A classic design and sound future

Hidden away in Huntingdonshire is a ­business that has just attracted investment from five world-famous billionaires. ­Meridian Audio, which makes high-end hi-fi and cinema systems, is the sort of firm that would have the Dragons Den investors fighting f

Hidden away in Huntingdonshire is a ­business that has just attracted investment from five world-famous billionaires. ­Meridian Audio, which makes high-end hi-fi and cinema systems, is the sort of firm that would have the Dragons' Den investors fighting for some shares. Business Editor IAN MacKELLAR discovers more about one of the world's best audio companies

THE Ferrari F80 never got off the starting grid at Monza. But it sounds sweeter than any V-12 engine, even to a motor-racing fanatic's ear, and its fuel consumption has environmentalists swooning.

Of course, it's not a racing car at all. It's a radio and CD player. But it is one of Huntingdonshire's best-kept secrets.

This is another: many of the world's richest people buy their hi-fi and cinema systems from Huntingdon - because they are among the best in the world.

They may be seriously expensive, but they still represent good value for money, if you can afford it, and the equipment lasts long after some of the peripheral technology does.

Meridian Audio has been manufacturing hand-built top-end equipment since the company was founded by two young engineers in St Ives 30 years ago.

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Yet it is only recently that they realised that they could at least quadruple turnover in five years. But, like the Ferrari deal, that opportunity came looking for them.

To some extent Meridian is a microcosm of Huntingdonshire's cutting-edge business - great product, low profile. It is one of dozens of examples.

Pursuit Dynamics, little more than a decent stone's throw away from Meridian's Latham Road headquarters, is another.

Pursuit Dynamics was last year's Hunts Post Huntingdonshire Business of the Year. It is at the cutting edge of fluid-dynamics technology for the brewing and other industries. Few people had heard of it before it won the award.

But all that is set to change for Meridian, which was in the vanguard of development of both the CD and the DVD. A chance conversation two years ago has led to a multi-national tie-up that should see the Latham Road company expand its business rapidly.

And it is good news for the local jobs market, with the firm expecting to add 100 skilled jobs to the current 125-strong workforce.

"We need a skilled, flexible and highly trained workforce and, although we have a few people who live in Cambridge, Hertfordshire, Milton Keynes and Stamford, most of our people live in the St Ives and Huntingdon area," said Meridian's infectiously enthusiastic chairman and co-founder Bob Stuart.

"Those people are available in the local economy, and one of the nice things is that we have very good retention. Some people have been here for more than 25 years, so the know-how is well established."

Meridian's existing customers for audio and home cinema equipment that can cost as much as £150,000 include not only several Ferrari directors - hence the F80, which includes a carcass made from composites used in the Italian racing giant's Formula One car cockpits - but Hollywood film and television producer Arnon Milchan (Pretty Woman, The Devil's Advocate, LA Confidential etc).

On a visit to Huntingdon to see his own system being manufactured for his London home, he put a proposal to Bob Stuart that led to the formation of the Muse Group, an investment vehicle that is enabling Meridian to take advantage of commercial and marketing expertise it largely lacked.

The Muse deal was completed late last year after 18 months of negotiations. The group now has 40 per cent of Meridian - but it is 40 per cent of a much bigger and rapidly expanding organisation.

"This year we're on target for 50 per cent growth. Last year it was more like five per cent," Bob Stuart said.

Muse, with its five billionaires, includes not just film and television production interests, but financiers, internet giant Yahoo, the Australian-based Packer media empire, and South African Johan Rupert's Swiss-based Richemont, which owns luxury brands such as Cartier, Piaget, Montblanc and Dunhill.

"Richemont understands how to turn an expensive product into a desirable item."

The Ferrari F80 may be the company's least expensive product, but even that carries a price tag of almost £1,500 - partly because it lacks nothing of Meridian's quality, but equally because it misses out of none of the company's quality control.

Every component is tested. Every installation is tested. Most of them many times. Employees pride themselves that every piece of equipment works out of the box and for decades afterwards. People who rave about Bose should listen to the F80, they insist.

"We have been a pretty well kept secret," Bob Stuart concedes. "It's now a question of becoming better known and of persuading people to aspire to own our equipment. The F80 is an ambassador for the brand.

"We are determined to be the best in class for performance, value for money and durability. In 25 years' time it will still be working. It takes time to build that sort of reputation.

"People go to huge lengths and expense to record superb quality sound. Most people have no idea how good it is until they hear it on our equipment.

"We can make recorded music so close to live quality that it's scary.