22 June 2012
WM's Shop Talk gets under the skin of the men and women on the frontline of UK factories. Here, Arla's production manager Jason Cairns explains why his Christmas memories aren't entirely festive
I blame Indiana Jones. As a youngster in Dumfries, I saw myself as an archaeologist but somehow it never panned out. I left school at 16 to become an apprentice welder but I only picked up a welding rod once. I did such a good job as storeman they moved me into inspection – me, straight out of school inspecting the work of guys there for 30 years. It made me think maybe I had a bit more to offer. So I went back to school and college for an HNC in business. But there was nothing office-based here afterwards so I started as an operator in a creamery.
I've only worked for two companies since – the creamery and Arla. It's handy that I really do love milk! I worked my way up – chargehand, team leader, cheesemaker and eventually into continuous improvement. I loved the problem-solving stuff, developing better ways. But after 12 years, I was stagnating. When Arla was built alongside the creamery, I more or less beat its door down.
One of the high points of my career at Arla was getting the phone call that said I'd got the process manager's job. The other one was getting the letter from Cranfield saying we were through to the last 14 of the Best Factory Awards. I'd brought BFA from the creamery to Arla and we entered five times in a row before we finally made it. I skipped down the corridor like a big kid.
No doubt about the low points. Me, I've learnt to dread Christmas. Floods, freeze-ups – all natural disasters happen around here at our busiest time of year. In 2009 the factory was an island ringed by floodwaters. No one without a 4x4 or lorry could get through. We had convoys of Jeeps through a back road to get our people in. I thought nothing as bad could ever happen again – until 2010. After slipping and sliding over icy roads from my home in Carlisle, I found myself at 3am on Christmas Eve in minus 15 degrees with a wet hose in my hand trying to defrost solid pipes. It was dripping and freezing on me while the engineer struggled to open the main valve with a wrench. I've had better times! But it's a real testament to people in the factory. We were late a few times but we didn't miss a single delivery. We even supplied to some of our competitors' customers because they had failed.
All my qualifications were done on the job and it's been a long haul. We have a fantastic programme in Arla aimed at producing future world-class dairy technologists. Our first student on it is now doing a terrific job as our CI co-ordinator. It's taken me 15 or 16 years to get where I am now whereas he will probably get there in five or six years. Part of me recognises that I could have started from a different place and moved faster, but part of me knows that I didn't lose much by starting where I did. I've enjoyed every one of those jobs and I know exactly what the guys on the shopfloor are talking about. Some might like to try but it would be pretty hard to pull the wool over my eyes. Generations to come might not have that advantage. I have a lot of respect for the guys on the shopfloor because I've been there and done it, too.
Unwinding? My two sons, Michael (age 11) and Braidan (4 months). I'm a Scot through and through. It was bad enough that Braidan was born in England so I made sure he had a Celtic name.
Funniest moment? Spotting one of our guys on CCTV removing a sample point for cleaning from a full raw milk silo rather than an empty one. Dripping wet, he was stuck with his finger plugging the hole in a deserted area while the milk – which is stored at 2 degrees – gradually turned his whole hand blue. We left him there for a good 10 minutes.
Best advice you ever received? From my old mentor: never have too many jobs on the go at once. And never be afraid to tell people exactly what you think.
Your hero? Paolo Di Canio – a footballing legend with flair and passion in everything he did. They are qualities I value above everything and I really hope I show them, too.
Arla Foods UK plc
This material is protected by Findlay Media copyright
One-off usage is permitted but bulk copying is not.
For multiple copies contact the