Adam Turner
Technology Journalist

Adam Turner is a Sydney Morning Herald senior technology columnist who has been writing about the challenges facing Australian business for more than a decade

Adam Turner
Technology Journalist

Adam Turner is a Sydney Morning Herald senior technology columnist who has been writing about the challenges facing Australian business for more than a decade

Highlights
  • Mark and Lee Furst started Furst Electrical, an electrical automation services business, in a Melbourne shed in 2012. The business now has 11 staff.
  • It won a $1.6 million contract in 2015 to design controls for an agricultural chemical plant near Geelong.
  • The Fursts say their revenue grew by 343 per cent in 2014  and the business now has an annual revenue of $2.5 million.
  • The business reinvests 3 per cent of its profits into research and development, and uses leading edge technology for a growing list of clients.
  • In 2015 it was named Telstra Australian Start-Up of the Year.

This Melbourne start-up is grabbing attention (and profits!) by helping robots to pick and pack online purchases, and craft-beer makers to remotely monitor their brews.

Machine-to-machine technology is massively changing the way manufacturing industries work, and Melbourne’s fast-growing Furst Electrical is carving out a profitable niche by specialising in automation services.

Brother and sister Mark and Lee Furst started Furst Electrical in 2012 in a backyard shed. Mark, an industrial engineer and Lee, an MBA with extensive experience in finance, had always had ambitions to run their own business.

Early on, they recognised they were chasing a limited number of high-value clients, so Lee designed tightly focused marketing campaigns to attract business. While the projects they sought were fewer in number, the rewards for winning them were greater, she explains.

The Fursts say their revenue grew by 343 per cent in the 2014 financial year. As well as winning a $1.6 million contract to design controls at an Accensi agricultural chemical plant near Geelong, it put in the electrical controls for a Swisslog robotic pick-and-pack system at the warehouse of daily deals website Catch of the Day.

Based in Boronia, Melbourne, Furst Electrical designs and deploys leading edge electrical control systems for a growing list of clients globally and employs 10 staff. Its impressive performance has seen it named as Telstra’s 2015 Australian Start-Up of the Year. 

three workers having a discussion in distillery plant

Research and development

Furst Electrical aims to reinvest about 3 per cent of its profit in research and development. This pushes along innovation and also provides marketing opportunities.

“Often we’ll do the research and development and we’ll give it to clients for nothing,” says Lee. “There will be an active project and we’ll see an opportunity to do something for them – so we’ll spend the money to work out how. We’ll check in afterwards and won’t necessarily charge them for it and we’ll use [the project] as a case study.”

As Furst Electrical has craft beer producers among its clients, they decided to experiment with technology to remotely manage brewing equipment.

“It means the brewers can remotely monitor and control the temperature or pressure inside their tanks. The capability to adjust key variables ensures they don’t spoil product. For us, it has given Furst a competitive advantage for use in our tenders and a unique case study for marketing how businesses can benefit from partnering with Furst.” 

Essential communication

By their nature, businesses that rely on industrial automation are likely to face potentially huge losses if their machinery breaks down, so Mark and Lee took steps to ensure that Furst Electrical’s services were as accessible as possible.

Reliable communication is critical, especially as staff can be dispersed across several project sites. The solution is a cloud-based private bulletin board app that allows better communication with field staff and promotes collaboration.

“If a guy goes out and works on a project and isn’t there the next day, he needs to communicate to the person coming the following day. It creates that continuity of work. It also creates a nice culture within the team. It’s a team-based environment so the guys talk to each other and have a chat about whatever,” Lee explains.

Telstra cloud is changing the way that businesses communcate.

Talk to Telstra today about getting your head in the cloud. 

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How technology helps

Technology’s positive impact on the bottom line shouldn’t be underestimated, adds Lee. As well as cloud-based services, including Xero for accounting and Dropbox to access designs on site, the business uses a mobile workflow app to analyse how much time staff are spending on multiple projects.

“It provides us with meaningful data to action in case we have allocated too many or too few team members on a project,” Lee explains. “That translates to higher project profitability. In one project this year it saved us the cost of three wages – in the order of $120,000.”

With analysts Frost & Sullivan tipping that the market for automation controls in the Asia-Pacific will hit $430 million by 2018, Furst Electrical is well-positioned for further growth over the next five years.

Winning ways from Furst Electrical

Training: “We teach our staff continuously. We attract staff because we do interesting things. We keep them because they’re constantly learning, challenged and engaged.” - Lee Furst

Marketing: Furst Electrical uses knowledge as a sales tool. Their marketing is tightly focused and aims to be useful to potential clients by offering information on changes and new tech affecting their industry.

Finance: “You need to keep overheads low in the early days because you’re going to have a volatile sales pipeline. It’s a matter of adapting until you are getting higher quality, consistent work.” - Lee Furst

Judges comments

The judges praised Furst Electrical for their innovative take on highly complex electrical engineering. The business has very effective project planning and risk management systems in place and, as a result, has won work against larger competitors. Furst Electrical has achieved impressive financial success in a short time, and the judges noted that its combination of highly developed technical expertise, focused marketing and process discipline was rare in the sector. 

Looking for more ways to get inspired about your business?

Read about how Edible Blooms used tech to make their mark. 

Find Out More

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