Michael Ball has worked his way to the top at chimney maker Schiedel through bad times as well as good, as he tells Peter Jackson.
SIX years ago Michael Ball felt like the last man standing. He was sales director of Washington chimney maker Schiedel when its Austrian parent company, dissatisfied with its performance, embarked on a wholesale clear-out of senior management.
He says: “Schiedel brought in a totally new management team, it decided it needed a total change of direction. They got rid of the chief executive, they got rid of the financial director and they got rid of the plant manager, so yes, I was like the last man standing.”
Didn’t he feel vulnerable?
“You do and you don’t. At the end of the day, if you are confident in your own ability, you don’t tend to worry about things you can’t have an influence on. If they had wanted to get rid of me, they would have got rid of me, I would have gone and found another job.”
But they didn’t get rid of him, he remained as sales director, the company began to prosper and when the previous chief executive was promoted in June 2011, Ball took over the reins.
He tells me the story while we sit in the plant manager’s office. The factory is currently undergoing a refurbishment of its office areas and space is at a premium. Ball, 41, is tall and thickset with a boyish and open manner. It is easy to imagine him enthusiastically cheering on NUFC, the team which, as a season ticket holder, he follows home and away.
The company he heads, Schiedel Chimney Systems, began life 45 years ago as Rite Vent. It was founded by John Garrod who sold it to venture capitalists in 2001 and it went through a management buyout before being bought by Schiedel, a multi-national with sales of £170m, in 2004.
In simple terms the company makes steel tubes which act as chimneys and vents for domestic heating systems. Ball proudly shows me round the factory with its rows of gleaming tubes ranging from the diameter of a cricket ball to something Santa Claus could just about squeeze through. There is, of course, more to it than just rolling out a tube and Ball explains that the laser weld is critical to quality and performance. It also has an operation in Northern Island near Dungannon which makes ceramic liners.
Schiedel supplies the residential market with chimneys and flues for central heating boilers and – increasingly – wood-burning stoves. It also supplies the non-residential sector which comprises commercial and public buildings such as schools, hospitals and swimming pools.
“We get a drawing from the architect or contractor and we design a system for that application and make it and then send our fitting team to install it,” explains Ball.
The third part of the business is OEM, original equipment manufacturer, where Schiedel makes flue kits for boiler manufacturers which they can brand as part of their own product.
It also has an export division and an intercompany operation which supplies other Schiedel plants throughout Europe.
Schiedel in Washington sells more than 500km of system chimneys, connecting flue pipes and chimney liners every year. In the UK and Ireland it employs about 100 people.
Ball was born in North Shields and brought up in Whitley Bay and attended Whitley Bay High School. He left to join the Newcastle sales and estimating office of Biddle Metair which made heating convectors, and while there he attended Newcastle College on a day-release programme for a building services qualification.
He joined the firm just to get a job and the office was closed after two years, making him redundant, but it had given him some sense of vocation.
“After I was made redundant, I did a HND in building services engineering at Northumbria University,” he says. “I was interested in the general aspects of how a building works. Apart from bricks and mortar, it’s a lot more complicated than people think.”
Shortly after completing the course he joined Rite Vent in 1994 to work in the sales office. He had not done any sales before but he was not deterred.
“No, I guess I’m a fairly confident guy in my own ability.”
His confidence seems to have been justified for after just three years in that role he was promoted to run the non-residential side of the business. At that time it was turning over about £200,000 a year and after Ball had been running it for eight years that was up to nearly £2.5m.
How did he do that?
“I’m passionate about customer service,” he says. “All successful businesses have good customer service levels. If you give a good service, price almost becomes a second issue. It was all about getting close to the customers, developing relationships and making sure communication was strong.”
He was then promoted to commercial manager which gave him responsibility for the sales office and shortly after that he took on the role of sales director.
But however well he was performing, the company was disappointing its new Austrian owners.
“It was really badly managed for the period before the management team was changed. The old management team didn’t have any real focus,” says Ball.
Nor did it help that the previous owners had sold the factory on a sale and leaseback deal to raise capital which saddled the business with crippling lease costs.
“Long term it was killing the business and there was no light at the end of the tunnel.”