Our Story - Previously Untold
Posted on 1st June 2023 at 10:13
Today is our 36th Birthday (1st June 1987), so this is our story – previously untold. We recently sat down with Cova Security Gates’ founders; Gerry Cowan and Mike Volpin to find out and document the history and birth of Cova Security Gates Ltd.
In the Winter of 1982, Gerry and Mike started working for Pitts Security Gates Ltd within a few weeks of each other. Gerry was employed as contracts manager with a wealth of experience in construction and project management. Mike was employed as a systems engineer, responsible for designing and building automated gate electrical control systems.
Shortly after joining Pitts, Gerry and Mike became friends during an installation trip across Europe with Brian Pitts, the company's founder, and previous owner. Their managing director at that time, didn't trust Brian and Mike, so Gerry was approached to be the treasurer, the holder of funds and to keep the team on their toes.
Gerry: “The whole thing was a put-up job; I said to Brian, ‘I'd like to go’, so Brian managed to sow a few seeds of doubt and then our MD approached me and said, Would you be prepared to go"?
The trio left for Lyon the following Saturday evening in Brian’s Range Rover. Over the coming weeks, they embarked on an exciting adventure, as they worked together to install a number of large cantilever sliding gates on multiple sites for an industrial gas producer in France and Germany. While they worked hard during the day, they played even harder at night - hitting up nightclubs and even a funfair in Hamburg.
Mike: “The French loved that car but in reality it was a dirty, manky, clapped out thing. It had 2 engine replacements and 250,000 miles on the clock. To drive it was interesting when going around the corner… It would just rock as you went round a bend, so the only way to steady it was to take your hand off the steering wheel, and let it correct itself”.
Mike (left) and Gerry (right) in Germany on their first trip together.
This photograph was taken by Brian Pitts.
Brian Pitts' Range Rover - adored by the French. Brian can be seen working on the left.
This was the start of a long friendship. Not long after, Gerry approached Mike and said, "If I leave, will you join me?"
Why the security gate business?
Gerry: “The very first day I joined Pitts, I felt bold enough to go into the factory and see what the guys were doing and understand the processes. At that time, I had no experience of engineering at a production/manufacturing level. I thought this is the type of business that I want to have and do for the rest of my life. I was quite clear in my mind that I wanted to go into an engineering environment”.
“Companies I'd previously worked for all had their own manufacturing facilities but they were huge whereas Pitt Security Gates was born from an agricultural engineering background and the premises were really a farmyard. What you have to bear in mind is that Brian started out in the world of making automated motorised gates through his interest in steam traction engines, he used to put them together and go on rallies across the UK and Ireland”.
During a particular steam traction rally at what was to later became Woburn Wild Animal Safari Park. Brian got talking to Ian Russell, the 13th Duke of Bedford who asked him. “You don’t know anyone who makes motorised gates do you”? Brian scratched his head and said. “Well I could probably knock you up something”. And that’s how it all began.
“I liked the precision of engineering but I subsequently realised that Pitts quality of work was far from brilliant and their precision was far from precise but compared to the construction industry at that time, it was just a whole new world. I made my mind up there and then that this will be the nature of my next employment and I'd try and learn as much as I could, and work as hard as I needed to work to understand the business but it was a fledgling business - it was a niche business”.
Various installation projects that Gerry and Mike worked on together during their time at Pitts Security Gates Ltd.
Why did it take 5 years to start Cova?
Gerry: “To some extent, our social and private life got in the way. We were both in fairly turbulent relationships with our respective wives. I think we worked for Pitts for much longer than we probably needed to have done but we were pretty unsettled individuals. We lived life in the fast lane, doing lots of crazy things. Both of us travelled a lot because nobody else wanted to work abroad but it gave me a chance to see a bit of the world, as I couldn't afford to any other way”.
Did travelling and working together bring you closer?
Mike: “Quite often we were on completely separate jobs. There was one occasion when Gerry was in Saudi and I was in Brazil. I was having a whale of a time while Gerry was stuck in a sand pit. Our time at Pitts gave us a sense of pride and a sense of ourselves. It gave us an opportunity to grow up but also to gain experience - confidence was everything”.
Gerry: “I don't think one can ever underestimate the experience we gained in those days, although it was often hard work, we did have a lot of fun everywhere that we went. Nightclubbing on a Monday night in Middlesbrough is something else”.
Gerry: “We spent a whole summer working in Paris. How many people get that sort of opportunity? The previous installation team for the first phase of the project stayed at the Hilton Hotel. We stayed at various accommodations, sometimes a hotel, but more often in someone's flat. We spent our budget socially. Often, we never went to bed before half past two-to-three in the morning but we were always at work at half past seven. We worked hard, we played hard and we had fun”.
Mike: “We were good value for Pitts, they charged a fortune to send us abroad and we were never paid extra. We used to be creative in the way that we spent the budget. Plane ticketing was different back then to how it is now. We used to purchase open tickets and if our plans changed, we would just hand them in on our return and get the money back so we often purchased multiple tickets via different and more interesting routes”.
Gerry: “We were in Saudi Arabia together, working sixteen-to-seventeen hour days to complete the job. Nobody wanted to work there – it’s was a difficult place. We had tickets routed via Egypt, so we decided that as we got the job finished much earlier than anticipated, we'd have a few days in Cairo and come back via Amsterdam. I remember ringing my boss on a Friday evening. I said, I'm at the airport Stuart, so I'll see you on Monday. Stuart said it’s alright, I’ll come by and pick you up. I said that you might have a problem there Stuart - I'm at Schiphol”.
Gerry (left) and Mike (right) in Cairo, Egypt, enjoying a well deserved break after a hard installation in Saudi Arabia.
Mike in Cyprus comissioning a HVM barrier under Cova Security Gates Ltd.
What finally pushed you to actually decide, "Let's go to the bank and get some money?"
Gerry: “Pitts owners at that time frequently changed their management team , direction, and kept buying companies, trying to make a security division work. I'd already made my mind up years before about what I wanted to do so everything we did was about learning and gaining experience”.
Mike: “There was a feeling that Pitts, at the time were letting down clients and that we could ultimately do better. We were not maintaining anything – no service offering whatsoever. The attitude of the company just changed quite negatively. There was a sense that the company was starting to become directionless”.
Gerry: “Once we finally fixed the date for when we wanted to leave, we did whatever was necessary. I negotiated with Brian and his business partner who was Pitts’s former production director to take out a lease on the farm (Pitts previous trading address), and to construct a building that they approved the design and cost for. It was quite a long negotiation”.
“We wrote a business plan fairly early on that was amended several times, and then we borrowed a £15,000 business development loan from my bank, and a further £10,000 from Mike’s father. On the first day, we purchased a Ford Escort car and a Transit van”.
“It wasn't difficult to set the business up but what we didn't know was how to run a business. All the things we had been doing for years, like design, installation and making gate systems work, were easy for us, but running a business was quite a different matter”.
“I remember, when the first lease was signed, there was £3,500 in lawyers’ fees. I hadn't planned for it which was a bit of a shock. For the first couple of years, I had serious anxiety about whether we could pay the rent! I look back now and it's laughable. At that time, we had to cover £16,000 a year in rent”.
Mike: “For the first couple of years, we didn’t actually pay ourselves very much. We both lived off credit cards”.
Gerry reviewing the final construction of our original factory (the farm) on Bonehurst Road, Horley.
Mike standing by a full depth road blocker on our farm yard at Bonehurst Road.
What was your first work under Cova?
Gerry: “We negotiated with Pitts a swarm of works including a full installation and civil works for a job in in Rome (British Embassy). It was a big job and I’d priced it, negotiated it, and managed the project for about a year beforehand. So when I resigned, I put it to Pitts that it would be foolish of them not to let us continue with that project”.
Mike: “Pitts basically agreed. I'm not sure they had a lot of choice in the matter. They could have been bloody minded and said no but that wouldn't have helped Pitts one bit and they realised that. They would have really struggled to get people. Again, nobody wanted to work abroad back then”.
Gerry: “Pitts had sold the project on a fixed price, so I gave them a very good deal and the rest was history, we did the job and finished it. On the back of that project we managed to negotiate a huge project in Istanbul for the FCO and the rest as they say is history”.
Some of the original works carried out in Istanbul for the FCO, by Cova Security Gates Ltd.
Why the name Cova Security Gates? – Fun Fact!
Cova is an abbreviation for Cowan-Volpin Security Gates which was originally spelt as Covoa. Unfortunately the name Covo was already registered. The spelling was changed yet again to Cova within the first year of trading as customers and suppliers kept mis spelling it. Interestingly, in those days it was important that the first letter of a name was close to beginning of the alphabet as all directories were laid out alphabetically.
Fast forward to present day
Cova Security Gates operates globally, catering to clients worldwide. Our headquarters, located in Crawley, serves as a hub for our operations, and we also foster strategic partnerships to enhance our reach and capabilities. We employ qualified professionals, sponsor training from apprenticeships to degree courses and offer a range of quality products and services. Our business adheres rigorously to our ISO 9001 quality management process. This standardised framework ensures that we maintain stringent quality control throughout our operations, promoting consistency, customer satisfaction, and continual improvement in all aspects of our business operation.
Gerry and Mike remain actively involved in our business on a full time basis, serving as guiding members of the board of directors. Additionally, they hold key positions within our organisation, leveraging their expertise and contributing to our ongoing achievements.
Our current UK factory since 2011:
Unit C1 Sussex Manor Business Park, Crawley, West Sussex, UK
Gerry (left) and Mike (right) at our UK headquarters in May 2023.
A selection of Cova Security Gates' videos...
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