This town is full of gems, full of people doing extraordinary things and full of businesses making the most amazing products.
One of those gems is SMTS or Scale Model Technical Services to give it its full name. It lurks behind the doors of an anonymous industrial unit in a corner of the Castleham Industrial Estate making amazing models in the most incredible and exquisite detail.
Behind the business is Keith Williams who has had a lifelong fascination with model making, he made his first model at the age of six not realising at the time that he was unleashing a six decade career in which he would be able to indulge his passion.
SMTS was founded in 1983 by Keith and John Allen, things started small but the business soon grew to employ 40 people and was releasing countless new models every month. SMTS was building not just cars but planes, boats, ships, construction plant and one off display and marketing models in a wide range of scales.
But in the 1990s Keith explains that Chinese manufacturers got into the market and changed everything forever: “To start with their models were quite crude but it didn’t take them long to up their game,” says Keith.
Keith and John realised they had to change their business model quickly or they would disappear like so many of their rivals had already done. Making changes would mean the business would survive. So they created totally hand built models put together by skilled craftsmen – who were also modelling enthusiasts – to an exceptionally high standard. The company’s output today might be very much smaller than it was in its heyday but the absolute focus is on quality and detail with many of the models made to order and to customer’s personal specifications.
Keith says: “We can undertake almost any project form one offs to multiple production in a wide range of materials and finishes.”
These days John has semi-retired with Simon Elford taking his place working alongside Keith and together they now head-up the business that employs eight people.
Keith’s story is a fascinating one, from his days as a young model maker whose other passion in life was motor sport and who idolised the late, great Jim Clark to the days when he was a regular visitor to the factories of the major Formula One teams to measure up the new season’s racing cars in preparation for building scale models for sale to the fans of the sport.
These days he is fascinated by the models people want to buy. It might not be remembered as one of the most glamorous cars of its age but SMTS will soon be building a model of the Austin Maestro because that’s what customers want. They already build a model of the 1970s family favourite the Hillman Hunter. Keith says the model range is down to their customers wanting models of the cars of their childhood or of the cars that they learned to drive in or cars that they have an emotional attachment to. There is still the exotica too as well as the unusual and relatively unknown.
There’s a wry smile comes across Keith’s face as he recalls the day his mother told him he’d ‘never get anywhere’ building models yet that’s all he has ever really done.
At university he studied Technical Illustration but could not find a job in that field when he graduated. He’d been building model cars for a friend and so gradually his hobby became his job and he soon found a role making models for a company in Redhill and he stayed there for nearly seven years. It was during that time he’d visit the factories of some of the biggest and most famous Formula One teams including the likes of Lotus and McLaren – it was a childhood dream come true.
It’s been a feature of Keith’s life in model making that nothing stays the same for long and as as Formula One became ever more commercialised the racing teams became more guarded about the intellectual property rights over their designs and so it became more difficult for companies like his to strike the kind of deals that made modelling Formula One cars commercially viable.
But the men behind SMTS also know a bit about diversification so moved away from Formula One and started crafting the most detailed models of historic racing cars including the famous Vanwall, the last front engined Formula One racing car from a team that won the Formula One constructors championship in 1958.
It was in the mid 1980 that Keith and John set up SMTS. Initially things went well and the company soon relocated from its original small workshop in to a purpose built 5,000sq ft factory unit with 40 people on the payroll and with distributors for their products located all over the world.
Keith says: “Things started to go wrong when China came along. They took every product we had and copied it.”
Of course the products being churned out in China, while of poorer quality, were significantly cheaper. For John and Keith it was all about diversification and they sold their bigger factory and moved to the unit that they still occupy today, that was in 2003.
While the scale of the business has changed so have some of the fundamentals. Those distributors that once took SMTS products in large batches no longer exist, nor do the toy shops and model shops that once stocked SMTS models. Most of the company’s business is now done online with SMTS selling directly to their customers and often establishing close relationships with them.
The models are no longer toys for children; at prices for a single model ranging from £100 upwards SMTS is now in the business of building collectors items and the average SMTS customer is a man aged over 50.
These days, even if he wanted to, Keith says that to expand the business significantly would be difficult. A changing society means there are fewer young boys building models either from kits or from scratch – model making among the young has fallen out of fashion.
“We just can’t find the people who as young boys used to make things,” he says, “and that’s a problem because if you haven’t got that feel for what you’re doing and a basic interest in model making in the first place then it can be difficult and take a long time to train someone in those skills.”
Now in his mid-60s Keith absolute passion for what he does and his enthusiasm for the models that bear his company’s name becomes very clear when you sit down and chat with him.
For SMTS it’s not good enough that the big bits of the model, the bits that you can see and feel and touch are true to the original, every detail has to be correct so the tiny pedals are scaled down replicas of the originals you’d find on a road going version of that car – the pedals might be hard to see but for Keith and his team it’s important that level of detail is correct.
SMTS is a true Hastings gem, a business that is sending the products it makes to customers around the world and it’s a business that upholds some great traditions. It’s also a business that, thanks to the forward thinking of the men who run it, is still a great success story within it’s very specialised world and to prove the point two new members of staff will be joining the SMTS team later this month.