For all his working life the world has been David Coppock's oyster and now he's working to broaden the horizon for the North East, as he told John Hill.
CONFIRMATION this summer that Hitachi is to build a £70m factory in County Durham creating 900 jobs was a particularly affecting moment for David Coppock.
Seven years earlier, as plant director, he had been unable to prevent the closure of the LG Philips TV factory in Durham with the loss of 761 jobs.
He recalls: “Closing the plant was emotionally very draining, I found it really tough. Those were colleagues.
“These were colleagues and friends, people I had known for five or six years, they were fellow North Easterners. I found it very stressful, very difficult.”
So in his current role as UK Trade and Investment’s international trade director for the North East, to have played a major role in attracting Hitachi was particularly sweet.
Coppock is a big friendly 51-year-old and, reminiscing about slimmer younger days, he tells me that at Loughborough University he was a keen middle distance runner and ran against a certain Seb Coe – “he always beat me”.
He went to Loughborough University in 1978 after attending South Shields Grammar School and read engineering. After university he joined Xerox and later, sponsored by the company, did an MBA at Warwick. He worked for Xerox in Belgium and then joined a management consultancy in Manchester specialising in operations management. Coppock did work in the oil and gas industry, which took him to Norway, and he worked with Laura Ashley on their US market entry and with Royal Doulton on a restructuring.
In the early 1990s he joined Philips Electronics as general manager of the small component division.
He says: “It was based out of Manchester and was selling internationally and had activities in Asia, the USA and Mexico and that got me involved very heavily in international travel and long-term international assignments overseas.”
He was then promoted to plant director of Philips Glass division, an operation with about 400 employees and an annual turnover of £20m producing a return of about 10%. Again he was travelling extensively, particularly to the Far East.
Then, in 2000, he had the chance to return to the North East after an absence of more than 20 years to head up the Philips TV factory in Durham. By this time he was married and had two young children.
“I had not been back to the region a lot and I was really impressed with what people had done with the North East and how it had progressed. It felt good and, it sounds corny, but it felt like coming home.”
He ran the TV factory, which had an annual turnover of around £80m, for five years and then Philips sold it to Korean LG Electronics.
“I went overnight from having a Dutch boss in the Netherlands to having a Korean boss in Seoul in South Korea and that was an amazing culture change,” he says. “I can remember going to some board meetings in Seoul and it was a hard ride, a really tough ride.”
And things were rapidly to get even tougher. In 2005 flat-screen technology for TVs meant the end of the cathode ray tube and Durham’s cathode ray tube operation was moved to China with the loss of 761 jobs.
“I was fighting very hard for investment in that plant and I was fighting to keep LG activity in Europe but the tidal wave of flat panel technology and of liquid crystal displays was coming.
“No matter how LG or Philips dressed it up, the issue was that Durham did not have the right technology and therefore we delayed the inevitable with short-term investment but by 2005 the business had run its course. I had an opportunity to go out to Asia at that point but the family didn’t want to go so I declared myself redundant.”
So he was jobless, in his mid-40s and with a wife and two teenage children.
“It was difficult. I’d had a career by that point of 30 years, of working non-stop from 1978 through to 2006 and never been out of work and suddenly was sat thinking what the hell do I do now.
“For me it felt like I’d gone from being quite successful in my career in a multinational environment and always on an upward curve to suddenly being sat here thinking, ‘Bloody hell, there aren’t any other electronic activities in the North East I can join’.”
But the UKTI post was advertised, Coppock applied and got the job.
This move to the public sector meant adapting to a different culture and different ways of doing things.
“There are frustrations, ranging from things like some of the IT could be better, the decision-making processes and some of the consultation processes and all the rest of it are not as fast as I would like them to be.
“It’s very different to life in the private sector where you get to know lots of stuff in enormous detail such as the nuts and bolts of how a TV works, whereas this job is very broad but covers a lot of ground.
“You don’t go into much stuff in great depth, you can’t. You’ve got to know a little bit about everything and that’s interesting for me.”
He has enjoyed his six years with UKTI and now, given the country’s economic state, he and his team are at the very cutting edge of the Government’s drive to boost exports. No other region can equal the North East’s track record in achieving overseas sales.
When Coppock took the job our exports were valued at just over £6bn and that has more than doubled to £13.75bn. The region is also winning in new markets.
“One of the really interesting things that has happened in the last 12 months is that for the very first time in the North East we now export more outside of Europe than we do inside.
“Back in 2010 nearly 60% of the region’s exports were to US and Western Europe. Western Europe now accounts for about 40% and the US is between 12% and 15%.
Among the successes he cites Seaham-based Prima Cheese which started exporting its grated cheese for pizzas last year and now sells mozzarella and processed cheese to the Middle East and even Peru.
Much, however, remains to be done. The Government has set a target of getting 25% of SMEs to be exporters, up from the current level of 20%.
“What that means for the North East is that we have to find about 500 new exporters and continue to grow trade figures further,” says Coppock.
It is estimated there are about 15,000 businesses in the region which could be considered as potential exporters and of these there are probably only about 3,000 which are active and regular exporters, so there is ample potential to achieve the Government’s target.
So what stops businesses from exporting?
“That’s a big question. There are a lot of things behind it. There are a lot of companies which do very well within the UK economy, there are a lot of companies that do very well within the regional economy.
“There are companies which are perhaps a little bit nervous of trading internationally or of dealing in foreign currency, having to take foreign exchange contracts, perhaps having to carry stock, increase their stock levels, increase their stock pipeline, perhaps taking risk about whether they will even be paid. There are a whole raft of reasons why companies tread carefully.
“Really what we are trying to do is break that down, to say to companies, if you work with us, work with our advisers, we can hold your hand through a lot of those processes and sort some of that stuff out for you.” UKTI offers services from helping to internationalise websites to offering grants to help support attendance at trade shows and trade fairs. It has a new initiative called the medium-sized business programme and has recruited two new advisers to offer specific medium-sized business advice. He is also keen to encourage service sector businesses in the region to sell overseas and has had some success with architecture firms.
Coppock is hoping the export drive will benefit from the efforts of his old running mate Seb Coe and all who made a success of the Olympics.
“Brand Britain has been enormously boosted by the Olympics and there has been phenomenal positive feedback we are getting internationally through our embassies and consular offices.
“The Olympics in the US has become the most watched event in US history. That’s all fantastic for Britain.”
But Coppock’s own gold medal moment came with the announcement of the Hitachi factory.
“Hitachi brings 900 jobs back into County Durham which is great,” he says. “That gives me a real buzz. I kind of feel back on level terms again, kind of vindicated.”