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An interview with Vacuum Furnace Engineering’s (VFE) CEO, David Byrne

“The advanced manufacturing industry needs to ensure quality in every process. For much of the industry, that is synonymous with the product. But our commitment to helping our customers achieve perfect production and keep their businesses running hinges on more than the quality of parts produced. In order for us to deliver these promises, the integrity of our services is paramount.”

David is a service professional at heart. Over the last 27 years, he has worked for a variety of globally recognised automotive brands, from Ford to Aston Martin. During this time, he has had a front-row seat to the importance of quality service, even within a traditionally product-focused environment like manufacturing.

“When you get down to it, service is all about looking after your customers. Think of the car you drive. They say that the salesperson will sell you your first of that brand but the service manager will sell the second, third and fourth. The level of service you deliver is what will keep that customer coming back.”

Within the capital equipment manufacturing industry, that proposition is not as immediately visible as it is in automotive, but in David’s extensive experience, the principle still applies.

“Whether a customer is investing in a new car or a vacuum furnace, their service expectation is proportionate to the amount they are spending. A sizable investment goes hand-in-hand with quality service, and it’s on the company to meet those expectations. That's my ethos.”

In this interview, we reveal the importance of quality service in the heat treatment, composite material manufacturing and controls automation space, what service levels VFE’s customers can expect and how David’s professional journey continues to shape the company’s commitment to quality service today.

When service meets manufacturing 

What does quality service look like within the heat treatment, composite material manufacturing and controls automation space? In David’s eyes, it’s unmissable.

“Quality service is our ability to keep every promise that we make. We're only as good as the last promise that we kept or the last calibration we conducted or the last piece of equipment that we delivered. That is how we'll be remembered, so we have to make sure that every interaction with our customers is of the highest quality standard.”

In an increasingly commoditised marketplace, David’s sentiments ring especially true. Even within manufacturing, the biggest winners today are those companies capable of delivering superior customer experiences that meet or exceed customer expectations.

“Our customers' reputations are on the line. And they have choice. Quality service is ensuring that their equipment is available to manufacture when they need it to. And if we don’t deliver the service that we promised in the agreed time frame then that affects their manufacturing schedules. The quality of our service directly impacts the quality of theirs.”

How has David turned his ethos into a standard of service that VFE’s customers can continuously depend on?

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On the front line of service excellence

It is one thing for a company to recognise the importance of quality service and another thing for its teams to be able to deliver to that standard consistently.

“I expect every single one of our field service engineers and support staff to keep the promises that we make”, David reveals. “There are so many dominoes that will fall if we don’t fulfil our commitments. Everybody within the business understands that.”

Under David’s watch, VFE has invested significantly in the training and development of all its teams. The technical expertise of its front-line service engineers and the culture David has championed have been integral to determining the quality of its service and its reputation within the industry. It is no coincidence that customer retention rates are so high — approximately 80% over the last 10 years — demonstrating the company’s success at delivering on this promise, building trust with its customers and forming lasting relationships. Today, VFE is recognised as having the largest team of skilled engineers in Western Europe.

Quality service you can trust

A great many companies profess to deliver quality service. How is David’s ethos different — and how does it set VFE apart?

“I’m a great believer in looking after our people first and foremost”, David tells me. “They’re pivotal to our success and without them, we don’t have a business. Get that right, and they will look after our customers just as well. Throughout my career, that’s what I’ve always done.

“A team recently travelled to a customer in Singapore. They quarantined for two weeks when they landed [due to Covid-19 restrictions], spent two weeks carrying out the work, then quarantined for a further two weeks when they returned home. Even pre-pandemic, the travel could be demanding. Our field service engineers can be away from home for up to eight weeks at a time. So when a team flies out like that, I always make a point of thanking their families. They’re the people at home giving my engineers the ability to do all that travelling. And if they’re not happy, that has service implications. The team will come up with the reason why they can’t fly out.”

Like many leaders in David’s position, he attributes his ethos back to his own professional journey and his exposure to service-driven brands. In his case, he has been most heavily inspired by those companies and people who have done things slightly differently.

“In my early 30s, I was lucky enough to be part of the team at Aston Martin that developed the first online ordering system for spare parts and warranties. As part of that design process, I was required to visit every single dealer in the world. There were 110 dealers at the time, from Los Angeles to Auckland, New Zealand, and it took me 16 weeks. I was newly married. While I was away, my manager went out of his way to visit my wife and hand-deliver a bouquet of flowers. I remember that just as I remember the note I received shortly afterwards, handwritten from Aston Martin’s CEO thanking me for what I’d done with the team. I still have that note. Now, when it merits, I take the time to do the same for my staff. That’s where I come from and what I try to engender in everyone who works with me. I think it’s really important.”

If we make a promise to you, we’ll keep it

The integrity of VFE’s services is paramount, as is its ability to reassure its customers that they are in safe hands. Across the industry, there are lots of salespeople making promises they can’t deliver. VFE is thriving because its customers do trust them. 

“Whatever the circumstances, we will always be honest with the commitments that we make. We will never agree to something that is not achievable just because it's what the customer wants to hear. If we make a promise, we'll keep it. That’s how we’re able to help our customers achieve perfect production. That’s how we keep their businesses running.” 

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