Some stereotypes of entrepreneurial inventors are not entirely complimentary, but Dr Tony Doyle is happy to confess he fits the mould of the ‘absent-minded professor’ rather well.
"When I burrow down into a problem, I leave the world behind," says the man who invented the dimmer switch in 1972. “I never remember anyone's birthday or even who their children are - I'm going to have to learn to write things down - but intricate technological details I can recall.”
Doyle & Tratt have become the leading British manufacturer of dimmer switches and decorative switches and sockets and have won two Queen’s Awards for innovation - in 2006 and 2015 - as well as several lighting industry design awards.
Dr Doyle didn’t come to the lighting industry from a conventional electronics background, having studied chemistry as a first degree. It wasn’t until he was in his mid-fifties that he gained a PhD in materials science and he has only ever had one job, as a research scientist. While in that job he was told he didn’t have management potential after he refused to ‘blackleg’ during a strike.
He shrugged off the career-limiting event, saying he had no aspirations to manage people anyway. "I don't think I’m particularly good at it. I work better when I’m working alone. ”
"If all of your prior knowledge is in one area, your thinking becomes linear. If you have a degree in electronics, for instance, it can be like being in a trench which it's very difficult to jump out of or see over"
It was Dr Doyle's wife, Carole, who suggested that a drill speed controller he developed but which didn’t find commercial success, could be used to control the brightness of domestic lights. The business started, in 1971, as a cottage industry with the Doyle and Tratt families making the dimmers themselves. When they gained the first contract with a major retailer some years later they were able to outsource production.
Dr Doyle can claim credit for inventing the world's first effective dimmable compact fluorescent lamp, which was launched in 2006. This revolutionary technology combined the energy-saving properties of fluorescent lamps with those inherent in a dimmer switch.
"I just love the research and development,” he smiles. Although correlating that with an eye on commercial return could have paid additional dividends. “I invented continuous production of carbon fibre,” he muses, “and signed away the rights for a dollar.”
Similarly, Doyle & Tratt introduced decorative light-switch plates in the 1980s, even though there was little demand for them at the time. Indeed, he had trouble selling them as they were very lightweight. “But that was the point, they saved on materials,” he points out.
One of the Queen’s Awards the company gained was for developing a way to dim LED lights. "That was hard to do, but that sort of thing gives us a chance to carve out a niche,” Dr Doyle says.
He muses that many ideas for product development come almost subconsciously. “I have often wondered where ideas come from,” he says. “I think that what happens is that when you're concentrating on a problem the answer finally burrows into your brain. But the brain needs to be allowed to process things and I know that, given time, something goes on in my subconscious. So I never panic if I have a problem; I push it away and then come back later and can look at it encumbered by peripherals.”
He admits he has never even read a book about electronics, but sometimes having no prior knowledge of a subject can be a benefit, he believes. “If all your prior knowledge is in one area your thinking become linear,” Dr Doyle suggests. If you have a degree in electronics, for instance, it can be like being in a trench which it's very difficult to jump out of or see over.”
His business supplies the UK retail market, the trade and OEMs and exports to other European markets, the Middle East and Africa. With some exceptions, Dr Doyle doesn't generally apply for patents, seeing them as an “invitation to copy” because of the amount of detail that has to be put into the pubic domain.
One of the ideas he suggested to Ed Balls, the former shadow chancellor, was that the government should deploy patent attorneys to help small firms when their intellectual property is violated. That would be a win-win, he says, as the government would help protect the development of British companies at an affordable price.
Indeed, competition from China has been an issue for him, as it is for British manufacturing in general, which is “a shadow of what it once was.” He recalls losing a big chunk of business to a national DIY chain when it started buying from Chinese producers instead; Doyle & Tratt turnover dropped as a result from £14million to £4million – though it has since risen to £7million.
"I love processing ideas, decision-making and beating the competition. I don't mean that in an aggressive way. It's about coming up with innovation and applying it successfully"
One of his best decisions in the context of ensuring cost-effective production has been moving production from an external supplier that kept putting up its prices, to a factory in Hungary that is run as a co-operative, with Doyle and the Hungarian workers sharing the profits. He also owns a factory (and the tooling) in the midlands, and essentially subcontracts to the company that occupies it; he buys only from them and their priority is working for Doyle & Tratt.
There’s a similar approach within the family, in that both of his sons are directors of the business but also have their own companies which work primarily for Doyle & Tratt. John is managing director and runs Doyle & Tratt’s biggest wholesaler. His other son handles the e-commerce, again through his own company. Dr Doyle himself has the role of chairman and technical director, with the latter role being by far the most appealing to him. "I don't quite know what a chairman is supposed to do,” he admits disarmingly.
Dr Doyle says there has been a constant need to re-evaluate the dimmer switch as new technology and demand for energy-saving devices have brought new generations of light sources to the market. Recent product developments have included antimicrobial plates, which are on trials in a hospital and which, says Doyle, have shown that they reduce germs like MRSA and C.Diff.
The company has also been developing ‘intelligent’ dimmers, including remote control versions with scene-setting capabilities. And Doyle has “all sorts of other ideas” for how to control lighting, including making the electronic drivers for energy-saving lamps.
But, aged seventy-six, he ponders why he stays centre stage. And then immediately provides the answer to his own question. “I love processing ideas, decision-making, and beating the competition,” he says. “I don't mean that in an aggressive way. It’s about coming up with innovation and applying it successfully.”