The iconic UK audio brand SME Ltd moved from family ownership. Cadence Group, an Indian-based operation that also has controlling interests in Spendor Audio Systems, Siltech Audio, Crystal Cables, and the Audio Lounge in London recently acquired the Steyning-based turntable experts.
Normally, such back-room discussions would be of limited interest to readers, but this one’s possibly a little different. The SME brand has been in the Robertson-Aikman family for 70 years, the brand being handed from father to son after founder Alistair Robertson-Aikman’s passing in 2006.
Cadence founder Ajay Shirke is an industrialist from Pune, India, has serious audiophile credentials, and is no asset stripper when it comes to brands like SME. In fact, the reverse is true, as he gives the individual brands within the group a significant amount of autonomy, and provides investment to grow the company.
To this end, Cadence has appointed a new CEO to head up the turntable company; Stuart McNeilis. McNeilis comes from an aerospace background and recognises good engineering practices, so is determined not to instigate change for change’s sake. Nevertheless, he brings fresh eyes and newer production methodologies to SME, which – if we are being entirely honest about its recent internal structure – has failed to put growth, investment, and transition plans in place (in other words, the company has an older workforce working to time-honoured – but sometimes no-longer relevant – engineering practices).
I spoke with McNeilis soon after taking the keys to the factory gates, and he had already had discussions with local schools and colleges to investigate apprenticeship schemes, was re-establishing SME’s reputation as a precision engineer of parts for more than just the audio sector, and even looking at possible future designs. “The company has been going for 70 years,” he said, “if that isn’t worth an anniversary turntable, what is?”
Naturally, there have been those who have viewed SME’s acquisition with foreboding and dread – SME is quintessentially English, like bungalows, pyjamas, or sipping punch on the veranda… and not Indian, like the words ‘bungalow’, ‘pyjama’, ‘punch’, and ‘veranda’. But those who delight in misery will do so no matter what. Cadence has taken on SME and all its staff as a going concern with no intention of undermining the good reputation of the brand, and no desire to prune the staff in the factory. Of course, as many of the engineers at SME have been with the company for decades, there will be retirements and replacement engineers to consider, but the brand will not be treating its staff as ‘walking overheads’.
SME has also returned to pure manufacture, and no longer sells direct to dealers in the UK and Ireland. Instead, the company has appointed Padood to distribute the line alongside its imports of Analysis Plus, Bel Canto, Boulder, and YG Acoustics.
We were worried about SME. It seemed to be going nowhere. What it needed was something more than a safe pair of hands, and with the combination of Cadence, McNeilis, and Padood, that seems like precisely what it got.