Family run manikin business hails £3m export success

A family run business from Corwen, Denbighshire, is on track to reach record sales approaching £3 million thanks to its export order book.

Ruth Lee Ltd is a world-leading provider of realistic manikins and training aids to rescue training experts across the world. Designed and manufactured in Corwen, the manikins are primarily used by fire and rescue services, but the company has a multitude of other customers including the Ministry of Defence, police services, paramedics, RNLI, care homes and a host of global businesses including Glaxo Smith Kline and BMW.

Outside of the UK, Ruth Lee Ltd is experiencing exponential growth following an increase in international contract deals. Exports now make up around 70% of the firm’s production, with key customers across Europe, North America and Australasia. In addition, new trade deals have recently been confirmed with companies across South America, the Middle East and Asia.

Ruth and Ron Lee, a husband and wife duo who worked as a seamstress and blacksmith respectively, initially set up business repairing prams from their premises in Merseyside. A fireman visited the couple to repair a piece of tarpaulin and returned on multiple occasions for various repairs, on one occasion he brought a home-made training dummy that needed repairing.

This inspired Ruth to put her skills into designing and creating a more resilient model. Merseyside Fire Service were so impressed by the dummy, that they placed an order for 10 more. It was then, that Ruth Lee Training Manikins was born.

Now the firm has been producing manikins since 1994 and has 25 employees that work from its two properties in Corwen.

Over the years the manufacturing processes have been updated, with staff being upskilled to use an automated cutting table, replacing the manual process of template cutting. The company also acquired additional premises to cater for the growing number of orders and the increasing staff numbers.

After forming a Board in 2016, the next step was to find a Managing Director to lead the business forward, with Paul McDonnell taking on the role.

During the past two years alone, the North Wales company has experienced a 65% growth in turnover, an achievement Mr McDonnell attributes to a ‘professionalisation’ of the business and a greater focus on exports:

“While our UK trade has always been the backbone of the business, we recognise that exporting provides a huge growth opportunity and we needed to adapt our structure to maximise opportunities within the almost limitless international markets”.

Mr McDonnell continued:

“We hired specialist marketing and business development professionals with international experience and additional office staff to support the growing team. Every decision we’ve made has been to take the business to the next level and elevate our export success.”

On making the decision to explore international trade options and advice for those considering an exporting route, McDonnell commented:

“Establishing good relationships with regional distributors is essential. They become the face of your brand in a foreign country so ensuring they understand the products completely and feel genuinely passionate about them is vital. Attending trade events is a great way of establishing relationships with potential distributors and customers alike and there are regular Welsh Government Trade Missions that are well worth attending.”

In addition to expanding its global presence, Ruth Lee is also expanding its product line with a new manikin designed specifically for pool lifeguards. The new model will sink when submerged but retains enough buoyancy to be towed effectively when lifted to the surface, making it comparable to the real thing.

Outside of emergency rescue training, Ruth Lee Ltd is seeing increased demand from companies keen to provide the best training to their staff in an increasingly health and safety conscious climate. Emergency evacuation and effective lifting and handling are key drivers within health and care settings for example.

The company has received support from Welsh Government, accessed through Business Wales, over many years, receiving general advice and funding, as well as help co-ordinating market research and organising international trade trips to attend conferences to meet with potential distributors. Indeed, several of these can now be counted among Ruth Lee’s largest customers worldwide.

Ruth Lee’s exporting success was recently celebrated at the Daily Post Business Awards where the firm took home the Welsh Exporter of the Year Award.