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Survival Systems International UK Ltd

Based on an interview with Mike O’Connor, General Manager.

The company, which is based in Great Yarmouth, started 25 years ago as an agent for the American Whittaker Corporation, who designed and manufactured an evacuation system known as the Whitaker Survival System, Specifically for the off-shore oil and gas industry. The role of the UK operation at that time was to install the system on customer off-shore installations within the Eastern Hemisphere.

By 1978 the operation was so successful that the current management team got the permission of the Whittaker Corporation to set up a UK limited company.

During the 70s and 80s business boomed to the point that the company outgrew their premises, although the change of business had moved from installation of new systems to service, repair and modification of the older systems now approaching 10 years of age.

Sales of new systems were declining in 1987 and Whittaker withdrew from the operation. It was taken up by the present American owner and became Survival Systems International. To keep up with the change in its role in the UK the company moved to new purpose built premises, and up until the beginning of 1993 was doing very well. However, in 1993 the commercial climate became more hostile. Three factors largely account for this.

  • The widely publicized recession resulted in cutbacks on spending by customers. Contracts were not renewed or at best cut by half.
  • Tax changes in 1993 affecting drilling activities meant that drilling rigs left the area to work in areas giving better financial return.
  • Following the Piper Alpha Disaster, The Cullen inquiry, recommendations were published which led to new stringent safety    regulations regarding off-shore operations. As a result it was found to be more economic to de-man older offshore installations and many lifeboats became obsolete.


All the above had a serious impact on the company. It instigated its own cost cutting exercise, trimming the workforce to an operational minimum.

The company also attempted new ventures and various agency agreements with marine engine manufacturers and open days to promote service and repair to private owners of sea and river craft. However, none came to ant great fruition.

By mid 1994 the company realized that it had to innovate effectively, thus in September 1994 a 3 person team from Survival Systems attended the first Norfolk SWORD-SME Programme which was sponsored by Norfolk and Waveney TEC.

The team enjoyed the SCIMITAR idea generation and assessment module, and, despite having difficulty judgment, they generated 120 new business ideas. Eventually, 14 concepts were short-listed for the RAPIER physical investigation module.

Included in this RAPIER portfolio was a new business concept which the company had thought about before the Programme commenced but which it had been unable to progress. This was to manage the development, maintenance and repair of the training facilities of PETAN Limited, the Petroleum Education and Training Association for the North Sea.

The latter organisation was rationalising its existing educational and training operation under the pressure of new regulation and saw in Survival Systems an effective organisation to help them manage this process.

According to Survival Systems International, SWORD-SME gave the company the confidence to bid for new work and greatly assisted the development of the Project. The systematic innovation pathway of the RAPIER module allowed them to ask the right questions at the right time and enabled the company to maximize the benefit from this new development.

Also, in addition to the above concept, the company has, as a direct result of the SWORD-SME Programme, developed a further new service (which for the moment must stay under ‘wraps’) which should be launchable at the end of 1995.

Thus the company has benefited in two main ways. Firstly, SWORD-SME accelerated the progression of the ‘PETANS Venture’ enabling Survival Systems to wring maximum benefit from this new service. Secondly, it has given the company an innovation system to follow. The company will continue to use SWORD-SME systems to generate a continuous stream of new business concepts and expects too experience rapid growth as a result.

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