11 February 2013

Shop talk

Cy Wilkinson, managing director of Cressall Resistors talks about the drive to self-improvement.

I get up about 5.30am and by 6.00am I'm quietly creeping out past my sleeping family. I live in Leamington, about an hour's drive from our plant in Leicester. I use that hour to listen to audio tapes and podcasts about business and personal development – at least nine hours a week and I don't think I'll ever stop doing it. But on the way home on Fridays I give myself a treat and listen to music – all sorts as long as it's good and loud.

The drive to keep learning is fundamental to me now. I started as an apprentice toolmaker; I got my HNC in mechanical engineering when I was 30; my MSc at 33; and my MBA in engineering management at 39. Most of that time, I was also taking on progressively more demanding jobs. No one forced me to do it. I just reached a point fairly early on where I realised I didn't want to be a toolmaker for the next 40 years.

There will always be people who are happy to go to work, do a good job and let go at the end of the working day. But there will also always be those who want to lead, not follow, and I don't think any of us miss out by working hard to get there.

My dad left when I was about two and I don't even remember him. But I didn't lose by it; I had a really close, working-class family – mother, aunties, uncles and grandparents all in the same town.

My granddad, an ex-Workington steelworker, was pretty disciplined and knew what he wanted. He met my nan when he was in the Army, passing through Leamington on a train – and never went home. I did well enough at school but in those days, no one even mentioned university. It was my granddad who encouraged me to get an apprenticeship and my father-in-law who urged me to get higher professional qualifications.

Balancing personal life, work and study wasn't easy – especially the MBA. My son Tommy was only five years old and my wife, Fiona, had to take on so much herself. I got through it by getting up really early and doing a few hours' academic work before the normal day started. I was even up at 5.00am every day for a week on a family holiday. Fiona made real sacrifices. That's why today I use my travelling time to learn. It means we have the weekends free to do all the normal family stuff like eating out, swimming, the gym and the park.

My worst time in manufacturing was when MG Rover went under, taking many suppliers with it. I was working for Mayflower, a really professional company with a great team of people. We'd done such a lot and I hated seeing it all wasted.

Today, I feel really positive about the future of British manufacturing because it is still so highly regarded in the world. I've just come back from Russia where we are getting repeat business. At Cressall, we sell 50% of what we make outside the UK. There are still a lot of countries that want to buy British.

I have a simple aim: I want to keep manufacturing in the UK by doing things better. And that applies both personally and to the companies I work in. We all get better by learning and growing.

Dislikes: Bad attitudes. You still find them in manufacturing but not so often nowadays. I want positive people, team players who measure themselves by the success of the whole business. That way, instead of one person driving improvement, you get hundreds.

Hobbies: For years I did Krav Maga [a not very gentle close combat technique that aims to finish a fight as quickly and efficiently as possible using counter-attacks and pre-emptive strikes]. I loved the intensity of it, it really makes you fit and it's good fun. But I injured my shoulder recently so now I have to be content with the gym.

Last meal before the firing squad: I learnt to cook watching my nan and I like it. I'm particularly good at Thai curries (although Fi thinks she's better!). So I'd either choose that or a proper roast dinner. But if my time was that limited, I'd get a takeaway!

Annie Gregory

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