CALM UNDER PRESSURE
Tell us about your early career; how it all started.
“I never intended to go into business. I did a degree in Physics at Oxford University, but always wanted to go into the army, so that’s what I did, but I injured my back fairly early on, which curtailed that career.
So, the way I looked at that was I’d had fantastic leadership training, but I had to decide what to do. I’d never met a poor lawyer or a poor accountant, but my degree seemed to lead me more towards accountancy and went to work for Boots in Nottingham.
I started in the internal audit department, which was really good, because it gave me a great grounding in how companies fit together.”
What came next?
“I subsequently joined Courtaulds, working for a marvelous boss who made sure all his junior accountants knew how to do double entry bookkeeping. He gave you accounts that you had to reconcile and if it was a penny out, that was it!
For family reasons, I moved back up to South Yorkshire, and joined a steel company, which was my first proper line accounting role and also part of the management team. Unfortunately it hadn’t really lost its nationalised industry type identity and I found the bureaucracy stifling.
From there I went to part of the T&N Group which was high volume automotive component manufacturing. Initially in a line accounting role and then, as part of the head office group finance task force, I was involved in running a range of projects.
At that time, our divisional boss was looking to buy the forging division of British Steel (which became United Engineering Forgings). He completed that deal and invited me to take up a role at a subsidiary, Chesterfield Cylinders.
UEF got into financial difficulties and in 2002 were bought by a German company who really wanted the high volume manufacturing but not my division so with my management team I put together a plan to buy it.”
What was your motivation to purchase the division?
“Because it was a really good business that was being constrained by its parent company. It wasn’t properly capitalised but was one of a handful of companies worldwide in that sector. So, you’ve automatically got a market-leading company.
It had £4 million turnover when we bought it and in the first year we doubled it and the next year we went to £15.6 million. We owned 60% of the business at that point and decided to float it on AIM.
Timing’s everything in business and we got it away in June 2007, just before the AIM market hit a downturn in August. We called the group “Pressure Technologies”, because the aim was to build a group of businesses focused on technologies associated with the containment and control of liquids and gases under pressure.”
What was the plan following the flotation?
“We were then looking for businesses to buy, because the cylinders business would always have peaks and troughs.
We made a number of acquisitions, mainly oil and gas related but also several machining businesses and a biogas upgrading equipment manufacturer.”
What was your criteria for acquisitions?
“It had to be markets we knew and understood and it had to have technologies we understood as well. Also, it had to have management who could run it as a group company and it had to have the capability of at least doubling in size. We always tried to use those criteria and the only time we got it wrong is when we didn’t stick to them.”
It wasn’t all plain sailing though I gather?
“We were going really well in 2014. However we hit the perfect storm with the oil and gas sector hitting a massive slump shortly afterwards.
Some of the major shareholders with a large oil and gas exposure got out of that sector, so, even though we posted our best ever results, our share price went down by 25% in one day.
As a result of the slump in business we had to reduce the number of employees by 44% which is really painful for any group. I think the one thing I didn’t recognise at the time, was how much that took out of me. When you’re the guy at the top, despite having the board around you, you’re the person where the old buck stops and you carry a lot of weight on your shoulders.”
Was it around that time that you considered a complete change?
“No that, came later. Although things started to pick up in 2018, it’d be fair to say I’d lost a lot of my passion for the business. My board had recognised that and the Chair came and said, “I think it’s time for a change,” and I said, “Well actually, I agree with that.” It needed someone to move the group onto the next stage; to take it from where we were and build it to the next stage.” In Chris Walters, the new CEO, the group has the right person to do just that.”
I’m guessing that your career change raised some eyebrows?
“As a committed Christian and someone who’d been a local preacher in the Methodist Church for the last 10 years, I’d felt for probably 12 months that actually my calling lay more in the church and this all happened at the right time for me to candidate for the ministry. Two weeks later; I would have been too old to ever candidate. I felt that all these things were happening for a reason.”
To what extent will your previous career benefit you going forward?
“It’s not about leaving things behind, because you carry all that experience with you into something completely different. As a minister in the church, you’ve got to play a very clear leadership role. You’ve still got all the management issues there, but you’ve also got the spiritual dimension, which is the really exciting part of it.”
Talking about leadership, can you tell us about your own leadership style and to what extent it was influenced by your time in the Army?
“The motto of Sandhurst is “Serve to Lead”, so it plants in you this idea of service as part of leadership. You’re there to equip and enable people. There may be some barking out orders to people in the army, but these days it’s more about making sure people are equipped to make decisions at the lowest possible level.
Also, as a leader, you’ve got to stand up and be counted, so not ducking the issue or blaming other people for your own failings. I’m also a great believer in the attitude that you get out of life what you put in to it.”
You’ve mentioned several people you came across in your career – did anyone act as a mentor for you?
“Alan Tinklin when I was at Courtaulds. A really great mentor, because he wouldn’t accept second best and he made us get the basics right. The Pressure Technologies Board, particularly Richard Shacklady, Alan Wilson, Phil Cammerman and Jo Allen, I learned a tremendous amount from them.
Also I’ve learned a surprising amount off my colleagues as well. Some of the best ideas have come from the people who actually do the job on the shop floor.”
Is there any particular piece of advice that you’ve carried with you through your career?
“Just be yourself. Things go wrong if you try to be something you’re not. Also, if you’ve made a mistake, hold your hand up. It’s a lot less painful than trying to hide it.”
You’ve described quite a journey through your career with many challenges. What do you feel has been the greatest challenge?
“Holding the group together when we hit the downturn in the oil and gas industry in 2014. The challenge was to cut the group in such a way as to maintain the right skills in the business, so that when it did pick up, we could grow again. Having to shed good people is always a difficult thing because, as soon as you take someone on as an employee, you have an obligation, not just to them, but to their family as well.”
In terms of those you’ve recruited, have you looked for particular attributes that you value, or not so much?
“It depends on the role. Will they fit the role, will they fit the team and will they give the right balance to the team? Also, I learned early on not to interview people on your own, because you tend to pick people like yourself. We have tried to find people who are a bit different; people who bring something new.
I also like people who challenge me. There’s no point having a group of people who constantly agree with you. I know, in myself, I like to challenge and I like to be disruptive.”
I know we’ve touched on what’s next for you, but can you expand a bit more on what the future looks like?
“There’ll be two or three years’ training to be a minister, then two years as a probationary minister and after that, God willing, ordination.
From a business point of view, I’d still like to keep my hand in somewhere, so perhaps a non-exec role which would enable me to combine the two. Whilst you’re set apart for a special task within the church, you’re actually still a part of society as well and I think that, with my experience, it would be good to be able to pass that on to someone else in business.
But who knows? I’ve never been a great one for career planning, because things happen; directions and opportunities open up, so we’ll see.”