Remember this? An early press advert for the company way back in the nineties

Remember this? An early press advert for the company way back in the nineties

Ten years of Tacktick

The impressive 10 year rise and rise of Emsworth based company

Wednesday January 17th 2007, Author: Andy Nicholson, Location: United Kingdom
A good idea, well executed got the Tacktick business off the ground and after a decade of growth and development the Emsworth based company is celebrating 10 years in the marine electronics business in 2007.

A solar powered fluxgate compass for dinghies is now just one product among a large range of solar powered – and wireless – instrumentation for the pleasure boat market and it would seem that this is just the start. Another 10 years? “It’s a young team, we are not ready for retiring,” says joint Managing Director Clive Johnson when we spoke to him recently at the London Boat Show.

Clive and his brother Mark set up the company together and have turned several interested purchasers away during the years and have what Clive calls “a fairly supportive” relationship with Nat West bank and they continue to self fund the business which the expect to turnover £4.5m for this trading year.

Mark (left) and Clive Johnson with their Boating Business award

Like all good start ups, the original product idea was declined by the big player (in the Johnson’s case Raymarine who Mark was working for at the time) and as they say, the rest is history – well ten years at least.

Both keen dinghy sailors, the brothers set about revolutionising dinghy compasses which had not really developed from the original floating card and a tactical scale. Mark is the electronic engineer in the partnership and Clive is the mechanical engineer. So between them they could produce the internal electronics and the display moulding and get the ball rolling.

What they did next is still core to the business model they operate under. They took the design drawings and outsourced the production of the unit to companies close to them on the South Coast and avoided any heavy investments in capital, stock holding and the resulting impact on the company’s cash flow. Ten years on they have close relationships with the production companies in the UK and now in France and employ just fifteen people. “We are a young team,” Johnson says, “we outsource an awful lot of the work and our team sticks to what we are good at. Nearly everybody in the company sails, they appreciate the products we are trying to develop, and the environment they are going into.”

Things however did not go quite to plan and the start. Johnson admits that they did not anticipate how hard it would be to get the compass onboard dinghies in the first place. Class rules would put a serious spanner in the works: “To get an electronic device accepted, when in actual fact a fluxgate compass doesn’t do anything more than a tactical sailing watch can do was very difficult.” That mindset continues today with two of the biggest classes in the world, the Laser and the Optimist still resisting.

The very nature of the design was to open another door to them though and having a completely self powered and waterproof unit was to become a popular choice for the rapidly expanding sportsboat market in the late nineties.

“In 98 we saw the need to have speed and depth on sportsboats with a compass so we just enlarged our box if you like and added a slightly larger solar cell capable of driving the depth,” explains Johnson. “We had to do some fairly clever things with the drive mechanism to work on low power, but we produced an ideal product for sportsboats. It is still unique and the only company doing this sort of product in the market. We pretty much took 100% of that market as there are no class rules regarding electronics.”

The next step for the company was to move up the food chain and into the yacht market – and they did this by adding another slice of technology. The Micronet range was launched to critical acclaim (winning the overall DAME award at METS) in 2003 uniquely using self powered (solar) displays and a wireless data network to link it all together.

The main hurdle Johnson’s team had to get over was to find a radio communication system that worked on the core low-power design of their instruments. Johnson explained: “This was a huge hurdle as we had tried Bluetooth and Zigbee – and they didn’t work because of their power consumption. So we had to write our own protocol, which is similar to Bluetooth but specifically for the marine industry. It is our patent, but it is not as grand as that. It is pretty easy to copy, its just time consuming.”

“We have learnt a lot about it and we have got a very good idea of how solar cells and wireless works in the marine environment,” says Johnson of how protected their position is. “When you are dong a low power circuit it is a load harder. The slightest mistake in on the board, an imperfection or a wrong component, and it doesn’t work.”

What has also helped is the advancement of solar power and Johnson says that they are now able to do “more things at a faster rate” than six or seven years ago. The knowledge they now have also goes in the specifications to the manufacturers who build the specific cells for them.

The Micronet displays can be mounted anywhere, without the need to run a wire, simplifying installation. Other benefits of the system are a wind transducer that requires no internal cable to the mast head and innovative products like the Remote Display which can be taken onto the rail by a racing crew providing access to all the interfaced data in the network.

All of this has attracted the sharp end of racing with Johnson admitting, but nothing more, that they are also working on projects within the America’s Cup arena.

More straight forward is an order for 600 wind systems placed by the yacht charter company Sunsail recently. Fulfilling such a large order was, says Johnson no problem. Due to the way the production lines at set up it was a case simply increasing the output from both lines in the UK and France.

A yearly growth rate of 35% has, says Johnson, been possible by concentrating on getting the right distributors in place around the world. “If you get the right distributors, that makes a huge change to the market,” he confirms. “We are still scratching the surface in terms of the kind of volumes that we are getting. It is a very small market with just five players worldwide and we are the youngest by a long way – it will take a while to crack into that but there are good things happening.”

So what lies ahead for the next ten years for the company? Johnson says that the consumer will be demanding more out of their electronics on board: “You have it home, you have it all around you – but boats are still pretty basic.”

Johnson admits that they are amazed that they are not seeing more wireless electronics in the market place – albeit with the odd product exception. “We said five years ago that we would have three years head start,” he says. “So we still have a few more years - and we move at a fast pace. We are small company, very keen and enthusiastic team and we keep developing.”

The company expects that the marine electronics sector will continue to consolidate in the coming years but Johnson says that they will continue to fight their corner. “For us we have quite a big growth to go through, we need to stay ahead. And there will be another round of people trying to buy us,” he quips, “we’ll fight them off!”

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