Geoff Ford, Regional Councillor, EEF North East
Manufacturing group Ford is celebrating its centenary year, having survived two world wars and two fires. Christopher Knox meets Geoff Ford, third-generation chairman and the man known as Mr South Tyneside.
IT'S hard not to admire Geoff Ford, not just for the support he has given to the South Tyneside business community, but for the way he has endeavoured to maintain Ford’s position as one of the area’s biggest employers, despite the kind of challenges that would have put lesser operations out of business.
Such dedication to the cause has seen him appointed to a number of high-profile positions, including chairman of the South Tyneside Committee of the North East Chamber of Commerce and head of the South Tyneside Manufacturing Forum, which he set up.
His efforts have also received the royal seal of approval, with the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion in 2007 and an MBE in 2008.
Despite this lofty position, and the fact that he has grown Ford’s turnover from £330,000 to £10m since taking over the reins in 1974, he insists there remains a lot of unfinished business.
He said: “I may be 66 but I have no desire to be put out to grass just yet. Although the company is 100 years old, there are a lot of challenges which I feel I can help the company to overcome, particularly as it rebuilds itself following the recession.
“Anyway, Mrs Ford wouldn’t have me sitting around the house all day, so I have to do something.”
The Ford group, which manufactures small components for the aerospace industry at Tyne Dock, South Shields, and for other sectors at its site in Hebburn, was founded by Mr Ford’s grandfather Robert Ford, who started up with two staff after receiving £25 worth of investment from each of his Freemason colleagues.
Although the business proved successful early on, and Robert Ford was able to pay back his investors, it may never have been founded if it wasn’t for an accident that he sustained in 1909 at his former employers Newton and Nicholson.
Robert Ford had worked at the manufacturer as a maker of corrugated steel joints but was forced to take a break from the company after cutting off the ends of two fingers while working on one of its presses.
It was during this time that he was made redundant, forcing him to start up his own business in order to make ends meet.
Ford said: “I guess the business was founded out of pure necessity. In fact, I’m constantly reminded of this fact as we have a picture of my grandfather in our reception, which has him clutching a thick cigar between his two severed fingers.
“The joints were the only products he knew how to make, but he still managed to grow the business and attracted people that could help it grow and expand, and by 1914 Ford’s output supported the steam industry as a major source of power in pursuit of the war effort.”
The founder’s son, Robert Ford Jnr, took over the running of the company with his brother Joycey in 1942, with the pair helping the company to survive the Second World War, and the bombing of the docks by the Nazis.
Although his father had been quick to take up the reins, Geoff Ford decided to break away from tradition by working towards a chartered accountancy qualification throughout the 60s, which included a spell as a management accountant at the Newcastle steel foundry of George Blair & Co.
He would spread his wings further afield after accepting an accountancy position at Transitron UK Ltd, Maidenhead, Berkshire, before working in France for one year as an internal auditor for US company Burroughs Machines.
He said: “I absolutely loved my time working in France, although at the time I was greeted with as much suspicion as the Gestapo by many people.
“The language barrier was also an issue as most of the people I came into contact with at Burroughs would outright refuse to talk to me in English, despite the fact that they were working for an American company.
“It was a steep learning curve, and I have 1972 to thank for the above-par schoolboy French that I can speak today.”
Although Mr Ford insists that he did not bow to pressure, he took up the position of managing director at the family business then known as Ford & Co, in 1974 following a conversation he had with his father during a trip back home.
He said: “My father said to me, ‘I just want to know if you’ve decided not to join the family business as I will need to find somebody else’.
“He always said that he never outright asked me to join but it was a decision that I knew I had to make, pressure or no pressure.
“Having worked since the age of 16, as well as training as an accountant, I think he thought that I deserved a chance and that the time was right for me.
“Also, Newton and Nicholson went out of business in the 70s, so I took that as a good sign.”