A safe pair of hands

CHH CoNeX’s commercial life was borne more from a successful rescue mission than the seeds of a traditional start-up, and the business continues to thrive as ever more critical projects in key sectors such as rail come to fruition.

Managing Director Tim Hughes was training as a Chartered Accountant with Grant Thornton when the company his brother worked for collapsed. His mother asked him to step in with possible help, a move which led to a conversation with the stricken company’s largest customer, GEC Avery, where production was virtually on stop with the loss of its cable assembly supplier. “We said that if they paid us on delivery we would hand select the best operators who knew how to build their product, speak with the liquidators and the landlord about materials and space and crucially, guarantee they didn’t lose a single day of production,” stated Hughes. “They gave us a chance and we did what we said: Coley Hughes and Humphries partnership was born (later to become CHH), each of the four new owners put £5,000 capital in – and the rest is history.”

Thus CHH CoNeX was established in September 1990 by Mick Hughes, Tim Hughes, Alan Coley and Malcolm Humphries, specialising in rack and cabinet integration, cable assembly design and manufacture and managed services. The company kicked off with eight employees and grew steadily over the years, reaching a maximum of 120 people with certain labour intensive projects. This has balanced out at 60-ish employees for the past few years. Its highest turnover year was 2004 with £12 million, the rolling average has since been circa £7 million but Hughes is aiming for up to £13 million in the current financial year. “Our biggest target is always to maintain our quality, delivery and flexibility in every project,” added Hughes. “That’s the KPIs that we measure ourselves against.”

CHH CoNeX operates in sectors such as telecoms, nuclear, highways and medical, with recent strides made into the rail sector where it has become an approved supplier for Siemens. “We have spent a number of years scoping out the opportunity in this sector,” noted Hughes. “Securing approved supplier status with Siemens is the beginning and has galvanised us to further push on and take advantage of opportunities in rail.

“With the current focus on 5G and digitalisation, the rail sector holds lots of opportunities for CHH CoNeX and we are already finding that our polycarbonate cabinets are in demand for trackside services, where they are increasingly being selected over glass reinforced polyester. Polycarbonate offers a host of benefits such as improved weather resistance, lightweight design, a lower carbon footprint, zero interference and a longer lifespan than alternative materials.

“We are also increasingly focusing on any smart technologies, for example anything that is 5G or IoT related – they are the future and they are all here today. CHH CoNeX is already working with these technologies to add value for customers. Our longer term priority is to establish CHH CoNeX as a leader of projects, operating at the heart of the telecoms supply chain and enabling greater communications networks for the entire country.”

In five years time Hughes expects the business to be larger in all respects, a greater number of employees, delivering more projects every year and providing a greater number of services. “As we have developed our service offering to include managed services, we benefit from being involved earlier on in the business development conversations of our customers,” he added. “We’ve made steps to shout louder about the things we are good at through increased marketing, which is getting us through the doors of potential customers sooner.

“One of the lessons we have learned from the past is not to be too reactive and unambitious. Previously we would wait for projects to happen and then try to jump aboard the moving train. Today, we are focused on being on the train before it leaves the station – or even driving the train and choosing the direction it goes in. We are keen to collaborate with other supply chain businesses to deliver complete solutions.

“We are also increasingly reviewing new technologies and opportunities with an open minded approach to business growth. Our aim is to have a range of customers in every market to manage risk, but this is a challenge for any SME. As we continue to explore new market opportunities there is a big new business challenge in order to achieve this but our marketing work and networking is enabling us to succeed.”

Another lesson learned is linked to CHH’s exclusively organic growth to date. “Though rewarding, our growth has taken lots of time, preparation and hard work to achieve,” commented Hughes. “If I could do this again I would be tempted to make acquisitions in a new market to quickly take advantage of fresh opportunities with the infrastructure, legacy and experience in place that you simply don’t have immediately when you grow organically.”

In the short-term and before any potential acquisition targets come into view, the company’s aim is to ensure it gets through the current pandemic, and ensure the safety of employees. “Covid-19 will be with us for some time, and this means adapting to the new normal,” said Hughes. “As we bring colleagues back to CHH we have made sure our premises are set up for social distancing, and where possible we still have people working from home. Remote working is likely to become the norm for most businesses post-pandemic.”

Just a minute with Tim Hughes...

Role model:
My late mom, a total legend and still the strongest person I’ve ever met. I learned all my values from her.

What talent do you wish you had?
To make things and do DIY. Give me a 200 page legal document and I’ll devour it with my eyes closed. Ask me to hang a picture on a wall and I’m a puddle.

Best piece of advice you have been given?
Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Their expectations are irrelevant.

Industry bugbear:
Everything seems to take too long, be too last minute and feel totally haphazard. Basic organisation would make the world of difference.

Your greatest strength, and what could you work on?
Resilience, fairness and willingness to help are strengths. I could work on my control freakery – I’m a bit of a ‘one page’ nerd. Totally logical to me but it does seem to annoy people!

What could you not do without in your job?
My pencil case: I am an accountant by training and this is classed as a vital organ so it goes everywhere with me.

Who do you admire most in the channel?
Claire Greenwood at GComms. We worked together when she started GComms and has achieved great things. Her ability, energy and can-do mentality are inspiring.

Biggest achievement:
Qualifying as a Chartered Accountant while being an active part of creating CHH, at the same time as having our first child. The rest has been a doddle!

Top tip for resellers:
Don’t compromise on your values. Without them we are nothing.

Share this story