November 24, 2013

Interview with Stephen R. Bowring Managing Director of Bowtech Products

bowtech MD

Thursday, Feb 26, 2009

What was the vision behind the creation of Bowtech Products?

I arrived in Aberdeen in 1979 and helped set up Bennico, which was the first company to introduce truly reliable ROV systems into the market. That was my introduction to the subsea world. After 10 successful years I decided to move on and start something on my own. I registered Bowtech Products Limited in 1989.

Rather than providing the whole ROV system, I decided to concentrate more on the equipment which goes onto the ROV. Initially I started the company by representing various overseas manufacturers, importing their equipment. That was an easy way to start a business, since having third-party products avoided us having to assume the development costs. The initial goal was to sell peripherals for ROVs and underwater equipment, and then develop the company from there.

In the first 7 or 8 years, we had steady growth selling these third-party products, but in the back of my mind, there was always the desire to fully develop our own products. What I really wanted was to use my experience in the market to produce homegrown Scottish-based products.

Our first product was developed about 13 years ago. It was a small underwater relocation device, which allowed the location of an ROV, when it was lost and floated to the surface. It was an insurance requirement that every ROV had to carry one. I noticed that there was only one major player based in the US producing this, so I saw an opportunity for Bowtech to develop this niche product. We still sell it today, and are probably the market leader in Europe and one of the top suppliers worldwide.

What was the route that led Bowtech to develop its own cutting-edge cameras and to become a leading player that field?

For several years Bowtech kept selling the overseas manufacturer products while developing our own products alongside. One of the areas the company specialized in was underwater cameras and video systems. We were dealing with an American supplier at that time, which provided the big sophisticated cameras for ROVs. Eventually I noticed how ROVs were getting more and more specialized, carrying bigger tooling packages, so I saw a market potential for more sophisticated and elaborate equipment.

In particular, there was a greater need for smaller multiple cameras mounted on the tooling packages, rather than just the one piloting camera. These tooling cameras needed to be small, high quality and low price. I spoke about this to our American supplier, but they were not interested in developing these types of cameras themselves so Bowtech went ahead to make them. So we started developing our very first underwater tooling camera, which took several years. Our success grew as did Bowtech’s market share, and today we are leaders in the segment. There is not a major ROV company that does not use our tooling cameras, and Bowtech has become the preferred supplier by many of the world’s leading players.

This experience also became the basis for the further development of our camera technology. We realized that we could quite easily build larger and more sophisticated cameras, such as the main piloting and viewing cameras, which go on ROVs. By deciding to get into this market, Bowtech was going to tread directly on the toes of our American supplier, so about 4 years ago; we decided to relinquish our supplier and fully develop our own Aberdeen-built and designed high-end cameras.

Bowtech has since invested heavily in the in-house development of these products. We have been profitable over the years and are reinvesting in the company in order to grow and achieve further success in the future. It has been an extraordinary evolution, starting out as a company selling primarily American products in the UK to become a player capable of exporting its own technology to the world.

What has been the key to Bowtech’s recent commercial success, allowing it to compete with previous and well established suppliers?

Bowtech gained a lot of experience through the development of its tooling cameras over several years. We now provide a product, which is more user-friendly, smaller in size and at a lower cost than our competitors are. The use of more exotic materials in our cameras, such as titanium and sapphire glass, also set us apart. In addition, the company took quite a gamble by deciding to invest in large-scale production of the cameras in order to lower unitary costs, which eventually paid off.

Bowtech went on to apply the same philosophy for our high-end cameras. There was a very dominant market leader in this range, a Norwegian-owned company based in Aberdeen with manufacturing nearby in the Northeast of Scotland, which we saw as our benchmark. We set out to match or better them in terms of quality, cost and reliability. Bowtech has chosen only the best regarding technology and materials, producing cameras ready to operate at extreme depths of up to 6000 meters, which the industry is moving towards.

How does Bowtech develop its relationships with clients in Aberdeen and beyond?

Bowtech’s main clients are the big subsea service contractors like Subsea 7, Oceaneering, Acergy and Saipem, as well as major ROV operators and manufacturers, many of which are actually based in the UK. There is no doubt that Aberdeen is one of the top centers for subsea engineering in the world, so it is very practical to be based here. In fact, Bowtech ‘exports’ much of its production through the big contractors which place our equipment on ROVs destined for places such as West Africa, South America or China, though they are mobilized or controlled out of Aberdeen.

After being an agent for American companies in the UK, Bowtech is now taking on the US market with its own products. What makes you feel up to this challenge today?

Now that Bowtech has a complete range of underwater video products, from tooling to top end cameras, we are in a position to push into the USA, one of the biggest markets in the world. The company has dedicated several years to the development of these new products, which are literally right off the press. We are now ready to deliver Bowtech’s in-house cutting-edge underwater video products to the global market.

We recently ‘showed our hand’ at an exhibition in New Orleans in early 2008, which took the market by surprise. Now Bowtech is making its big push internationally but of course also at home in Aberdeen, where the market continues to develop well. We have a key advantage vis-à-vis the competition, which is our ability to react very quickly. ROV operators use cameras in many different ways and you have to be able to customize them, often to fit specific requirements. In addition, this is of course on top of our ability to offer products of equal or superior quality and reliability, at a lower cost.

The boom of the global subsea market has meant growing business for specialized firms in Aberdeen. How is Bowtech performing and capitalizing on this momentum?

In the last few years, Bowtech’s profile has risen enormously as we have brought these products into the market. Rather than having to wait for the cameras to arrive from the USA, clients in Aberdeen now know that we are here for them. So, indeed, our level of business in the underwater vision market has increased enormously. In the last 12 months alone, our turnover in camera products has doubled. I envision that our turnover in this market area will increase by three or four-fold in the next couple of years quite easily.

I want Bowtech to become the supplier, which is first in the customers’ mind for underwater cameras. In the past, they would only think about one player, our main competitor. Now they have a choice, allowing them to see which one can provide the best product and service. Our goal is for Bowtech to be on the tip of people’s tongues. We have already achieved this with our small tooling cameras, so the next step is to do the same for our bigger cameras. I am confident that by continuing to work as we are doing, Bowtech has the tools to take the market with these products, and our turnover should see a big leap.

Bowtech offers its range of products to several industries. How did this diversification come about and what place does the oil and gas market have within this?

The subsea oil and gas market represents about 60% of Bowtech’s turnover. It is our main business line, however very early on we realized that it was a good idea to avoid relying on only one market, particularly oil and gas that can have very marked cycles. In consequence, we looked for opportunities to diversify our client base. In this context, Bowtech supplies two other key sectors: nuclear power generation (remote intervention in underwater fuel tanks) and the military industry (primarily submarine imaging video and lighting systems). These markets have given our business model greater stability through the oil and gas industry’s vicissitudes, and provide a steady flow of income.

At a time of critical skill shortages affecting the entire industry, how successful is Bowtech in retaining and attracting the necessary talent?

Bowtech would not be where it is today if it were not for the fantastic staff that we have. Our team is made up of 20 people, half of whom have spent roughly 10 years with the company, and several of them have been around since day one. We have low employee turnover, and our key experienced people are very much here for the long-term. This factor has been fundamental to the development of our equipment and success in the market.

As the founder of Bowtech and having led its development during the last two decades, what is the most exciting thing about the period the company is currently going through?

Looking at Bowtech’s evolution, my main satisfaction is to see where it is today compared to its beginnings. We have gone from importing and selling third-party products to developing our own equipment and taking it to the market, in Aberdeen and abroad. Rather than just remaining as an agency company, Bowtech is now a manufacturer of high-tech equipment locally produced in Aberdeen.

What is your vision for Bowtech in 5 years time?

My vision is for Bowtech to be the leading company in providing underwater vision systems in Aberdeen, and one of the major players worldwide. Things are already moving quickly in this direction, even faster than anticipated.

What is your final message to your readers?

At Bowtech, we learn and listen from our clients’ requirements, and strive to provide them a product, which will match or exceed their wishes. Our goal is to produce the very best underwater vision products at a competitive price. Thanks to our efforts in product development and the initial market reaction we have received, Bowtech is on target to becoming a major supplier of underwater vision systems in the UK and internationally.