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Ayres moves to target the world’s fast ferry market

TAKING a punt on an emerging market five years ago has led to Ayres Composite Panels being named WA Small Business of the Year.

The company, which also won the category for businesses with fewer than 20 employees, makes lightweight, fire-resistant decorative panels for the ship building industry.

The panels provide the finishes to the vessels’ internal walls.

Ayres’ panels, made from a honeycomb of aluminium and a veneer, are considerably lighter than those used previously.

On a typical car-carrying fast ferry, that can mean a weight saving of about 10 tonnes.

Ayres managing director Colin Ayres was part of chemical giant Ciba Giegy’s UK-based composite material division, which was making light-weight panels for the aircraft industry. The industry suffered a slow down and Mr Ayres was told to find new markets.

One emerging market was the fast ferry business coming out of Australia driven by WA-based Austal Ships and Tasmanian shipbuilder Incat.

Meanwhile, Ayres finance director Graham Cameron’s business GK Cameron & Co was receiving inquiries from WA shipbuilders for light-weight panels, and was trying to source materials to meet their need.

After two meetings, the men decided to join forces and form a company.

Mr Cameron put the business he had inherited from his father on the line.

For Mr Ayres it meant leaving a senior position with a multinational, selling up and moving his wife and three children from England to WA. He had only been to WA twice before that and his family had never set foot in Australia.

“Small business is all about leaving your comfort zone and taking a risk,” Mr Cameron said.

Within two years of formation, the business had surpassed targets set for the end of its five-year plan.

In the past 12 months it has trebled its exports.

Mr Ayres said more than 90 per cent of the company’s products went overseas, either as a direct sale or as part of an Australian-made vessel sold overseas. But the company’s rise has not been without its hurdles.

New regulations in the European Union meant Ayres Composite Panels had to attain European certification quickly.

“We had a call from Incat two days before Christmas asking if we had European certification,” Mr Ayres said.

His wife, Ruth, took on the task and helped the company achieve European and ISO 9002 certification in near record time.

Mr Ayres said the company was still trying to break into the US market but was finding that hard due to the high protection the US shipbuilding industry received.

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