I was extremely saddened to hear of the announcement this week that Tata Steel intends to sell off its UK steelmaking operation, a business which directly employs around 15,000 people in the UK, and has many more thousands employed externally throughout its supply chain.
In the interests of full disclosure, I am biased. And this ones personal. I spent almost a decade employed at the company’s Port Talbot steelworks, which employs approximately 3,500 people of the 15,000 stated above. I pass the site every day on my way to work, and many of my friends work there.
I live less than 10 miles from the site, and I can assure you, the impact of this business failing and resulting in mass job losses will decimate my local area.
Many reports will talk about the politics, whether this is an effect of the UK’s membership of the EU, the fact that cheap steel has been dumped into the UK too easily from China and the measures that the government could take, but this blog post isn’t about any of that.
When others comment on Tata Steel they are right to discuss that much of the Port Talbot plant is state of the art. One of its Blast Furnaces is less than 10 years old, the BOS gas recovery system recycles gas to be used as energy within the plant, and the site has its own harbour and road infrastructure, more in-depth and complex than most towns. Despite the reports claiming that this particular site is losing £1m per day, there is significant value in the company. However, as per the subject of this blog, the true value of Tata Steel UK is that of the assets, combined with the outstanding workforce that are employed.
Tata Steel Strip Products UK as the welsh arm of the business was called during my time with the company, has always been the subject of much speculation. The sheer economies of scale and the business’s exposure to various external issues has meant that the companies good times have been very good, but its bad times have been devastating. In the late 2000’s, when improvements had to be made, a recently appointed Managing Director realised that something needed to be done to try and secure its future. An inspirational visionary, the MD very quickly realised that it was not funding, capital expenditure or changes in the commercial environment required to make the business viable, but the maximisation of the combined ability of its greatest asset, its workforce.
The three and a half thousand workers all engaged in the MD’s plan and embarked upon a journey to challenge and change everything that needed changing. The organisations values were reinforced, the mission and vision was clearly communicated, and key goals were made known to everyone. This culture change programme started a fire that I don’t think has ever gone out.
In a recent webinar with Dave Ulrich, he stated that;
“Leadership is not about what I am and what I do. Leadership is creating value in other people”.
The value, that the employees of Port Talbot and Llanwern created under this incredible leader, included health and safety records being broken, a better rolling run-rate that had never been achieved before, steel production volumes being increased and the highest number of new jobs being created for decades.
When difficulties became apparent, the same MD led the workforce in a cost reduction exercise saving a figure I believe was 200 to 300 million pounds (my memory is fading!), without any redundancies.
Tata steel provides highly skilled jobs for the people of South Wales, including much sought after apprenticeship positions, graduate roles, skilled engineering positions as well as highly specialist team members, and career paths aplenty for professional positions such as human resources and finance.
I will never forget the day that I found out I had been successful in my application to be a HR apprentice at the Port Talbot plant. The pride in telling my family that I was joining this prestigious organisation was incredible. Throughout my career I had nothing but help and support and very significant investment was made in my development so that I could return on that investment and add greater value to the organisation that was having faith in me. But my story is a mirror image of the many other thousands employed there who enjoyed the same faith being stored upon them, not to mention those that came before and after me too.
During my time with the company, I realised that there was just something about steelworkers in Port Talbot and Llanwern that was magnetic. It was the passion. Passionate about being a Tata employee, passionate about working at the Port Talbot or Llanwern plant, and passionate about working for a company of such magnitude and importance to the local community.
This workforce has achieved the unachievable, has once before turned around a failing plant, and stayed strong through much adversity. This is why the workforce needs and deserves to be rescued.
This is the biggest challenge this group of employees may have ever faced in their working careers, but if ever I had faith in a workforce that could rise above this challenge and prove to any prospective new owner that they deserve to be saved, its this group of people.
Thats why our government needs to ensure it doesn’t give up on securing the future of these plants for these workers, because these workers have never given up.