The flight of stone steps in front of the entrance of the Institution of Civil Engineers looks much the same as those leading up to any other historic building in London. It would take the arrival of a wheelchair user to reveal that there’s something rather unusual about them: a section of the steps can retract so that a wheelchair can slot into the newly vacated space and then be lifted up to the level of the top stair by a hitherto hidden lift.
This patented retracting steps is the work of Sesame Access for All, whose high-profile projects in the capital have also included the UK Supreme Court, Tate Britain, the Royal College of Music, Kensington Palace, another very well-known public building that cannot be named under the terms of the contract, and some “fabulous” office buildings.
All these have made London the company’s “showroom,” says Alison Lyons, director of commercial development at Sesame, and daughter of the founder. Architects involved with listed buildings in particular want lifts that are both “beautiful and invisible”, knowing that mass-produced lifts and conventional ramps are “clunky and unattractive.”
Sesame lifts have been installed around the world, with most of the overseas work coming through word of mouth, as they don't have sales agents overseas. One high-profile example is the Sydney Opera House, which approached the company having seen a video of an earlier project and wanted to be the first building in Australia to have one of their lifts.
"It's been lovely for Dad. To have his lift in the Sydney Opera House is a great legacy"
Lyons’ brother Steven, who is the managing director, flew to Australia to draw the initial designs and with Sesame’s in-house designer back in Europe, who worked through the night night, was able to show the customer draught plans the next day.
"It's been lovely for dad," Lyons says of their father, Charlie, a hydraulics engineer who founded the business in 1996. “To have his lift in the Sydney Opera House is a great legacy."
Other foreign projects have included a library in Qatar, a police station in Copenhagen and a church in Ireland where Sesame fitted retracting steps at the altar. Lifts in other countries are maintained and serviced under contracts with locally based companies, having been installed by UK-based engineers.
Lyons believes the company is flying the flag for British engineering. “International customers love the ‘British’ brand," she says. About 5% to 10% of production is exported.
A challenge related to overseas work is currency fluctuations and Sesame avoids this by taking payment only in sterling. “We often get asked by clients if they can pay in euros or dollars but we once took a big hit on a currency exchange and we don't want to risk it again,” says Lyons. “We're in a position where we can sort of dictate that particular term."
Although there are other companies supplying wheelchair lifts, what makes Sesame’s products unusual is there longevity, says Lyons. The oldest, at Merchant Taylors’ Hall in the City, has been in place since 1996 and still works perfectly.
Such lifts don't come cheap, of course, with a price tag of £50,000 upwards, plus architects' fees and building work. This means only a few clients are domestic users. "We had one famous artist who had a very active social life; having one of our lifts meant he could come home at four in the morning from a night out and just let himself in, instead of needing to wake helpers to get his chair into the house,” says Lyons.
But she doesn’t foresee any strategic diversification into the domestic market; the price puts the products out of the reach of most householders and trying to market them would distract Sesame from the core business.
"Innovation in a business like this is the result of collaboration between the architects who commission the lifts and tour engineers. Architechts will tell us what they want; for example they might suggest having LED lights, and our clever engineers will work out how to do it."
Each lift is bespoke, which means they only produce about twenty-four per year. "Business is booming," Lyons says. "We're already talking to customers about projects planned for 2018."
Charlie Lyons originally developed the prototype after a conversation in a pub with a friend whose wife used a wheelchair and found it difficult to get into art galleries. He was joined later by son Steve. It was a great mix, Alison Lyons says. "Dad had the ideas and the business know-how and Steve had the energy."
Lyons herself, a former NHS accountant, joined in 2012 to help grow the business more professionally and internationally. "I think I brought governance into the business,” she muses. “Steve is quite gung-ho; he has ideas at 100 miles an hour and I rein him in, without stopping the work from being fun. That mixture works quite well.
“Innovation in a business like this is the result of collaboration between the architects who commission the lifts and tour engineers. Architects will tell us what they want; for example they might suggest having LED lights, and our clever engineers will work out how to do it,” she says.
In fact Sesame have put together an innovation team, comprising Charlie, Steve, plus the head designer and the head engineer. "When they get together it's so interesting," says Alison Lyons. “The interaction between them can be really exciting to see; the head designer might come up with a wacky idea and get excited about it but the head engineer will say, "That will never work." My dad will stay quiet and then come up with a bombshell and say, "Actually we can do it, but we’ll need to do it like this."
In 2016 Lyons applied, for the third time, for a Queen’s Award for Innovation. She had been told she had not provided enough technical detail with earlier applications. "I thought if you want technical detail I will give you technical detail,” she smiles. It did the trick as Sesame finally won their award.
The innovation in the lift industry is not so much in the assembly, which Lyons says modestly is rather like fitting together Lego bricks, as in the detailed, bespoke design. "We deploy some innovative items, such as a clever bit of kit which made lifts touch sensitive.”
The business model is also unusual, she says. Clients pay the design fee upfront, as well as 40% of the building fee. "Even before the lift has gone to the site we have 80% of the money," she says. Then there is another revenue stream in the form of maintenance contracts.
Lyons would like a cash injection – of about £100,000 – to enable them to seek out and hire more people, particularly in sales and operations, to facilitate more growth. She’d also like to to have a mezzanine floor built to create more office space – at the moment she has to hold meetings in a Portakabin, which she says apologetically is “not very glamorous.”
They are unlikely to look for an external investor, because Charlie Lyons wants all the shares to eventually go to his grandchildren. The business (its name comes from the idea of doors opening) is owned by Alison, Steve, and their two sisters, who have smaller shareholdings. Their father is no longer a shareholder although he remains involved.
"His approach was to hand over the business to his children, saying ‘here you are, see where you go with this invention’, so what drives me is where we can take it,” says Lyons. “Dad comes in a couple of days a week and if we have any tricky problems he’ll work on them. It's his story and he is still the face of the company."
"The head designer might come up with a wacky idea and get excited about it, but the head engineer will say, 'That will never work.' My dad will stay quiet and then come up with a bombshell and say, 'Actually we can do it, but we'll need to do it like this.'"
Lyons adds that the aim is more about steady progress than growth for the sake of it, and anyway, getting good engineers continues to be a challenge. “Very few engineers know about electric hydraulics,” she point out. It's for that reason that many of the thirty staff are either not British or aren’t based at the head office: the head designer is based in Poland while the operations manager lives in Glasgow; both keep in daily touch with the office via Skype.
One of Lyons’ worries is the effect leaving the EU might have on free movement of labour. Two of the best engineers are Pakistanis who have Italian passports, for example. "Both of them asked us the day after the referendum if they would lose their jobs. We need free movement of people and to be able to recruit the best engineers without barriers, wherever they are from."
As far as sales goes, Lyons sees architects as “our unpaid agents”, with the business having built a relationship with at least fifty practices in London alone. With this in mind, Sesame help to train architects about the requirements of the equality act and disability access legislation, as part of their continuing professional development.
That is a hugely beneficial “way in” to meet architects, she says, adding that increasing awareness of disability issues and the increasing importance of the so-called purple pound is a positive thing for the company. There are now apps which help locate hotels ands restaurants which make wheelchair access easier, which can only encourage other venues to see what Sesame can offer.
And Lyons can encapsulate the company’s ambition as being “to change the world to make buildings more accessible, in a unique and beautiful way.”