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Spinlock's history of innovation: We speak to CEO Chris Hill

by Mark Jardine on 22 May 22 May 2017
Spinlock CEO Chris Hill © Mark Jardine /

From a background of distribution through a company called Offshore Instruments, the Spinlock brand was born through a snap-shackle that literally 'spun and locked'. CEO Chris Hill talks us through the history of the company and brand and how this ethos of innovation grew and is now interwoven throughout the entire Spinlock workforce and product range.

Mark Jardine: Firstly could you tell me how you got involved in the Marine Industry?

Chris Hill: I grew up sailing in Sussex and through a love of dinghy racing decided I wanted to embark on a career in the industry. I decided the best way was to first learn how to build boats, and then design them. I had two years in Falmouth, followed by three years in Southampton which gave me a good grounding. I was then lucky enough to get a start designing yachts with David Thomas.

Mark: You were working with David Thomas around the time of classic designs, such as the Sigma 38. What did your role entail?

Chris: It was fairly early on in my career so I was working mainly on interior layouts; David focused mainly on the hull-forms and the appendages. I think what I learnt from that was the need to explore the detail, looking at what we'd just done and reworking it again and again until we have created absolutely what we were after.

Mark: It was during this time that you had your first experience with Spinlock, as some of the hardware on the boats was supplied by the company. How did you transition from David Thomas across to Spinlock?

Chris: When I started working with Spinlock, we were looking at ways that products were being integrated into the deck of a boat. This was a time when the OEMs were growing and they were looking for a more complete solution. I discovered that the level of detail involved with a piece of hardware was much greater on the engineering side, and this was something I'd not really got involved with before, and decided I really liked the 'completeness' of design you have when developing deck hardware.

Mark: So as opposed to at David Thomas, where you were looking at an entire yacht, you could instead focus on certain products and how they could be improved and changed.

Chris: Absolutely. The opportunity came to explore a wider range of materials and processes from a production point of view and it was very interesting. I could see the scope coming in that area.

Mark: Spinlock itself, coming from the background of Offshore Instruments, was a distributor of products; compasses and binoculars in particular. How did Spinlock transition from being a hardware distributor to being a manufacturer and innovator?

Chris: This came about in the late '70s; prior to that it was distributing other people's products. I think the opportunity that Rodney Hogg the brand founder identified was that the OEM builders of boats were starting to grow and they were more demanding in their requirements for hardware, both in cost and in scope that they needed for handling the different sail functions, centralising many back to the cockpit, coupled with the development in rope fibres at the same time. The opportunity was there to invest in hardware and rope holding.

Mark: Can you tell me a bit about the first product which gave Spinlock its name?

Chris: It was a snap-shackle. This product was only produced in a very limited run and was a cast snap-shackle that spun and locked - and therefore the name Spinlock became associated with this. It's stamped with OI, for Offshore Instruments, as the company was known originally, but also Spinlock as its first trading name.

Mark: From there Spinlock has gone on to make a name for itself in both hardware and Personal Safety. Every single time a Spinlock product comes out it seems to change the market slightly and innovate. How did that ethos first come about in the company?

Chris: The company has always been very design-led. That's evident throughout the products and the marketing and it dates back to the mid-80's, but it is also deep within the company; everything within the company is design-led. Beneath the surface you'll find our whole organisation focuses on how we can improve the way we work together and I think applying that principle consistently, not just on the surface of what you see, helped to develop a mindset for the people that work here.

Mark: So the ethos throughout the company, top to bottom, from hardware through to IT, is all about innovation?

Chris: It is. We're not trying to over-complicate things, but we start from the point of view of what we want to achieve and then look for best-practice, not necessarily from within our industry but from other industries and ask the question, "How can we do that in a more effective and efficient way?".

Mark: The PXR cam cleat, which is now 18 years old, really was one of the game-changing products, halfway between a cleat and a clutch. Was that a product which instantly came about or did it take multiple iterations to create a product that you could bring to market?

Chris: That's a good example of a product where we came back to it several times. We'd explored the whole cam-cleat sector, which was well covered by many other companies, and having looked at it very closely we realised that it was very hard to make another cam-cleat. What we needed to do was find the areas of a cam-cleat where there was an opportunity to grow the range. We decided that the high-load release was critical in that particular product area and so we focused on that. It's a product that has a controlled entry and exit point, but you can release it under load very easily.

Mark: The PXR really did provide the first high-load cleat / clutch which you could release with a single hand and that was a game-changing product.

Chris: It was, and the other aspect of that was not just making a small clutch in itself as we had limit the price. What we had to achieve was a price which was much closer to a cam-cleat to make it more acceptable to the market. We needed to minimise the number of moving parts. Using the external cover as the main moving part achieved that.

Mark: So it's always a balance between creating a product that the market will accept and the innovation. How do you keep that balance right in the company?

Chris: What we always try to do is very much work with the top-end first, creating for the premium and more demanding group, and then develop from that down to a product with wider appeal. That has an impact on the volume, but it also is a market that will give us longer retention of a customer as they will move up though the classes and will hopefully stay with our products.

Mark: On the Personal Safety side again innovation has been at your core. The Deckvest being a great example of changing a product from one that does its job to a product that has been completely ergonomically designed. How did that come about and how did Spinlock itself get into clothing?

Chris: This first started back in the year 2000. We were lucky enough to be working with a freelance designer based in the Alps who had a lot of experience in other industries, namely the climbing market, and through a collaboration with Petzl, who are a climbing manufacturer, we explored with them how safety products were accepted within their industry and decided we'd take on the challenge of making safety products more acceptable within sailing.

Mark: So you used the experience from other markets, taking a look around to see how things were used and had developed elsewhere, to improve products within the sailing market?

Chris: Yes, we decided that this was a product that people needed to like for themselves. Until that point safety products were provided by the skipper of a boat. What we wanted to do was shift that emphasis to the user, saying, "This is something you should do for yourself, taking responsibility for what you bring to a boat." We decided to make the DeckVest a fully-fitted, high-end product where all the options are included from day one. We started from that point and it was a very expensive product and had to encourage the market to think differently about it: rather than buying at the lowest price you possibly could, to actually looking at what it was going to do for you, and that you'd then look after it and fully understand it.

Mark: Most recently, working with the very top-end of the sport, you've been developing product with the Land Rover BAR America's Cup team. How has that partnership come about and developed?

Chris: This came about through an association with Henri Lloyd, who were developing the clothing for Land Rover BAR, and they were then asked to look at how the safety side could be covered. They knew we had experience in the area of personal safety and asked if we could partner with them to develop that type of product.

Mark: From this already you have brought a product to market, in a very short timescale, with the Aero Pro. How has that changed personal buoyancy in this new age of foiling boats?

Chris: What we discovered was that safety on these high-speed foiling boats is not just about floating in the water. There's a fine balance between how much buoyancy you need and all the other demands of safety, such as impact protection, hydration if you're out on the water training for long periods of time, carrying communication devices, carrying other rescue products such as knives safely, and then also the aero drag and making such you're not going to get yourself trapped and caught. Integrating the complete upper-half of your kit into one unit means that you're covering many more of those bases. So although it's built primarily around a buoyancy aid, it's covering a lot of other safety-critical areas.

Mark: Spinlock have been based in Cowes since the '70s, and the manufacturing facilities have grown and grown. What advantages do you find having both your design team and your manufacturing based here?

Chris: It's a location which has a huge history of innovation. As a base for manufacturing we have a very dedicated workforce - our staff retention is very high – from which we have a very reliable team who can turn their hand to a wide range of areas. We find a lot of our staff move within the company to cover different areas from when they first joined, between the office site where we have our sales, marketing and design team, also through the logistics and manufacturing part of the company as well.

Mark: This crossover must help with innovation, when people have a broad range of experience, not just in the products you manufacture but in the different process that are involved.

Chris: Yes it does, and I think that's key that rather than people working in individual areas, that they have a very good understanding of the whole business. It means when anybody is working in a certain part of the company, they have a mind for the way the rest of the organisation work. Therefore we have fewer constraints to make things work very smoothly. I'm sure that's helped us develop our internal processes which means as a manufacturer we're very efficient.

Mark: Now, if you can tell me, what's next for Spinlock? What is the next product that we might see coming out?

Chris: What I can tell you about is the work we are doing with the Volvo Ocean Race right now. We've developed a partnership with them for the next race which starts in the autumn and we're developing a specific lifejacket that's being developed with the crew and something that each of the teams will have. The Volvo Ocean Race have committed to the teams using this lifejacket, because they want it to be to a certain specification, carrying a number of safety-critical features like beacons, and that's going into production shortly.

Mark: A number of very well-known sailors have been through Spinlock, Mark Turner being one of them. Does it help having a relationship where you know exactly who you're dealing with and him being a person that knows what Spinlock can do?

Chris: Of course in Mark's case he knows the company very well, along with that comes the trust that we've developed over a number of years with project and race teams, but also the trust that the general sailor will have in the Spinlock product, and that it will be supported wherever they are in the world. That to us is the most important thing. The race teams are a different type of organisation to work with, ever-changing with the people moving around, ultimately we have a very wide range of users and we've got to look after all of them equally.

Mark: So Spinlock is a company where the product speaks for the brand as much as possible?

Chris: It does. That's why we continue to support the products many years after we've moved the designs on. We like to look after the customers and the products that are out there as we can learn a lot from that. Our distributors and trade partners around the world are an important part of our team and we need to support them to help us look after our customers.

Mark: Chris, thank you very much for your time. It's been great to hear more about the history of the company and its tradition of innovation.

Chris: Thank you.

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