Great people help Vanilla Electronics taste success

Sarah Ayres of Vanilla Electronics

Vanilla Electronics’ Thetford headquarters is a hive of activity when the Tech Corridor pays it a visit on a chilly Friday afternoon, and Sarah Ayres wouldn’t have it any other way.

“The thing I really value about working here is the people, they make it for me,” she says. “At my previous company we had 200 staff so there were loads of people I didn’t know at all, whereas here I knew everyone’s name within a week.

“There’s quite a diversity of ages, but in general we’re a young team so we’re all of the same mindset and want to grow with the company. When you’re at work you end up seeing your colleagues more than you see your friends and family, so it’s important you get along and can bounce off each other if you’re busy or having a stressful day.”

Busy days come thick and fast and Vanilla, which supplies and assembles electronic components and products for some of the most exciting technology firms in the country, and has enjoyed sales growth of 25 per cent in the last 12 months. Sarah is Vanilla’s senior purchaser which, as the name suggests, involves buying stuff. Lots of stuff.

“We have a number of kits we buy for, so we have to get the individual parts in on time, negotiate good prices for them, as well as costing parts for our customers,” she says. “We get all the parts in and then arrange for them to be assembled or send them to the customer so they can assemble them themselves.

“I really enjoy the industry. It surprised me at first because it’s the not the sort of thing I would have seen myself going into, but I think because technology is at the forefront of everyone’s lives, and there are always new things being created, it’s a really interesting world to be a part of.”

Indeed, as a sports psychology graduate, you might expect Sarah to be more at home on the pitch than among mountains of printed circuit boards.

She explains: “I was quite into sports when I was at school, and I’d done psychology at A-Level which I found really interesting, so I was looking for a hybrid of the two. But when I finished uni and was looking for a job I got into this industry and haven’t looked back. I still enjoy sports, dancing is my main thing, and I do a bit of tap, jazz and modern.

“I really enjoy this job because it’s challenging and fast-paced, as well as being quite logical. And being part of a smaller independent company, I’ve been able to try different things and test myself.

“The thing I’ve always stuck by is to push yourself out of your comfort zone, and always be prepared to take the next step even if you don’t feel confident about it.”

A business model that adds value

Vanilla was founded by managing director Dan Croft and his father in 2002. Originally an electronics distribution business, it is now capable of managing the entire supply chain, from sourcing and delivering components to assembly of complex devices and parts.

“The business model’s development has been driven by our customers asking if we can do additional things to add value,” Dan explains.

“All companies have points in their lives where you wonder if you’re taking too much on, but it’s at those points where you can really push on and develop the business. It’s easy to sit still and keep doing what you know.

“We started out at much smaller premises, but we’ve been here since 2004. We moved in before the dual carriageway was finished, but that’s made life a lot easier and brought us a lot closer to Cambridge.

Dan Croft, managing director of Vanilla Electronics

“[Cambridge] is a really big target market for us, along with several other hotspots in the UK. Customers are starting to realise that they don’t need to do everything themselves, this can actually inhibit their growth. What they’re better off doing is focusing on their core activities, the R&D and sales and marketing, and outsourcing all the other bits to us.

“Our core strength is that supply management, so what we’re trying to do is develop business by working with regional customers, but also keeping the supply chain in the region too. We work with companies in Thetford, particularly around engineering and metalwork. We didn’t used to do a lot of that, but not our customers, particularly the large corporate ones, are using us for the entire process, not just electronics.”

Vanilla employs over 30 staff, and runs a number of training programmes offering specialist qualifications to promising employees. Dan says the company is aiming to grow by another 20 per cent in 2019, with the installation of state-of-the-art lean lifts, which pick components ready for product assembly, set to make them even more productive.

“Employing and providing opportunities for local peopleis something we really value, it’s very important to us,” he adds. “But our biggest value here is partnerships. “We use that word a lot because it’s our customers and our suppliers. We don’t the traditional customer-supplier relationships, we want something stronger than that.”