ON A busy street in Tokyo, Chris Hanson-Abbott heard a noise that was to change his life — and save countless others. It came from the rear of a small truck that was reversing.
“I saw this thing backing towards me emitting a horrible beeping sound,” said Hanson-Abbott, 80, who was a City shipbroker at the time. “I thought, this is a fantastic idea.”
He promptly quit his job and tracked down the inventor of the reversing alarm, Matsusaburo Yamaguchi, head of Yamaguchi Electric Industry, and asked if he could sell the product. “It was Yamaguchi’s first export inquiry so he was delighted,” said Hanson-Abbott. “He sent me £10,000 to develop and promote the device in Europe.”
The result was Brigade Electronics, established in 1976 to specialise in the development of reversing safety equipment for commercial vehicles. The company, based in South Darenth, near Sevenoaks, Kent, has 120 staff in Europe, America and Australia. Exports make up almost three-quarters of Brigade’s sales, which reached £18.9m for the year ending in January. It expects to top £20m this year.
Its products, costing from £200 to £2,000, range from a standard beeping alarm to the new Backeye 360 camera system, which eliminates blind spots by using four wide-angle cameras.
In Britain, about 70 people die annually in accidents involving vehicles in and around the workplace, and 2,000 are seriously injured. “The advances we’re making can save lives,” said Hanson-Abbott, who is chairman and chief executive of Brigade.
He was born in Egypt, where his father was serving with the RAF. The family moved to Jerusalem, and did not return to live in Britain until the outbreak of the Second World War.
Hanson-Abbott spent the rest of his childhood living on the Essex coast, at Walton-on-the-Naze and Frinton-on-Sea. He boarded at Haileybury in Hertfordshire before beginning his national service in 1952. After the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, he joined the Royal Artillery parachute regiment.
He left the army in 1956 and headed to London to find work. “I thought the City streets were paved with gold.” Wandering along St Mary Axe he bumped into a school friend who had become a shipbroker at the Baltic Exchange.
“He made some inquiries and found me a job,” said Hanson-Abbott. “I was paid £450 a year and commuted from a houseboat on the Thames in Surrey, so there wasn’t much money left over.”
For 20 years he worked at the maritime market, becoming a Japan expert during two spells in Tokyo in the 1960s. “By then I had a well-honed competitive spirit and a terrier-like instinct never to let an inquiry go,” he said. “It was the best training I could have had to start a business.”
When he met the inventor of the reversing alarm, he left shipping immediately. On a flight back to Britain he met a member of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. She introduced him to the president of the trade group, who offered a pitch at the Commercial Motor Show a few weeks later. “I knocked up a demonstration in my garage,” said Hanson-Abbott.
The Department of Transport initially resisted the alarm, and ruled it illegal because of the noise. “They didn’t want trucks beeping all over the place, disturbing the environment. They were being very pompous.”
He argued that the ruling was in conflict with the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act. Two years passed before Brigade secured its first order, from Grey-Green Coaches in north London, though the law was not altered until 1985. The new rules stated that only vehicles of two tons or more could have the alarm. “I lost so much business at the start,” said Hanson-Abbott. “The hostile resistance I met could have sunk me.”
Brigade Electronics has created a multi-frequency alarm, which emits white noise that can be located instantly by pedestrians but does not disturb wildlife. “With this the two-ton limit is completely arbitrary,” said Hanson- Abbott, who has no plans to retire. “Smaller vans reverse unsighted as well and need to give warning.”
The veteran boss has five children, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild. He lives in Greenwich, southeast London, with his partner Agnieszka Busza, finance director for the British Hospitality Association.
His advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is: “Have conviction that what you’re doing is a winner, and persist. Make sure you have some funds but don’t expect fireworks — a slow build-up can be sustained by your own cashflow.”