The Disruptors: Panel Graphic making luxury car displays in Norfolk
Panel Graphic's Steve Earl admits that building his own plastic coating factory 21 years ago was "a gamble" - but one that paid off. The latest in The Disruptors video series, the man who makes displays for Porsche, BAE Systems and McLaren explains how he did it.
Tell us about your business
We supply plastic fabricated parts to enhance electronic information displays. It’s a niche business in a growing market place. Today we’re surrounded by information displays – they’re in your car, in airports, in your kitchen – you’re never far away from one.
These displays require a surface protection to ensure they’re durable enough for the long-term. We supply specialist materials and offer coatings that can make plastic as hard as glass and enable the display to be read at all times.
What was the opportunity you identified that led to the launch of your business?
After leaving school, I worked at a local sign company for 16 years. I could tell that customers weren’t getting the quality they wanted – the company didn’t have the right processing equipment, product know-how and technical ability.
I felt I was the only one who really cared about the customer, and decided that I should work for myself instead.
How did you use invention and innovation to disrupt the market?
In 1998 nobody was offering what I wanted to supply – enhancement screens were unheard of. There were manufacturers of LCD screens and plasmas but no-one understood how enhancement coatings could create a much harder and high-performing surface.
So I built my own coating plant, with the help of a £80,000 small firm loan.
It was quite a gamble as I didn’t know if the process would actually work, but my gut instinct was to try. As a child I would always ask ‘Why?’ and that’s just stayed with me, I won’t give up; I keep trying.
What were the challenges you faced along the way and how did you learn from them?
When you do something different, there’s no guarantee it’ll work, but often the biggest challenge is yourself.
You may personally believe it will work but when everyone around you is giving you reasons why it may fail it can massively affect your enthusiasm and thought process.
Sometimes you just need to stand strong and believe in yourself and make it work, it’s not supposed to be easy, otherwise everyone would be doing it.
What’s been your proudest moment so far?
As the company continues to grow and become internationally recognised, I reflect every day about how far I’ve come – not only as a business owner, but also as an employer of a team that includes several of my immediate family, and 3 of my children.
Working together every day has created a cohesive team able to take every challenge and opportunity head on – this makes me more than proud of my achievements.
What advice would you give to someone launching a disruptive start-up?
On my first day I had a rented desk and phone, fax machine and no PC. We had very little, other than lots of ideas and buckets of enthusiasm, and I was determined to make it work.
So take one day at a time and give it your best shot. If it doesn’t work out, you gave it a try and that’s so much better than giving up before you’ve even started.
What are your plans for the future?
I see ambitious growth plans for the business involving taking on more staff, a new larger business premises and several new innovative materials for our customers.