Neil Pryke James Heal
15/04/2020

Meet the Expert – Neil Pryke – Director of Operations and Innovation

In our latest instalment of our Meet the Expert interviews we spoke to Neil Pryke, our Director of Operations and Innovation. He reflects on a career that spans nearly 25 years within the company, highlights key milestones, and hints at what the future holds…

Background:

As a child I was fascinated by how things work – I took apart my bell and hammer alarm clock, made my own go-karts and loved to build Lego. At 16 I decided to go straight into working and got my first job as an apprentice technician at Avery Denison.

Avery Denison was based in Leeds, West Yorkshire, and whilst there I designed tensile and compression testing machines. I originally used a drawing board as personal computers were rare. My first CAD PC had a 286 processor!

My last position at Avery Denison was the Principal Mechanical Engineer where I managed two small teams. My final project was a 2,000 kN Universal Testing Machine for the Turkish Standards Institute which had four columns and stood 6.6 meters tall, obviously very different in scale to Titan.

Neil Pryke in front of large tensile tester
Neil at ITMA Barcelona 2011

When did you start working for James Heal?

I spotted a half page job advert for a Senior Mechanical Design Engineer at James Heal in the local paper and after three very long interviews I finally got the job. I was interviewed by the Technical Director and David Repper, the MD and owner at the time.

The interviews were very intense, during one interview, I was shut in the boardroom with an old Elmendorf tear tester and was tasked with recommending a product re-design. David called his interview technique ‘peeling the onion’ and I felt very peeled by the end of it!

I joined James Heal on my birthday in July 1997 at age 29 and my plan was to stay for two years to gain experience.

So why did you stay?

James Heal decided they wanted to design a new tensile tester and install 3D CAD for the first time. I had the necessary skills and experience that the company was looking for. I was the project team leader and the senior mechanical design engineer.

2 years after I joined James Heal, we showcased the Titan at ITMA Paris 1999 and received an amazing response.

How did your role evolve during your time at James Heal?

As the Titan was such a success, I decided to ask for a shot at a role which had come available – Production Manager. I was ambitious to learn new skills and advance my career. Fortunately, I must have impressed the boss as I got the job and was thrown into the deep end very quickly; the role was very fast paced. In contrast to my previous role, I realised that I had to absorb a lot of information quickly and learn from it – all whilst managing a much bigger team and understand the different facets of the business.

What were your key achievements as a Production Manager?

  • I introduced a production planning and forecasting technique to better meet customer demands
  • I developed a business case and won investment for a brand new layout of the electro-mechanical build area as this was terribly old and underinvested in – I wanted to make improvements in efficiency, multi-skill the team give them an environment to be proud of.
  • I installed CNC machinery in our sheet metal department this increased efficiency dramatically and costs could be better controlled.
  • I set up a Machine Shop from scratch – we started to make our own parts in-house which led to a reduction in part costs, improved lead times, this created more jobs and greater control over quality.

What challenges did you face?

Taking on the role of Production Manager was definitely a steep learning curve – I found the job very satisfying and fulfilling when I looked back on how modern and efficient the facility had become.

In 2007 I took on the role of Engineering Director where I also managed the design team. Bringing together Designers and the Production Team was tough as each had very different views but the rewards were high when they started to collaborate. Becoming a Director was a significant career milestone for me, to be part of a close-knit team, helping to steer the business and create its growth plans.

In 2010, I ran an 18 month project with the British Design Council to put ‘design’ at the centre of the business strategies. It was an amazing experience and the whole Management Team played an integral role. From this work, the company was rebranded and refocussed doubling its turnover in the following six years.

In 2014, the business changed hands from a family owned business to be owned by Battery Ventures, a global investment Company that aims to acquire the most prominent companies in their own field.

Neil Pryke demonstrating at ITMA 2011
Neil Pryke Director

What has kept you at James Heal for all these years?

James Heal has never stayed the same and it is constantly changing and evolving. I am passionate about learning and doing new things and I have been able to do both through the course of my career. Also my relationships with the people here, at all levels, has been very rewarding. They are fantastic and have a strong desire to do great things and do things right.

The group that owns James Heal is Physical Properties Testing and in a recent restructure, I have been promoted to Director of Operations and Innovation and I am also the Site Manager. My roles have continually grown.

Do you have any career milestones?

One big moment for me was at ITMA 2011 in Barcelona when we launched a new product signature and brand, the reception was tremendous. This was my first undertaking at creating a design language and implementing user centred design as before, we had approached ‘design’ from the perspective of an engineering solution. Today, the James Heal brand and product language is very strong and identifiable.

What does the future hold for James Heal?

James Heal is a company that is constantly improving and I think there are many things for us to look forward to over the next few years. We are working on a number of exciting new strategies to improve our offering to new and existing customers. It’s very exciting, but too early to share.

Performance Testing is one significant growth area we are working in. We have recently developed four new instruments that test Technical Textiles as performance wear and athleisure wear is a movement that has taken off dramatically over the past couple of years.

At James Heal, ‘innovation’ is not just for designers and engineers, it’s for all aspects of our business. I see it as a key role of mine to encourage and support everyone in generating new ideas and improving everything we do.

Neil Pryke showing visitors around James Heal
Neil Pryke with his dogs

What do you like to do outside of work?

I like to spend a lot of my weekends taking long country walks with my wife and dogs, taking in the scenery and visiting rural pubs for lunch. My family plays a huge part of my life outside of work. My eldest daughter is at University in Newcastle studying Fashion Design, my son is doing an engineering apprenticeship at James Heal, and my youngest daughter is to go to York University to study Professional Policing.

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