03 July 2017

Bright sparks

Turning a £2 million loss into a profit may have been a step too far for many, but John Coughlan and the rest of the team at TSP Engineering saw the challenge as an opportunity for change. Chris Beck visited the site to find out more.

There must be something in the water up in Cumbria.

When Workington-based TSP Engineering walked away with two prizes at Works Management’s (WM’s) Manufacturing Champions Awards last December, it marked the culmination of a two-year rebuilding project, from financial gloom to well-run nirvana.

Leading the charge was John Coughlan, operations director of the site, and winner of last year’s Manufacturing Leader award. When he took over the company in 2014, Coughlan inherited a company that was struggling to make ends meet, with losses around £2 million per year. “We were on for a cricket score when it came to losses,” he says. “Quite rightly, the bosses wanted that brought into line.”

The company presses steel, and works predominantly within the nuclear supply chain, supporting governmental and defence clients that demand exact and precise manufacturing. Coughlan knew that the plant could be successful again, but would require a lot of hard work, starting with transforming its workforce.

“Business and industry is all about the people,” explains Coughlan. “We used to be owned by British Steel [before becoming part of Tata Steel], in a nationalised industry, and a lot of people thought they were entitled to a job. A lot of the change needed involved getting people to understand that they have to contribute in the long-haul.”

“Engineering had never really crossed my mind”
One of those who has stepped up and got involved is project engineer Hannah Ridley, who scooped the Rising Star (Manager/Technician) gong at WM’s awards ceremony. At just 22 years of age, Ridley has come through the ranks at TSP Engineering despite, by her own admission, not expecting to find herself in an engineering role at all.

“When I was younger I wanted to be in the police,” she says. “I did psychology at A-Level with a view to doing criminology and law at university, but it wasn’t quite what I expected it to be. I applied for the role here on a bit of a whim. I didn’t think I had the right A-Levels. Engineering had never really crossed my mind, but now I’m doing it, I love it.”

Now balancing her day job with an engineering degree, Ridley has been with the company for four years. Her first project, when she first joined TSP Engineering (then Tata Steel) as a trainee, was in assisting on a £1.3 million project to refurbish a complex piece of equipment for the nuclear industry. She set about finding quotes for 1,500 parts and brought the whole project in under budget.

Asked if she feels a loyalty to the company because of the commitment they have shown to her, Ridley is glowing in her praise. “For the company to have me on board was a big risk for them: they have paid for my course and all my training,” she says. “That makes me feel very loyal to the company. To a large extent, I’d say that having that support has driven me to work harder and perform beyond my capabilities – I feel like I owe them something for all the money they’ve put into me. I’m currently doing a top-up for my degree, which I’ll have finished by the end of the year. after that, I’d quite like to do a master’s degree, but as far as my career is concerned, I can’t see myself moving from here for a long time.”

Ridley is a shining star within the factory, but the people focus doesn’t end with her. “We have spent about £4 million in the past three years on training and development across the plant on people like Hannah,” says Coughlan. “That money goes all throughout the plant, giving operators the skills they need to progress, knowledge of the nuclear industry we work in and the impact they have on the whole supply chain.”

Inspiration from an industry icon
The company has taken its inspiration from the legendary businessman Lee Iacocca, who was president of Ford in the 1970s and brought record profits to the company. “In fact, he was so successful that Henry Ford Jr fired him,” laughs Coughlan. “Mr Ford couldn’t take someone being more successful than him.”

As Iacocca left, he told Ford that the company would never see profits like it again, because ‘you just don’t know how to do it’. He promptly joined Chrysler and brought the company back from the brink of bankruptcy. The secret? “He brought in a load of retired guys from Ford, who had helped transform that company, as they had all the skills and knowledge needed,” explains Coughlan.

TSP Engineering subscribe to the same philosophy. “As long as they have the skills and the attitude, then we’ll happily have them on board,” says Coughlan. In fact, the company have recently hired a man they call ‘Young Bob’, who is still going strong at 72 years of age.

Of course, turning the company around had some stumbling blocks. “Wherever I’ve worked, I’ve always found people who are reticent to change,” says Coughlan, whose career has taken him as far afield as Mexico, the USA and the Philippines. “If you harness the majority, though, even the most difficult will begin to change, because they don’t want to be left behind by the rest.”

That perseverance paid off, and today, under Coughlan’s stewardship, TSP Engineering is thriving. In two years, the company has gone from a £1.5m loss to a £2m profit. The mood around the factory has changed, as Ridley can attest to. “Under John, it feels like an entirely different company,” she says. “There’s a whole new leadership culture that he’s instilled; there’s a lot more structure and we all work towards the same final goal. It all feels like one big family.”

Coughlan won’t take all the credit for himself, though. “Without the right people, you won’t get the results,” he says. “You can have all the best equipment, but without the best people you’ll be going nowhere. We encourage people to use their own mind to develop and push themselves forwards. We don’t sit over people with a stick or jump all over them if they make the wrong decision – we work on a solution together.”

This indiscriminate push for quality staff meant TSP Engineering stood out to our Champions Awards judges. The company hadn’t expected to win, admits Coughlan. “We saw them as something we wanted to participate in, to learn from and grow with a view to winning one in a couple of years.”

“The buzz around the plant was amazing”
The surprise, then, of winning not one, but two awards on the day was immense. “Neither of us thought we’d win,” says Ridley. “I was just enjoying the day, meeting people and having a nice meal. My parents had come to the event, so for them to see me win was really great.”

And the celebrations didn’t stop there. The day after the event, neither Ridley nor Coughlan were on site – the former had taken a day off; the latter had gone straight from the awards ceremony in Manchester to Australia for a holiday. “Despite that, the buzz around the plant was amazing,” says Coughlan. “Everyone was skipping around. We don’t see it as being an award for Hannah and me alone. It reflects on the whole plant. We wouldn’t have got our awards without everyone else behind us.”

Coughlan and the team at TSP Engineering are advocates of hidden talent. As with Ridley’s rise through the ranks from wannabe-PC to award-winning engineering manager, the company has an ethos of maximising what people may not know they have. “It’s not about finding talented people,” says Coughlan. “It’s about giving them the opportunity to find the talent they are capable of. Talent is hidden in everyone, and it’s down to letting the individual find that and make the most of it. What happens in a lot of companies is that instead of encouraging people and bringing them up, they make them stay at a particular level, which stifles their talent and you eventually lose them to someone else.”

Beyond the four walls of the factory, the award wins have had a sizeable impact on TSP Engineering’s wider reputation. “We’re committed to building on the success of winning the awards. We’re using them to help us achieve new, bigger, orders,” says Coughlan. “It’s putting us into a whole new area for business. When our customers [which include industry giants such as Rolls-Royce and Sellafield nuclear power plant] come in, they all like to talk about the win.

“We have been pleasantly surprised by how it’s actively brought business to us – customers now look at us in a different way, and can see the direct benefits of working with TSP.”

The production line of talent at TSP doesn’t look like stopping with Hannah and John. The company have had gold medal winners at the National Skills Competition, and are turning their eyes to future Manufacturing Champions. “We actively encourage people to enter awards, because everyone benefits from it – the company, the industry, and most importantly, them.”

SIGNPOST: Do you have a team or individual like Hannah or John in your factory? Entries for the 2017 Manufacturing Champions Awards are open now – find out more at www.manufacturing-champions.co.uk

Chris Beck

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