A global leader in water analysis technology, Process Instruments (Pi) was founded by Mike Riding and a colleague in 1998, starting life as a humble distributor based out of Mike’s sitting room and garage. However, in 2006, after Mike returned from a five-year break from the company during which he taught chemistry in local secondary schools, Pi decided to pivot to making their own products.
“Since then, we’ve gone from strength to strength,” says Mike, 56, Pi’s managing director. “It’s really interesting work because what we do has an underlying sense of worthwhileness. We make better water for drinking, industrial processes, and for sitting in; everything from washing salads with fewer chemicals to the cooling tower for the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing.
“In some areas, we’re the world’s leading authority - for example, we make the world’s most advanced controller,” adds Mike, who has lived in East Lancashire for 25 years. “That’s a bit weird given we’re sitting in an old mill in Burnley. But it’s also pretty cool and while, day-to-day, it’s a job like all jobs, when you reflect, you realise you’re doing a good thing.
“It’s not saving children from war-torn battlefields, but it’s making sure people can access clean water,” continues Mike, whose grandmother was born overlooking Turf Moor on December 31st, 1899. “I love the job - the tech, the innovation, the travel - but the best part is the people I work with.
“It’s so nice to provide good, high-quality jobs in Burnley in a world-leading field. And we try very hard to be a good employer: we pay people the living wage at the very least, our apprentices stay with us, and we don’t ask people to work long hours or weekends.”
Making products which control water quality across industries as varied as food production, water treatment, and spa facilities, Pi does business across six continents and in over 50 countries. They rung a lab and production facility in Burnley as well as subsidiaries in France and Ireland and a business rep base in China.
But, as with all sectors, Covid had a big impact.
“Say you’re building a water treatment plant,” says Mike. “You clear the site, install the equipment, then buy the instruments which control it, which means we come in right at the end of the process. For that reason, Covid didn’t hit us hard at the beginning because all the projects had to be finished off. But, during Covid, nobody started new ones, which soon caught up.
“We were growing 20% year-on-year for six years running up to Covid, which was wonderful but, for the last two years, we’ve been flat because of that drop-off in demand,” he adds, with Pi employing 32 people. “It’s beginning to pick up, but I think we’re going to have a difficult first six months next year then I expect the second half to be a lot better.”
One thing frustrates Mike more than anything, however. “Brexit’s been a disaster for manufacturing businesses; I don’t care what the government says. Customs seem to have lost the plot; things we used to be able to move around in a day now take three weeks,” Mike says. “It’s like the Clarets walking on to the pitch against Manchester United and, before they even start playing, they score three own goals.
“I’m extraordinarily frustrated with the ridiculous and idiotic policies of the government.”
But, at the helm of a company which recently claimed two Queen’s Awards for Enterprise, Mike’s outlook remains buoyant.
“The last few years have been about existential threats: Covid, supply chain issues, and Brexit has been a triple-whammy which could snuff out this business which has been around since ‘98,” he says. “But I’m an optimist. And the thing that gives me real confidence is the fantastic team we have here.”