CEO Interview: William Lee, Renishaw
PUBLISHED: 17:23 12 February 2019
© Thousand Word Media
William Lee first walked into global matriculation company Renishaw as a graduate. Twenty-three years later, he's CEO
Walking through the grounds at Renishaw’s HQ in Wotton-under-Edge feels a little bit like stumbling on to the set of a period drama.
I half expect to see a damp Colin Firth striding from the lake, swiftly followed by Captain Poldark riding out of the mist and the Countess of Grantham looking mildly benevolent with some mill workers.
It’s that kind of place.
Carefully manicured lawns; expertly pruned shrubs glistening with haw frost; pretty pockets of ice on a gently curving lake...
For one of the UK’s biggest manufacturers, it’s a staggeringly beautiful site.
And there, out of the icy morning, rises an imposing 19th century woollen mill, a relic of Stroud’s industrial past and the birth of the manufacturing heritage of which Renishaw is fiercely proud.
William Lee was a physics student at Oxford when he took a work placement at Renishaw in 1996.
Fast forward 23 years and I’m talking to him in the CEO’s office - an appointment he describes as a “real wow moment”.
As a student, Will wasn’t much interested in physics for physics’ sake.
But what did fire his 20-something imagination was physics as a route to solving problems.
And, after a short spell working for the US Government on graduation, he came back to Renishaw - just across the field from KLB where he did his A-levels - where he has spent the last two decades doing just that.
“It was a baptism of fire,” he laughs. “I remember starting on the Monday, finding my feet, and on the Thursday, my then head of department said to me, ‘right, we’ve got a problem with a customer in California and we need someone there on Monday. Can you sort out some plane tickets with the travel office and get yourself there?’.
“Talk about being thrown in at the deep end…”
He describes Renishaw’s “restlessness” - that continual desire to change, adapt, innovate, grow - as the thing that’s kept him and many of his peers at the company for so long.
When he joined, it was turning over £77m with a staff of 938.
Last year, that figure had risen to £611.5m and its 5,000 staff are now split between 80 sites in 36 countries worldwide.
There are manufacturing bases in Gloucestershire, France, Germany and the US as well as assembly facilities in Dublin and Pune, India. There’s a vast base in south Wales, too, and it’s now Gloucestershire’s biggest private sector employer.
Today, the multiple Queen’s Award-winner exports around 95% of everything it makes, from laser measurement and medical devices for brain surgery to Raman microscopes for spectral analysis of materials.
R&D is at the heart of Renishaw’s business. The company ploughs anything up to 18% of its annual sales into it, to ensure it’s at the top of its game.
“There’s always so much going on here,” says Will, a keen runner who started his career at Renishaw working on laser interferometry.
“Back then, my focus was on R&D, using some of that physics in experimentation, solving a problem. The biggest buzz is realising that something you’ve designed, poured blood and sweat and tears into, is actually being used for something in the real world by someone who wants to pay you quite a lot of money for it.”
Even for 20-something Will, solving problems and growing the business was bread and butter.
As CEO, he’s still doing it, although in a wholly different way.
But he still talks fondly about his mentors, some of whom are still at the company, world experts in their field, inspiring the next generation, nurturing the apprentices who are a great source of pride for the business.
He talks animatedly about the work Renishaw does in local schools, inspiring youngsters to take up careers in engineering, about its the strong links with universities, cherry¬picking the brightest engineering brains to continue the legacy.
The innovation, he says, the energy, is infectious.
It’s a culture fostered by co-founder Sir David McMurtry, who still spends a significant amount of time at HQ in his new role as Executive Chairman.
“I pinch myself realising that 20 years have gone by,” says Will. “People love their careers here. It’s just the way we’re used to doing things - this culture of ‘I am going to investigate new ideas, I am going to do it’, is just built in.
“Every business here is tasked here with, ‘what’s your vision to properly grow?’.
“If you’ve got a good plan, we’ll invest in your idea and we’ll invest for the long term. That’s one of our great strengths.”
Holding firm is also one of Renishaw’s strengths.
There can be 10 years of investment in an idea before it comes to fruition. Ten years before it turns a profit.
“A lot of our stuff is long-term. I’ve seen it from both sides, being passionate about a project and believing in it, and getting the board to say it’s right for the long-term,” says Will.
“Now our people are coming to me with ideas. If we believe in it, we’ll be patient with it.”
Will moved from R&D to running one of the laser measurement technology divisions, then into machine tool tech, then a sales and marketing role.
It’s this overview that paved the way to his appointment as CEO in February last year, and it’s something he’s determined to continue with staff coming up through the ranks.
“We do have competition here from some very good firms,” he adds, when I ask him about recruitment and retention in what is undoubtedly a challenging climate for manufacturers.
“But once we get them through the door and they see what we do, you can see the spark.
“I mean, you can go and work for a manufacturer that uses 3D printers, or you can come and work for us and actually design them.
“We’re designing the future, designing ways of making things more accurately, more efficiently, better.”
One parent, attending an open day for schoolchildren and parents, described Renishaw as “like Disneyland, but they make things”.
Will laughs at the recollection.
He says despite the ever-increasing scale of the company, he’ll fight to keep Renishaw feeling like a small family business to avoid the sluggishness of the big corporates.
“That requires us to change,” he says.
“We have to keep those core values of innovate, disrupt, think differently, and we have to have the flexibility to do it at a design and group level.
“Renishaw is a restless place. We don’t stand still.”
In this vein, he smiles as he remembers one encounter with Sir David - whom` he catches up with almost every morning.
“We’d just launched a new product and we were going through a few teething problems with him, saying we were on top of it, looking at the preliminary results, going through everything,” he recalls.
“And he paused and said, ‘great, but what are you doing after that?’”
And that tells you everything you need to know about Renishaw and its new CEO - always striving, always innovating, always looking to the future.