineeringhe became the sales manager for Simplatrollnow Lenze Ltdin Bedford.
This was to prove an exciting roleas Levine explains: "Lenze was really ahead of the game with its servo and positioning technology. It was integrating functions into its DC and inverter drives far earlier than most of its competitors. We had great products to sellwith limited competition."
After four yearsand aged just 29Levine was ready for a new challenge and was made the managing director of SIG Positec. Levine says this was the point at which he started to learn about business: "SIG Positec had a turnover of about £1million (around E1.3million) and employed six or seven people. I was given a free reinwith the dual objectives of growing the business and making it profitable. This is where my ‘real’ education began. I started an MBA (Master of Business Administration) degree and was able to put some of this to good use straightaway. Within eighteen months I had changed the businessdoubled the turnover to £2million and made it profitable. SIG Positec was then sold to Schneider Electric and renamed Berger Lahr."
From Schneider to Parvalux
Schneider Electric was impressed with Levine’s performance and made him joint-managing director of NUM in the UK – while still managing Berger Lahr’s UK operation. True to formLevine turned around the previously loss-making NUM. He was soon offered a position at Schneider Electric’s motion headquarters in Germanyand was subsequently made sales director for Asia Pacific and the USA. During his time with Schneider ElectricLevine also worked in Asia and North Americaand led a project to significantly improve NUM’s business in both France and Italy.
After a stint as vice president for motion control – with responsibility for the businesses of Berger LahrNUM and Telemecanique motion – Levine took the bold decision not to continue with Schneider Electric. He says: "Schneider Electric is a great company and there would have been plenty of opportunity for me there. I decided to leave for a number of reasonsbut essentially I wanted some independence and to try consulting."
The consulting business proved successfulwith 11 international clients benefiting from Levine’s experience and insight within a period of just 12 months. One of these companies was Parvalux Electric Motorsa privately-owned manufacturer of electric motors and gearboxes.
With a successful track record of investing in and growing various business venturesSteven Clarkthe chief executivesought advice on the options available to significantly expand the business.
Levine explains how he made the transition from consultant to managing director: "Parvalux was seen by many people as being old fashionedwith a range of motors and gearboxes that were very dependable but certainly not ‘cutting-edge’. None of Europe’s larger manufacturers of motors considered Parvalux to be a serious competitorbut I could see that the company had the potential to become a shining star. It would take a lot of workbut Steven Clark was prepared to make the commitment that it needed. He offered me a package that I could not refusewhich included a stake in the businessand I accepted.
"Although I could have got a senior position with one or other of the major players in the industrial automation marketwhere is the fun in that? It is much more challenging to join a ‘third-division team’ and develop it into a ‘first-division team’. In 10 years’ time I want to have turned Parvalux into something really special."
Since his youthLevine has been passionate about motorbikes; some of the inspiration behind his vision for Parvalux has come from Triumph: "In the 1950s and 1960s Triumph was an innovative builder of best-in-class motorbikes that had charm and character. But the company then lost its way and was viewed as a ‘has been’ that was past its bestwith old technology and old products. But look at Triumph today and it is once again an innovator (take its three-cylinder enginefor example)having built on its core brand values to become a globally respected manufacturer again."
When Levine studied the Parvalux business he saw several things that led him to believe that the company would have a good future: "Customer retention is incredibly highwith several hundred active customers. One of the reasons behind this is that the products have a level of reliability that has become legendary; product returns are virtually nil. It is also an advantage that Parvalux is a relatively small manufacturer of motors and gearboxes.
"Bigger motion companies do not see Parvalux as a competitorand its small size means it can do things that larger companies simply cannot.
"For instanceParvalux offers products that are standard off-the-shelf itemsconfigured-to-order or fully customised.
"We can even design entirely new products from scratch if required. Order sizes range from one-offs for configured productsto tens of thousands."
Parvalux motors and gearboxes are used in a very wide range of applicationssuch as for the windscreen wipers of French TGVs and other trainsfor repositioning solar panels to face into the sunin patient hoistsand in coin-counting machines.
A core element of Levine’s strategic plan is to launch two new product lines every year. Moreoverhe wants the new products to have a look and feel that makes them instantly recognisable as Parvalux products. Clearly both functional and industrial (aesthetic) design will play an important role in the company's development.
Prior to Levine joining Parvaluxproduct design was based largely on experience and manual calculationswith new designs developed on drawing boards.
One of Levine’s first tasks was to recruit an engineering team to expand the company’s new product development capability and bring with them the skills to use up-to-date technologies in a more efficient design process.
Whereas there were previously no graduates in the companythere are now 14. Three of these have come fresh from their degree courseswhile the others have varying amounts of experience as well.
When Russell Tanner was appointed as design managerhe brought with him 10 years’ of experience in transmission design with Portescap in the UK and Switzerland.
Having recruited a strong design teamLevine invested in five seats of Autodesk Inventor. Every three monthsthe engineers are given external training to develop their skills further. As far as possible new designs are assessed and tested with finite element analysis and other software tools before prototypes are built and tested (Fig.1).While the correct balance between functioncost and quality is essentialLevine believes that aesthetics now has a more important role to play in industrial automation products (Fig.2).
He explains: "Look at B&Rwhich proclaims ‘automation is orange’. Pick up any one of their HMIsindustrial PCs or drives and you know instantly that it is a B&R product. Lenze is another company that has grasped this need to build a strong brand identity. When I was at the SPS/IPC/Drives show last year – which incidentally was the first German exhibition that Parvalux has ever attended – the companies there fell into two distinct categories: those whose products are strongly branded (B&RSEW Eurodrive and PG Drives Technologyfor example) and those whose products are distinguishable only by the nameplatw.
"When Parvalux launches its new range of 60mm planetary gearboxes in the third quarter of 2008I can assure you that they will not look like conventional planetary gearboxes – they will be very distinctive."
Around 60–70percent of the design and development resources are currently devoted to these new 60mm planetary gearboxes and other sizes (Fig.3).
Twenty-five per cent of the resources are concentrated on the development of dc brushless motors and further developments to this range (Fig.4)including encodersbrakes and terminal boxes. The remainder of the design and development effort is spent on developing further options for the existing range of dc brushed motors. There are no immediate plans to redesign the portfolio of legacy products.
However another exciting development later in 2008 will be when Parvalux enters the drives marketas Levine explains: "We are collaborating with a company that has the necessary electronic development skills. The new drives will use the latest technologies – but they will be proven technologies because we cannot risk jeopardising our reputation for reliability. There will be four-quadrant drives for dc brushless motorsdrives for dc brushed motors and ac inverter drives. These will be uniquely Parvalux drivesnot badged versions of somebody else’s."
With a stated goal of launching two new product lines every yearLevine is also very focused on the market for which these products will be built: "We are not aiming at either of the two extremesnamely the market for high-performancehigh-cost motors and gearboxes where European and USA manufacturers tend to operateand the low-quality low-cost market in China that is served by local manufacturers. Rather we are aiming at what I call the ‘global Chinese’ marketwhere Chinese manufacturers are supplying medium-quality products at mid-range prices for sale around the world. Parvalux can be in this market too by designing the products in the UKsourcing raw materials and semi-finished components from Asia and retaining final manufacturingassembly and inspection in the UK."
To maximise the return on the investment in new product developmentLevine has ambitious plans to double the number of global sales channels from the current 24 in order to boost exports – which today account for around 60percent of the business.
In particular he says that Parvalux is under-represented in Asia and North America. A new sales director has therefore been appointed to assist with this process; Nick Spetch has previously worked for IMI Cornelius and RS Componentswhere he rose to the position of group director of sales for the UK and Irelandresponsible for a sales revenue of £350million (approximately E470million).
Looking to the futureLevine wants to move Parvalux towards more efficient motorsgearboxes and drives.
His reasoning is as follows: "Improved energy efficiency makes sense on three fronts: economiccommercial and moral. And the markets in Europe and North America are already starting to demand higher efficiencies.
"We will also be looking at technologies such as rare earth magnets to gain improved performance from smallerlighter products."
Levine is fanatical about improving the customer experienceyet he concedes that finding out what customers really want is not easy: "Marketing questionnaires do not always identify customers’ underlying requirementsand I sometimes wonder whether engineers areby defaulta conservative group. We therefore started blogging on the website to generate some direct dialogue with engineers. This is now beginning to bear fruitalbeit with most people preferring to comment via private emails rather than sharing their views on the blog."
If everything goes according to planParvalux will double its turnover within five years. Levine himself will clearly be a major factor behind the future success of Parvalux Electric Motorsyet his chosen strategy means that the design team’s contribution will be crucial too.