St Cross Electronics was set up in the early 1980’s and still, today, trades with some of its first customers. It even has some of the same staff members that joined in those very early years. This post is written by its founder Mr. Patrick J. Kiely, who really did take a big gamble to leave what was a secure job to “go on his own”. Patrick retired from the business in 2003 after Adrian Jukes and Dax Ward carried out an MBO. Below is Patrick’s story.
I always had a burning desire to run my own business and Vicky and I have, over the years, come up with many different ideas such as building houses, as I had done in Loughborough, to selling solar panels in Spain (this was the early days of solar panels). But we could never see a way of getting things started until I joined ITT Cannon. The new experience of dealing with people in the electronics industry made me realise that although these people were very good at something I knew very little about, I could do the mechanical and packaging side of it at least as good as them.
One day, visiting Mullards of Southampton, an engineer showed me a complicated assembly consisting of many soldered wires which, he said, would be very expensive to produce “in house” and did I know of a suitable sub contractor who could handle it. I gave it two seconds thought and replied that I knew exactly the right people and would get back to him later with details. Next day I registered “St. Cross Electronics” at companies house as “ sole trader”.
In the event nothing came of the Mullard deal but at least I had made the first step: we had a company.
Although wildly ambitious I was always very aware that I should never compromise my position with Cannon; in terms of taking business that should be theirs or spending their time on my project. So I was pleased that the very first order taken by St. Cross was to the benefit of me and Cannon. A company in Egham wanted a “D-Sub” Connector for board mounting but with clinch- nuts to fix to a front panel. Not a difficult request, I thought, but “D-Sub” was manufactured in France and they were not interested in producing a special. My solution , accepted by them, was to buy the standard connector from Cannon and free issue it to me to be modified. This first order was followed by various cable assemblies which I made in my little workshop.
The jumper is a very simple device for joining two printed circuit boards together. It consists of ribbon cable (usually on 0.100 pitch) of various ways with both conductor ends bared for soldering to the boards. The first we saw at Cannon was supplied by “Spectrastrip”, an ITT company in the USA, for the “Oxford Calculator”. I can’t remember now what it cost but for what it was the price was enormous. I could see the future. I had to make them; but how to achieve that perfect 3 mm strip at each end?
As we were selling Spectrastrip in its many forms I had no trouble in getting cable to play with. We tried a special abrasive machine that the makers claimed was designed for just that purpose and was nearly successful but not quite. I nearly bought it thinking I could make it work but, fortunately, Vicky was not persuaded. Eventually I found a simple hand tool from Weidmuller that did the trick but, clearly, was not for mass production. One of my first orders, using the new tool, was a from a speaker company. They needed to get from a 10 way switch on the front of the unit to a PC board 800mm away. The perfect solution was to free issue the switches to be soldered to a 10way colour coded ribbon cable stripped at the free end to be soldered, by them, to their board.
By this time I had so much work that I had to recruit and train a small army of “home workers” two of whom I entrusted with the Weidmuller tools and small solder pots to produce the jumpers.
By the summer of 1982 I became unhappy at Cannon due to changes in the Sales management and, in a fit of pique, I left to join Harting. An action I regretted almost as soon as I committed it. However, being more unhappy with my new company gave me the incentive to take my “hobby company” to the next level. That September wandering around the InterNepcon exhibition in Brighton I was thrilled to discover the “Komax machine”. This was a revelation: I had never heard of it before, and it did exactly what I wanted. The demonstrator produced jumpers using Molex cable which with its single core conductor meant that they could be produced very cheaply because they required no secondary tinning operation. The biggest customer for jumpers that I knew of was STC in Belfast who used them to join two boards together in their “Viscount” telephone hand set. This was a hugely popular phone. Indeed, every new BT subscriber was given one.
An old chum at Cannon who covered the area was kind enough to introduce me to the company and the Buyer was keen to receive a competitive quotation. So I bought a reel of cable and agreed with the distributor of the “Komax” that, if he would run off a batch of the three way jumpers as samples and if they were accepted, I would buy the machine.
Our samples and quote were accepted and we bought our first machine. I partitioned off the end of my garage to produce a sixteen by eight foot workshop and installed the new machine together with a small hydrovane compressor. I now needed to make the vital decision to leave full time employment and try earning my living through my tiny new company. I can not pretend that I was not frightened by the prospect. I knew I could not rely just on jumpers to create a successful company but needed more customers for cable harness. Nowadays one can count the number of computer manufactures almost on the fingers of one hand but in the early eighties there were literally hundreds. One of which, a company in Woking, I was hoping to supply. When I got my first order from them I made the decision, left Harting, took a lease on a Vauxhall Cavalier and was on my own. This was July 1983 and by the autumn of that year I had to find a proper factory if I was to expand and be taken seriously by the sort of companies I aspired to supply.
Southampton City Council, in their endeavour to promote industry bought a row of terraced houses and converted them to basic workshops to be let to start-up companies at a reasonable rent. We moved there in November and employed three young men under the governments “Young Workers Scheme”.
This got us started and when the council built smaller units behind we took one of them as well. Finally, in 1986, we outgrew both units and took a twenty five year lease on a new factory in Mount Pleasant where we are to this day.