In Profile: John Penton, Avon Protection

By Anita Jaynes on October 8, 2014

Last month we visited Avon Protection based in Melksham to interview John Penton, European & Asia Pacific Sales Director for the firm.

Avon Protection (AP) is part of Avon Rubber  p.l.c a business with it’s roots firmly in Wiltshire since 1885. The company is the global leader in respiratory protection technology, with a history spanning over 100 years of military mask design and manufacture.

Avon Protection is prime contractor to the United States Department of Defence, the UK’s Ministry of Defence, NATO and over 50+ other national defence organisations.

We interview John to find out more about the history of the firm, his growth within the company and it’s plans for future growth.

When did you join the company?

I started my career with Avon Rubber in 1981 when I joined their apprenticeship scheme as a technician. In those days we were based on the company’s old site in Melksham, now Cooper Tyres. The apprenticeship scheme was run out of Trowbridge Technical College and I graduated as a member of the Plastics and Rubber Institute.

What was Avon Rubber like when you joined?

The company has changed a lot since those days. When I started with Avon 80% of the business came from the automotive trade.  The business innovated to survive and changed their business plan for growth, concentrating on the successes of Avon Protection  and it’s law enforcement and military breathing apparatus.

How did you progress with the firm?

Avon Protection started in Bradford On Avon where the sales and development team were based. In 1986 the first S10 masks went into production for the UK government.  The product was very successful and the team grew from this point with other predominately European governments approaching Avon Protection to produce masks for them.

With my technical team I was responsible for a new Avon Protection test and research laboratory, purpose built for further developments in respiratory protection. The S10 morphed into the FM12 and I then became Programme Manager for Central Europe.

After this initially very exciting time my technology and engineering role changed making my role much more managerial and I was ready for change. I decided to leave the company and worked as a sales manager for the then Swindon based Linton and Hurst as commercial manager. The company was very fruitful when I joined but it was hit by heavy commercial pressures from the Far East with product development, a lot of the company’s  customer base moved to Czechoslovakia. I was offered another role within the business but I didn’t want it.

At this time AP was going through a period of real growth with the impact of 9/11 generating a need for their products.  The US was looking to replace all of their respiratory equipment for the entire US forces and AP were asked to pitch for the work. It seemed an ideal time to return back to the company and in 2004 I returned and my role became instrumental in the winning the US contract.

How has Avon Protection progressed since?

We now have 500 employees in the States off the back of the US contract and we have a manufacturing plant in Cadillac, Michigan State. We also have facilities in Baltimore, Maryland.

We work closely with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and service many of their masks here in Melksham. We are currently servicing masks that have just returned from the field in Syria.  We’re very proud that the equipment AP supplies protects people when they need it most, saving lives.

We export our products to 62 countries and are one of the most successful exporters in Wiltshire with masks being sold to the Middle East, the Far East, the US and Central Europe. We work directly with government procurement teams to help fulfil their needs and UKTI support us with this regularly.

What’s next for the firm?

Maintaining our existing market through introduction of new products is critical. We are also spending our time growing the Asian market places concentrating on developing markets such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

We’re investing our own funds too, not just government money on product development.

In such a niche industry how do you recruit?

We recruit good quality engineers and place them on our internal training scheme, investing in the staff.

Our sales team in Melksham is so small for the size of the operation, our team of 10 support the whole world outside of the US.

What do you like most about your job?

I love the technical aspect of the role, wanting to know the intricacies of the product. I also love the cultural diversity. It’s brilliant. The most exciting part of what we do is being so multi-national. I can’t think of another local business so multicultural and diverse.

The industry is so specialist I love meeting the interesting characters that form part of this funny club that exists all around the world.

I’m also passionate about creating a lifesaving product and that is the driver of my success.