MIKE HUGHES looks back at a remarkable few months for the steel industry – and meets the man leading its renaissance on Teesside
FOR many people across the North East it was the day when the letters SSI were well and truly welded into place. After months of bad news, protests and fears for a whole generation of workers, steel is once again a going concern.
The symbolism of a silent steelworks was almost too much to bear, but now each new potential worker is a rivet pulling together the past and the future.
SSI’s HR director Jo Davies is a local woman with one of the biggest jobs of all.
She said: “I live in Marton and I know what a historic day this is. I’ve been with Tata for more than 18 years and I jumped at the chance of this role. Everyone’s spirits are up and with billboards going up around the area the message that we are taking on staff is loud and clear.
“There will be more and more jobs being specified as we continue to staff the plant and online applications are a very simple way of keeping track of who is applying and keeping in touch with them.
“It would be foolish not to look closely at former employees, but it is not necessary to have steel experience to get one of the SSI jobs.
“Applicants will obviously have to have work visas and I strongly suggest they read the clear set of values our UK president Phil Dryden has written on the website.”
And it is those Dryden values that have been driving this whole project. He lives by them and expects others to do the same. He has been compared to Kevin Keegan – even Take That – but he is regarded as the comeback king to beat them all.
As director of Corus’s long products division he was heavily involved in talks to find a buyer for Teesside Cast Products.
But in March last year he suddenly left the company, to the dismay of unions and MPs campaigning to save the plant.
Now, however, he is back in control and loving it, as UK president for the plant’s new owners SSI.
Phil was brought up in South Shields, South Tyneside, went to Beverly Grammar School and studied chemical engineering at Leeds. After years cementing his reputation and turning down the headhunters, someone asked him: “Would you like to be MD of Corus in the UK?”
His name was soon indelibly written on the steel industry and he (and one of his best mates, over a long weekend) came up with the principle of The Journey – a programme of change to be agreed with the workers setting out what each could expect from the other.
The handbook that came out of that is as clear, concise, honest and open as the man who wrote it. Safety and a duty of care to the workforce were paramount.
“The emotional attachment the workers had for the idea was a huge tailwind for the work we were doing together,” he says.
“I needed to get into their heads to find out their values – and they all appreciated the openness.
“They understood the wake-up call. The as-is state of the company was not enough. It wouldn’t survive if they didn’t want to establish commitments and behaviour.
“The whole thing grew legs and it ran – and I became the evangelical leader of the church. This is a great opportunity – a blank piece of paper for us all. I have to renew more than 1,000 people with this culture of change for existing and new workers.
“It is the people who make the difference – the power of people to get on board with our set of values and respect each other.
“It really is the difference between winning and losing. If it starts up as it closed, the whole thing will fail.
“So we need not only the right skill sets – we have to be happy with those – but we are also looking for the softer side of those skills. Me, my team and everybody here have to be the mainstay.
“I hope the 7,000 who have registered an interest aren’t just after ‘a job’. We are trying to portray an image from the moment a 55-year-old worker or a 25-year-old worker starts an induction. We’re not just after the fastest lap ... it’s an endurance race.”
The whole of the North East now knows that December 8 is the restart date for the plant – and believe him. That’s a measure not only of the power he has, but also of the pressure he bears.
But he is up for the fight.
“There is an internal focus here. We know the direct and indirect challenges that we face and putting a date out there reminds teams that that is the day by which we need to have faced and overcome those challenges,” he says.
“The long-term goal – as it has always been – is to make sure we are around for decades to come. We want a banner behind us that says ‘this place will never close’.”
“I’m really enjoying it and am completely committed. I’m 55 now and people at my stage of life ask if they have left their mark. I hadn’t done that before, but I think I did at Wales.
“I enjoy difficult things and making difficult decisions. When this job came along ... sometimes all the suns and the moons align and you can leverage it all in one place and make your mark.”
So his own skill sets are in place and he is obviously paying close attention to the company message.
Now all he needs is a strong market and an immovable belief in the task. I’d put my money on him succeeding.