As a young Cambridge engineering graduate, the easiest career step Ian Walker could have taken would have been the one that took him straight into his father’s firm.
But Ian could scarcely have run much further in the opposite direction. Not for him the cosy choice of living at home and learning the ropes at the family firm. “I didn’t think it was right to work for my dad and decided to get as far away from Sheffield as I could,” he says.
He applied for engineering sales roles in America and Japan, landed jobs in both countries and decided to leave his choice to fate. The immigration visa for Japan came first, so off the 23-year-old went to an electrical engineering company in Tokyo.
“It was like being an alien dropped to earth. I spoke not a word of Japanese and knew nothing of the country’s culture. I knew no-one but an old mate from Birkdale School who was also working in Tokyo. But I fell in love with the country,” he says.
His father Rowland must have been very glad his headstrong son went off to pursue his ambitions.
When he finally did return to Sheffield to take over the business in 1992 so Rowland could retire at 70, it was with time in Japan and Holland, plus 10 years in management at the London HQ of blue chip corporate BOC under his belt.
He turned Rotary Electrical Co Ltd into a world leader which in its current form exports to over 60 countries.
But it was not an easy journey. Just a month after becoming MD, the company took a massive hit. The government announced mass pit closures. “Half of our business was with British Coal, repairing fans down the mines. We had to make 25 of 100 workers redundant, regroup and focus on what we were good at.”
The company looked overseas; Ian was able to use his years of experience in international trade to find openings in the Middle East.
Within 10 years the company had doubled its business, taken back most of the employees it had been forced to shed and set on another 40.
The thriving motor repair company caught the eye of Scottish firm John Wood PLC. “They made an offer we couldn’t refuse and we then focussed on the part of the business they didn’t want. I formed Rotary Engineering UK, manufacturing electro magnets and generator equipment at Halfway.” The company is now a world-leader. It installs and maintains industrial wind turbines and solar panels, and manufactures electro magnets and automation equipment, employs 20, and turns over £2 million. Exports represent 90 per cent of the firm’s business. It sells to the Middle East, North Africa, East Asia, Japan (Toshiba is a customer), Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Ian, 56, is also MD of a second company, Rotary Electrical Services, which he started in 2004. It takes him all over the world diagnostic testing, servicing and repairing power station generators – work similar to that done by his father’s company, but on a much larger scale.
He clearly got the entrepreneurial spirit from Rowland, the son of a gardener who had left school at 14 but had his own business by 1952. Maybe he also inherited the ability to persist in the face of adversity. But also, much of his success is down to those character-forming early years in Japan.
“The country opened my eyes to new ways of working,” he explains. “In Japan employees plan to stay with a company their whole lives and as a result are far more cooperative and committed. The Japanese take quality to the next level. It’s not just about meeting an approved standard, it’s about creating the quality that the customer wants. And they are a nation of planners. They spend hours working out how to do something and when they do it, they get it right first time.
“I have tried to bring all these things into the business, along with the power of team work, which is the Japanese psyche. When we’re designing a new product, we get all design engineers and apprentices together before they hit the drawing board. It’s important to respect the ideas of everyone.”
However the father of four, a Fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, Freeman of Sheffield’s Cutlers’ Company and Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Engineers in London, is just as passionate about Sheffield, the city he turned down a place on the ladder to the top at BOC in London for.
“I had been there for 10 years and the future looked bright, but when dad asked if he should sell the business on his retirement I realised small is beautiful too - and that there was a huge challenge to relish in running the family firm,” he explains.
“I love making a difference and the creative challenge of figuring out how to crack problems, taking a jumble of machines, people and assets and making them into something that can earn a living for everyone.
“Plus coming back to Sheffield as a family man really appealed. There are a thousand reasons why this is a better place to bring up children, not least the freedom your kids have here,” adds the former chair of the Sheffield Training and Enterprise Council and a non-exec director for NHS North of England.
“I am very proud to be from South Yorkshire and believe it is time for our county’s voice to be heard. I try to take the message about what a great place this is to live and work around the world.”