SSI's chief executive Phil Dryden faces a challenge - but that's not new to him, as he explains to Peter Jackson.
YOU get a rare view from the window of Phil Dryden’s office ... the skyline is dominated by the smouldering, sprawling mass of Redcar Steel Works.
Dryden draws my attention to it with some evident pride: after all, it’s one of only three remaining steel making plants in the UK and its furnace is the second largest in Europe – and, as SSI UK chief executive, it’s his baby.
His personal history is closely bound up with that of the plant. He was the man who, as Corus’s group director in its Long Products business, announced the mothballing of Redcar in 2010, and who is now responsible for nursing it back to life.
He is a man of contradictions. When we meet he is nattily dressed in black- and-white striped shirt and even a tie, and yet has a day’s growth of beard. His manner is diffident, almost shy, but once he starts to speak he rapidly eases into a relaxed, fluent eloquence. He began his career as a determined non-risk taker but it’s a career characterised by seeking out challenges.
He himself says: “I’ve had what I consider to be an orthodox career in terms of everything I did, but I’m quite an unorthodox person to have had such an orthodox career. I conform but not quite in the way corporate organisations usually expect.”
His early upbringing and early career were conventional enough. He was born in South Shields in 1956, his mother was a nurse and his father was a joiner. When he was eight, the family moved to Beverley in East Yorkshire, which was a culture shock.
He recalls: “When I moved to Beverley nobody understood a word I said. In those days, not many people used to move around with their jobs, so when I turned up in Beverley from South Shields they thought I was actually from a different country.”
He went to Beverley Grammar School and then became the first member of his family to go to university, attending Leeds to read chemical engineering.
“You go to a grammar school at 11 and you do some stuff and you find out you are good at maths, physics and chemistry and you do them for A-Level and then you are probably going to be an engineer at that point,” says Dryden.
He went to Leeds in 1974, the age of student radicalism and protest. Did he get caught up in that? “I wasn’t a hippy student, I was probably more a drinking, sporting, womanising student. I was more a lad than a hippy.”
When he graduated, the petrochemical and oil industries were booming and it was easy for someone with a chemical engineering degree to get a job.
“Again, it’s back to defaulting into the obvious,” he says. “In my early life I wasn’t a great risk-taker, so I looked for some kind of high-profile institution and I joined BP Chemicals. It’s hard to get into big companies later in your career, so if you are going to do it and if you want the street cred which goes with having that on your CV, then that was the right starting place.”
His first job was in the new petrochemical works at Baglan Bay in South Wales, next to the Port Talbot Steel Works which was to play such an important part in his later career.
He learnt a great deal there but, after five years, a downturn in the industry led BP to close parts of the site and called for voluntary redundancies. To his employer’s surprise, Dryden took a severance package.
“It was me being a little bit more adventurous and driven by a bit of personal greed. As a 25-year-old I was trying to pay off my credit card and my car loan and other debts, and I had the opportunity to go to work abroad for two years in the US and Saudi Arabia. Living away from home as a young engineer and doing all the things that young engineers do of a night time, I hadn’t accrued much wealth.”
He went to work on a project to build a petrochemical works in Saudi Arabia. He initially spent 18 months in Houston, Texas, on design and preparatory work. Living in Texas in the early 1980s – era of Dallas – was a heady experience.
“They loved the English and they loved the English accent, that’s probably when I lost my Geordie accent. I really felt I had landed on my feet, having an experience you could never have imagined. Five years earlier I was doing exams at university and here I was in a condominium in Houston as a single man having a great time.”
He laughs. “You’re going to make me out to be some kind of philanderer.”
After 18 months in the US, he went to Saudi Arabia for six months, which wasn’t so much fun but he had saved enough money to at least return to the UK and put a deposit on a house.
He came back in 1984 and had interviews with global engineering, procurement and construction group Foster Wheeler, and Exxon. Foster Wheeler offered him a job first, which he accepted and went to work at their offices in Reading. This was not to prove a happy experience.
“They gave me a clocking-in card and set me up at a desk and gave me a piece of work to do which was filling in some design specification sheets on a project,” Dryden says. “This sheet came back with red rings all around it where, instead of putting say two comma six, I’d put two point six. They had all these protocols that you had to follow. With all these constraints I was almost breaking out into a sweat.
“It was such a controlling environment that, even after one day, it was driving me up the wall.”
When, on the second day, he broke his pencil and found he had to sign for a new one, he decided Foster Wheeler was not for him and he joined Exxon.
He went to work at the Fawley Refinery just outside Southampton. He relished a more business-oriented culture than he had been used to but found that, as an experienced recruit, he was pigeonholed as an engineer and was not on the company’s career ladder.
“I fought the system a bit to try to get on the ladder.”