Stewart Black (00:02):
I had the best conversation this week with the amazing Fiona Norbury. As you'll hear, she shares an inspiring story about how she first got into diving, and how that passion combined with her career as head of marketing for Apeks. We talked all about her love of travel and exploration, and honestly, I was hypnotised by some of her incredible descriptions of life under the waves. Whales, sharks, it's all there. It's amazing.
Fiona also shares how she wants to bring some of these experiences to life to give the rest of us a little taste of that magic. We also discussed how manufacturing is changing, shifting away from that old school perception of a world run by stuffy old men, to a more modern forward-looking industry where everyone is welcome. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did. From Red-Fern Media, this is ReMake Manufacturing.
My guess this week is Fiona Norbury. She's an experienced marketing professional with a broad range of skills of across marketing, branding, and design. Her background in theatre design means that brand storytelling is a key component of her working style. Fiona works at Apeks, a long-established firm that designs, manufacturers and distributes high-quality SCUBA diving equipment. As global marketing manager, Fiona plays a key role, driving growth for the overall business within the Apeks brand. Welcome, Fiona.
Fiona Norbury (01:22):
Hello, thank you for having me.
Stewart Black (01:24):
You're very, very welcome. Do you want to just take us right back to your beginnings and tell us how you first got into marketing?
Fiona Norbury (01:31):
Yeah. I didn't particularly get into marketing, marketing got into me. It found me. I actually left university with a degree in theatre design and I specialised in lighting and sound technology. So, I did a lot of writing music for the theatre. I designed lighting schemes and I graduated at the top of that little bit of the industry, and what I found when I left university was that it was quite hard to move into a similar job. I had this rosy idea of me designing soundscapes in a sound studio and having this quite nice life. What actually happened was that you don't go straight into a job like that. What you have to do is start back on the lower rungs of the ladder.
So, I did quite a bit of work with various theatre companies and quite quickly realised that there was a lot of working quite late into the night, lot of antisocial hours. Quite a lot of working for free.
Stewart Black (02:20):
Fiona Norbury (02:20):
Became quite apparent I needed a plan B if I was going to pay back the student loan.
Stewart Black (02:25):
Right, right, quite taxing. Yeah, as a career plan, a little bit tricky. Was there any shows that we might have heard of that you worked on?
Fiona Norbury (02:35):
I don't know if you're into opera, but I did quite a bit with Opera North. Steve Coogan did a show, he did a tour called 'The Man Who Thinks He's It', so I was the follow spot operator for bits of that tour which was good fun.
Stewart Black (02:47):
I do remember that, yeah. It's a very funny show, and how was he to work with?
Fiona Norbury (02:51):
He was a really good guy. Really, really nice person to work for. He had a tendency to do little tricks on some of the crew, particularly. So knowing that I was doing the follow spot, part of doing that role is that you have to very closely track where that person's moving on stage. So there were various bits of the show where he would go off stage and then you'd have to be back on him immediately, as soon as he came back on stage. If he knew there was someone a little bit new doing that role, he would tend to come back on in a different place on stage, or even a different side of the stage. So you'd realise that you had to crank this massive, huge light across the stage and try and track him again. So, he mucked about a bit and he did quite a few things backstage, but yeah, that was one of the nicer projects to work on.
Stewart Black (03:30):
That's good fun. Baptism of fire, I guess.
Fiona Norbury (03:34):
Stewart Black (03:35):
So back to marketing, so what took you from theatre into after that?
Fiona Norbury (03:39):
When I realised that it probably wasn't going to be my future, I signed up with just a recruitment agency just to get a job really, while I had to think about what I was doing. I was offered a three day role as a receptionist in a shopping centre, in a big multi-retailer shopping centre. So, I did that job and on the second day I was offered a full time job as a receptionist with them. So, I worked in the management office for the shopping centre. As part of that, I spent quite a bit of time working with the person that was doing the marketing at the time.
She was busy preparing for Christmas and just needed an extra pair of hands. So alongside doing the receptionist work, I spent time with the retailers learning about how they handle Christmas, how they do their point of sale, how they do their retail on their footfall. I also worked with the marketing manager for the centre to help create all those plans for Christmas. Then maybe three or four weeks before Christmas, she left, but left, just disappeared. We found that we had a-
Stewart Black (03:39):
Fiona Norbury (04:39):
... shopping centre with a Christmas plan and no one to actually make it happen. So I offered to step in last minute and just get the centre through Christmas. So, I helped out with all things like the grotto and the events and the decorations, and the whole thing that is Christmas in a shopping centre, which is huge.
Stewart Black (04:57):
Yeah, crikey that must have been quite hectic.
Fiona Norbury (05:00):
It was. But again, it was just a whole different world that I'd never experienced before. It was just a really lovely learning opportunity of nothing else. I came out the other side and my manager said to me, "We know theatre is your thing. We know this isn't necessarily where you want to be, but we have enjoyed having you with us and you've done a pretty good job. So if you would consider staying, we'd be very happy to have you stay as our marketing manager." And what they hadn't realised by that point, I had just fallen in love with marketing. I'd fallen in love with every aspect of selling the dream.
So yeah, I stayed on, they gave me a job and they put me through my Chartered Institute of Marketing qualifications. So, I did that at university alongside working and yeah, that was it. Marketing became my career, completely by accident.
Stewart Black (05:45):
Wow. Then your other passion to go alongside marketing and theatre is diving. Is that right?
Fiona Norbury (05:51):
It is, yeah. I became a diver, actually not long after leaving university. I went on holiday with a girlfriend and we learned to dive. But prior to that, I had been living in Israel. I remember my very first look underwater. I was snorkelling when I was living in Israel and we'd traveled down to Eilat just for a weekend break. I remember I put my head underwater and breathed through a snorkel for the first time. I saw the underwater world and it changed my life.
The idea that this whole world existed, steps from the beach, there was coral and fish and it was clear and beautiful. It was like staring into an aquarium. At that point, I was bitten by the underwater world. I've always been a bit of a water baby anyway, growing up, I was happiest in water, so it was-
Stewart Black (05:51):
Fiona Norbury (06:42):
... of a progression. Yeah, it was a progression that was always going to happen. I just needed that little window to open. So yeah, I learned to dive and gradually increased my qualifications.
Stewart Black (06:51):
And then that naturally leads on to you working with Apeks, SCUBA diving company, you're marketing for them. So, it's all your passions and interests combined into one.
Fiona Norbury (07:02):
Yeah. It's like a sweet shop job, isn't it? The opportunity to combine my two passions of marketing and SCUBA diving.
Stewart Black (07:08):
So, tell us a bit about Apeks for those who don't know, what's the story of how the company came to be and how does Aqualung fit into that picture?
Fiona Norbury (07:16):
Apeks started off as a very, very small company. It was actually two friends that started making dive equipment, literally from their garage in Bolton in the Northwest of England. So around about 1974, they started creating bits of equipment. The reason they started doing it was because they identified in the market, there wasn't the product that they wanted at the quality that knew they wanted. So, they thought rather than trying to buy something that isn't what we want, we'll just make what we want.
So, that's how it started out. They started to make equipment and bit by bit, the range grew and the company grew over the years. So, that was 1974 and then in the late '90s, around about 1997, Apeks, the company was acquired by Aqualung. Aqualung is a much bigger brand and for anyone who doesn't know much about diving, Aqualung is Jacques Cousteau's original company. So Jacques Cousteau invented the Aqualung, the original breathing equipment. So yeah, we were acquired by Aqualung. And at that point, being acquired by a much larger organisation gave us so much more investment, that allowed Apeks as a brand to massively grow in the market.
Even the name Apeks comes from the names of the original guys. So the two friends were called Ken Smith Ainscough and Eric Partington. So, the name Apeks just is an anagram of the first letters of, of their name.
Stewart Black (08:41):
And are the founders still with you there?
Fiona Norbury (08:42):
Eric, no. Ken is not part of the company anymore, but he is very much involved in being part of the company. He lives in Australia now and he handed over the reins to somebody else, but Apeks is quite a family business. Yeah, it's the kind of organisation where people stay a long time. Families, generations work for the company. It's a very close-knit organisation.
Stewart Black (09:06):
You've been there for a few years now, how long have you been there and give us a window into what's what's your role, exactly?
Fiona Norbury (09:13):
I've been with the company for nine years. My role now as global marketing manager is to globally, from strategy, to deployment, to activation, is to get the Apeks brand out into the market. We are quite a small brand, but we have a very strong niche position in the market. So, my role is to grow that really.
Stewart Black (09:37):
And like you say, it's a sweet shop job. You've been so lucky to find a career that ticks so many boxes. How do you bring your passions for theatre and diving into the job that you do on a day-to-day basis?
Fiona Norbury (09:48):
I think with a lot of marketing roles, your consumer has a fairly good reference point. So, say I was the marketing manager for a ski brand, I think most people, even if you don't ski and even if you don't want to ski, you have a fairly good idea of what snow feels like, and you have a fairly good idea of what fresh air feels like and what it might feel like to ski. So, your consumer has a starting reference point, but the real luxury with being the market manager for SCUBA diving brand is that it is a whole other world, like 70 something percent of the world, 71% of the Earth is covered in water, but 95% of it is unexplored. Most people will never go underwater. So, if I can communicate that feeling to them, I can bring my passion for diving.
I think one of the examples that I use is that I once did a dive with someone that I was training to be a professional diver she was doing a divemaster course. There was a humpback whale singing really close to where we were diving, and we had the opportunity to either go for a quick dive, or we could lie in the sand at eight meters and listen to a humpback whale sing. When a humpback whale sings, you don't just hear it, you feel it, actually makes your sternum vibrate. That's the kind of thing that is so hard to communicate but if I can do that through my background in theatre, which is obviously storytelling, and creating environments and creating atmospheres, I can make someone, even if they're not a diver, I can make someone go, "You know what? I want to be a diver."
Stewart Black (11:16):
That's an amazing story. I can't even imagine, but I want to jump underwater now and get a taste of that.
Fiona Norbury (11:22):
Yeah, it really is, some of the things I've seen underwater is so amazing. I often think as you walk around the streets, in this country, birds tend to be fairly uniformly dull, but imagine if the birds were actually the colours of the fish, imagine if the trees were the colour of the coral. Imagine if our mountains looked like underwater coral landscapes. If people could walk around like that, people would not stop smiling. It would be such a happy will to live in.
Stewart Black (11:47):
Fiona Norbury (11:48):
Part of my passion is to bring over that, not just love of the ocean, but a preservation of the ocean.
Stewart Black (11:54):
So, let's get back to Apeks and maybe you can sort of tell us what makes them different to other brands out there?
Fiona Norbury (12:01):
We're quite different, I think, certainly within the SCUBA diving market. I think there's three main reasons for that. One of them is that we are a vertically integrated organisation, certainly at our main manufacturing plant. We're vertically integrated and so we manage every aspect of production. We don't need to outsource things to different companies. So, a good example of that is we have an in-house plating department, which is quite unusual, because it's a massive investment to have an in-house plating department, but we did it because what we want to do is make sure that a piece of metal comes into one end of the factory and a fully formed product goes out the other end of the factory and in between we have absolute control over the quality of that product to every stage. So if there is something that happens, some minor glitch, we are on it straight away.
By managing all of that, we have a really, really good product. It also means because we do everything in house, we have a very strong R and D facility. We've got our own little test pool, we've got a little swimming pool at work where we can test our products. We have something called an Ansti machine, which allows us to recreate a dive down to hundreds of meters, so we can give our product real-life testing.
That R and D function means that we're quite responsive and creative because we have a whole team of people whose job is more or less to tinker. We have our own machines that are dedicated to experimenting and playing and learning how to do things better and more creatively and more streamlined. So as a business, as a vertical integrated business, we're very responsive.
We also, certainly in the UK facility, we are accredited to the BSI ISO 4001 environmental management system. That means that we look at every aspect of how we do our business and how we can do it better. So, examples of that are we're a solar-powered factory. So, our machines run off solar energy and anything that we make beyond what we need, we sell back to the grid, which helps to support local homes. We're also a zero-landfill business. So, nothing that leaves our factory goes to landfill. We recycle, we reuse, or we use biomass or burn our waste, so we're creating energy that drives turbines. We recycle all of our cartons into new packaging, so we're a holistically, ethically minded business. I don't know that's the right way to describe it but we think very carefully about the way we do our jobs.
The third thing is, I mentioned that we're vertically integrated, but we're also horizontally integrated. I mentioned that we were acquired by Aqualung in the '90s. What Aqualung did is they require number of businesses like ours, who effectively would at some point have become our competitors, but they're no longer our competitors now, they're part of our organisation. So anything that we develop, if say, we want to make a new SCUBA diving mask, we have a centre of excellence in Italy that is dedicated to making SCUBA diving masks. If we want to make a new buoyancy device, we have a centre of excellence in the USA that's dedicated to making buoyancy devices. So, we're not just creating me too products from any online platform that is available. We're actually making products that are for our audience specifically, so we have a mixture of really good products, really well made, and made by people that understand the brand and the customer.
Stewart Black (15:21):
So you've obviously got great stories within the company there, a lot of magic behind the scenes, not just the magic of nature, but the technology that you've been talking about. How do you tell your customers about this? How do you engage and how do you give them that experience that you're talking about?
Fiona Norbury (15:38):
I like to think that you never sell a mattress, you sell a good night's sleep. So, I think when I come to marketing our SCUBA diving products, nobody really learns to dive because they're really into regulators. They learn to dive because they want to explore or because they're passionate about the environment. Sometimes even people are diving simply to find out more about themselves. It's actually quite a meditative experience to dive, and so people are diving to reconnect with themselves. So, when I do my marketing and my storytelling, I make sure that I can get over that by using our product. You can explore this area. It's not so much about the fact it's a regulator it's about by using this product, we can get you into this environment. So, when we do photoshoots, we tend to go to some really cool places, Cenotes in Mexico, and we've even dived where tectonic plates meet in Iceland.
Stewart Black (16:34):
Fiona Norbury (16:35):
So, some really cool places. I think also, one of the strong things about Apeks I've mentioned already that it's a family brand. So behind the scenes, we do go behind the scenes with our Instagram channels. We can go into the factory, we can take pictures of the products being made. I think our customers really engage with the fact that it isn't just something that comes off a production line and goes into some packaging. It is made by hands, it's made by people and we show those people making the products, we show the processes and there's something really, for me, something really gorgeous about machinery and really clever machinery as well. Some of the lathes that we have, just watching them work is fascinating. We share that with our customers and it gives them a feeling for the product and the brand.
Stewart Black (17:15):
Can you tell us a campaign that you're particularly proud of then? Let's go into the detail of something that you've been in charge of that's really worked out.
Fiona Norbury (17:23):
Well, the one I'm most proud of is secret. I can't tell you, it's for a product that launches in 2022. So, it's a little bit secret at the moment, but that will be a fully-
Stewart Black (17:32):
Give us a hint.
Fiona Norbury (17:33):
It's a fully immersive experience that allows the consumer to interact with our product in quite a new way for us and quite a new way for the industry actually. It's both an in-store experience and an online experience. So, the consumer can interact with our product in store and online in a really cool way. But I can't tell you about that, but I can tell you about what we've just done, which is our campaign that we have just launched was heavily affected by COVID.
So, I mentioned that we tend to travel all over the world to do our photoshoots. We have ambassadors using our products all over the world and that just ground to a halt completely. We had to completely change our plans for 2021 and I was left with the dilemma of how to sell the dream that I've mentioned, how to sell the good night's sleep not the mattress, with absolutely nothing.
So, I decided on a studio shoot and I went along the theme of scroll stopping wow. So I wanted all the people who were just home scrolling, they get to our advert and even if they don't like diving and if they don't know the product, they stopped and went, "Ooh, that is a really nice image." So we created this theme with really, really beautiful standout images and then what we did was a lot of real close-up images that show the attention to detail that I've mentioned and the quality that we have. So, things like the hand stitching that you can see on some of our products, the moulding and the attention to detail that you get. It's created actually a completely different campaign to what I thought we were going to do. We had a few weeks to change everything, but what we've come out at the other end of is actually really, really nice.
So, I'm really proud that we were able to do something in such a restricted environment.
Stewart Black (19:05):
Do you find that when you start campaigns that whatever your original idea was, it does evolve along the process and surprise you as you go along?
Fiona Norbury (19:13):
Yeah, yeah. All the time. I think that's one of the things that I do like about my job. It is different day-to-day and every day really is a learning day and people bounce ideas off each other. You learn about new things. So yeah, things definitely do evolve.
Stewart Black (19:27):
So, let's turn to manufacturing now. What's your take on the manufacturing industry? Some people think it's a bit stuffy, full of men. What's the reality from inside, where we are today?
Fiona Norbury (19:41):
Stuffy old men. Well, I think there's always a little bit of a place for stuffy old men in manufacturing. They're usually the ones that have the WD40 and the gaffer tape and can fix just about anything. So there'll always be a place for that, but I think definitely manufacturing has massively evolved. Certainly, my dad before he retired was an engineer. I remember going to where he worked and it was just a noisy, loud, dirty, smelly place, which had its own little magic about it, but it was definitely a very traditional manufacturing location. When you look at where I work, it's a completely different type of place. We have Kanban, we do Six S, we're a lean, functioning site, all of the eco stuff I've mentioned, we have warehouse management systems. So, all this kind of stuff that makes a modern business, very, very sleek and responsive. We're clean, we're bright.
So yeah, I think manufacturing's in a massively different place to where it used to be. I don't think that is communicated as much as it could be, that manufacturing is cool and it can be cool.
Stewart Black (20:45):
Yeah. I mean, exactly everything that you've been talking about it, makes me want to get to the factory and have a look at how you put all these things together. It sounds like a lovely place to be part of.
Fiona Norbury (20:55):
It is. And one of the advantages of being based onsite, well, normally being based onsite, is that we can just wonder to, and have a look around the machines and talk to the people operating the machines. And the passion that they have, a lot of the people that work at our place have been there for 30 years. So they know the product, they know the brand, they know the machines inside out and the passion that they all have for producing the best quality product that they can, is infectious, it really is. You can go down on the shop floor, if you're having a bit of a miserable day on the emails, you can just wander down and have a look around and it is, it is fascinating.
Stewart Black (21:33):
Amazing. Let's just talk about gender representation in the industry. Are you seeing enough senior female leaders? And would you say there's equal pay equity?
Fiona Norbury (21:43):
I think that might deserve its own podcast. That's a big crunchy question, isn't it? So statistically we know that women are underrepresented in the boardroom, but actually, it's not just women, is it? It's diversity as a whole. There are lots of people that are underrepresented in the boardroom. Although that is an issue across lots of sectors, and we know that is statistically true. I would say that it's particularly true in manufacturing and there are lots of reasons for that. It's more than just looking at gender pay gap and seeing who's at the table. It's finding out why people aren't coming to the table. What are the reasons for that? Is it that STEM skills and females, for example, we know that ... I think it's something like one in and four girls will only come out of education with STEM skills.
I know for me, granted it's a while ago, but when I was at school, my career advice was very focused on the fact that I was a female, despite the fact that actually, I was doing sciences at A level. I wanted to be a vet originally, so I was interested in engineering, I was interested in science. I had all the skills, I was doing woodworking, but it was never presented as an actual career that I would be suited to. So, we have to look at what's coming through from schools. We have to look at things like men tend to stay in the workplace a lot longer. I use that example of some of the people that work at our factory. They've worked there for a long, long time, so obviously in terms of their pay, they're getting higher pay because they've just worked there incrementally longer than someone who perhaps would have an office role, that might be more female-focused.
So yes, I would say there is a lot to sort out in manufacturing. Is it getting better? Hopefully, potentially. I see kids TV now that does focus more on making sure that girls see the advantages of being involved in science. They do have female presenters, so perhaps things are getting better, but yeah, I'm aware of there being a gap.
Stewart Black (23:41):
Yeah, still a wee way to go. But it sounds like you're hopeful that the industry is evolving slowly in the right direction?
Fiona Norbury (23:48):
Stewart Black (23:50):
And as you're saying with COVID and also with Brexit, it has been a rough couple of years now. How have you seen those twin forces affecting manufacturing and your business specifically?
Fiona Norbury (24:01):
I think it will, obviously, it will have affect affected manufacturing. So in the case of our business, there aren't many suburban semis with a lathe in the spare bedroom. So, people really could only be at work operating machinery and if those people couldn't be in work operating machinery, that was going to affect our product going out the door. We were actually really lucky though, there were quite a few interesting things that happened with us.
So, we did have enough work to keep us ticking over with some of the military orders. So, even though dive shops had shut and even though people weren't allowed to dive, there still was professional diving happened, so that kept us ticking over. But then what we found was that come June, people who would normally go for dive a few times a year and hire their kit, they realised that they didn't want to hire kit, they wanted their own because of cross-contamination. So they were buying their own kits so that they didn't have to hire. So, that helped grow sales. Then when it became apparent that no one was going to be travelling, people then bought all their kit.
So instead of going overseas, going on a live aboard, and hiring their kit on the boat, they were buying all of their kit in the UK to be able to dive in the UK. Then what we're now finding is that people who haven't been able to go on holiday, they haven't done any travel, they haven't been out for nice meals. They now have quite a bit of disposable income and because Apeks is a premium brand, and I think you probably might understand a bit about why we are so premium with everything that we do in the factory and the way we're in our business, so they are big ticket items and a lot of people will aspire to be part of the brand, but not necessarily be able to be part of the brand.
But because of the amount of disposable income that people are manage to stash up, for those that were looking enough to still be working, they're buying these big ticket items, because they're investing in thing that they've never been able to have before, or they're just buying our products because it's a feel good, it's something that can make people feel better, particularly with this recent lockdown where people have really become exhausted. It's like, "Right, what can I do that is going to give me hope?" And everyone's, "Right, now this summer we're going diving. I'm going to buy the product I've always wanted, which is an Apeks regulator or an Apeks wing." So our order books are full, really full. We've got extra shifts on at the moment.
So, although at the very beginning there was some concern, that concern very quickly went. I think very specific to the diving industry, we've been really lucky because coming out the other side of it, all people want to do is be free to dive and explore and have adventures.
Stewart Black (26:30):
Yeah, it does feel like when that whistle blows, we'll all be-
Fiona Norbury (26:30):
... out the door.
Stewart Black (26:34):
.. just running into the sea, won't we?
Fiona Norbury (26:35):
Stewart Black (26:39):
So, let's end the show the same way we do each week, just by asking you to tell us the one invention that if it was never manufactured, your life would be unbearable. I think I can guess what you're going to say, but let's see where you go with this.
Fiona Norbury (26:51):
Actually, no, you might be wrong. Unbearable is quite a big word, isn't it? I think looking at my whole life, the printing press because I'm an avid reader and I love science fiction and I love escapist reading. So my whole childhood and especially my teenage years, the horrible teenage years when nobody understands you, that was my escape, reading and all the travel ... I've lived all over the world. I've spent so much of my life travelling and I've always had a good book. So, I would say the printing press.
Stewart Black (27:19):
Yeah. I mean, a good book can be as immersive as being underwater, so I-
Fiona Norbury (27:19):
Stewart Black (27:23):
... I understand where you're coming from.
Fiona Norbury (27:25):
Yeah. Books, theatre and diving. Oh, and coffee. Good coffee.
Stewart Black (27:31):
That sounds like a recipe for a good time. So, all it leaves me to say now is thanks to today's guest Fiona Norbury.
Fiona Norbury (27:37):
Thank you to you as well, thank you for ... I know you've got quite a big date happening today, where your family grows a little bit. So, thank you as well for taking the time out to talk to me.
Stewart Black (27:50):
It's been good fun doing this just before we dash into the hospital later on. We've got a baby coming today. So yeah, next time on the podcast, you might hear a little bit of crying in the background.
Fiona Norbury (28:00):
And a very tired voice.
Stewart Black (28:04):
Thanks very much, Fiona.
Fiona Norbury (28:05):
No worries, you're welcome. Take care.
Stewart Black (28:09):
Subscribe to this podcast in all the usual places, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon and Google Music. Thank you for listening to this edition of ReMake Manufacturing. I'm your host, Stewart Black. See you next time.