Q&A with Sentek Founder, Kenneth Petrie

Posted in: Company Updates

Author: Kenny Petrie

Date Posted: 18/08/2021


How did you become involved in the electrochemical sensor industry?

I started in the electrochemistry industry as a scientific glassblower in Fife, I took a real interest in the product, and learned all about it. Working for the people that were the best in the business, these guys were all in their 40s and 50s when I was just 20, they had been about for a long time, and they taught me everything there was to know about electrochemical sensors.

I got promoted through the company quite quickly and was put on the board when I was in my 20s, I got really ambitious and wanted to do it myself, so I left and formed Sentek. Craig our head glassblower came with me.

What led you down the path of entrepreneurship?

My thing was that I really wanted to be independent, I think I just wanted to be in control.

Before I started Sentek, I moved to a new job which I wasn’t happy in, so I resigned. Having already moved house there was only one thing to do… set up a new business on my own! After 6 months, my partner Donna stopped working for other people and we both worked together to build the company up.

I decided to leave that firm in Ireland in December 1990, and we formed Sentek in January in 1991, in Fife, then we moved to Essex in October 1992. We felt we have to be close to Cambridge and this area as a lot of the lab companies are in this area, and the Cambridge science parks. It’s like being in the Finance world, if you want to do that, get close to London. We used to call it the Golden Triangle around here.

We started producing conductivity electrodes, but as the holes in the market were appearing following the recession in the early 1990s, with other companies going under, we started filling those holes by producing pH electrodes as well.

What have you learned about yourself running your business?

One thing I did learn when I first started it up – I thought I knew everything. After a few years I thought I knew less and less every month! When you’re in your 20’s and in business, you’re confident, but then you realise that you need great people around you to succeed. No one person has the answers to everything.

I did find that it was very difficult to get the right human resources in place; we could get orders, design great products, but it was very difficult to attract the staff and retain them. It’s harder for a small firm, as you don’t have as much of the financial resources as large organisations.

We made sure we hired self-starters that were passionate about the industry, and gave our employees more autonomy to put forward and ideas and suggestions to improve products and processes. That’s a culture that is still here today.

I also learnt to be flexible. In the beginning I wanted to sell Sentek branded electrodes only, that had to change. They say, “No battle plan ever survives engagement with the enemy.” And so, we were flexible and changed to suit the times by selling custom electrodes to OEMs and other clients… if we’d have stuck to our guns, the business would not be where it is today.

If you had a time machine, what would you do differently?

I think if I could turn the clock back, I wouldn’t have spent so many hours in here. Donna and I spent a massive amount of time here, too many hours. We were having good fun at the time, but being here at 2am isn’t a life. When you set up a business it becomes the only thing in your life, it is all you think about, complete immersion.

Donna was so thorough and accurate in everything she did, because she wanted it to be perfect. While that meant that we were working all hours, it did earn us a reputation for being uber-accurate in our products and our pricing.

What do you consider your smartest business idea?

Hiring a professional, high-profile Sales and Marketing Director. Joe Wheeler was a top salesperson in the sector, so when I asked him about coming to work for me, I expected him to pat me on the head and say shoo! So to say I was surprised when he accepted is an understatement.

Customers and competitors started talking, “who’s Joe gone to work for?”, “where is Joe working now?”, and just like that, our turnover increased by 30% in the first two years, it took off.

It may have been a smart decision for the business, but the reality was that I paid Joe more than I paid myself and gave him my company car so he could visit customers. – And I would do it again in a heartbeat.

What are you most proud of achieving at Sentek Ltd?

The fact that the company has always been financially stable and has always grown. And the new team continuing its growth. Sam, Paul and Craig, they’ve been here a long time and they’re making it work. It is great to see.

The team we have here are simply incredible. Nothing beats a person for what we do here, no machine can build what we build. There’s pride in that, knowing that I know the people that make these special products, it gives me a huge amount of pride.

In so many companies, when they are sold, they go wrong. The owners may want to change processes or personnel, but we haven’t experienced that with SDI Group. Since 2015, they have supported us where we needed support, and have let us do our thing as we have been doing for 30 years now.

What interests you outside of work?

Music is a huge part of life for me. I play guitar in a band; I’ve done that all my life. I play piano and played the trumpet for a while. I used to play organ in church.

We were playing at the weekend in Braintree, it was beautiful sunshine, the place was rammed. Its great fun, bloody brilliant [shows an online video of the show; it’s a sunset set and he’s playing Running Down a Drain by Tom Petty… then he fast forwards to him playing a face melting guitar solo!].

I like boating, being out on the water. I have a river boat, a Bermuda 34 broads cruiser, which we would take on the rivers and waterways around North Norfolk, it’s beautiful around there.

Tell us something people would be surprised to learn about you…

I also play the bagpipes! Bagpipes was the first instrument I learned at the age of 7 and I played in a pipe band.

It’s not as difficult as you might think, you’re just topping the air up when you’re blowing. You can sometimes hear them winding up like a scalded cat, and that’s when someone hasn’t got the proper pressure. It’s like a violin, if you don’t handle it properly it can be… rough!

Music is a big part of my life; it always has been.

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