Turning around a loss making business is proof that developing the right skills really does pay.
John Coughlan is passionate about training. Indeed he believes it is directly responsible for the extraordinary turnaround in his company’s fortunes.
John is Director and Chief Operating Officer of Workington-based TSP Engineering. The company presses steel and works predominantly within the nuclear supply chain, supporting governmental and defence clients that demand precision manufacturing. When he took over in 2014, TSP – previously owned by British Steel and later Tata Steel – was on its knees with annual losses in excess of £1.5m. Yet in a little over two years, the company is now in profit to the tune of £2m.
“We have grown quite simply because of the training and development that we’ve put into our own people,” John says.
“You can spend millions on new equipment but without the best people you’re not going anywhere. Our aim here is to get our workforce to expand their own horizons to improve themselves, their performance, their investment in the company – and through a combination of these factors, take the company to a new level.”
We have spent about £4m training and developing our people in the last three years.
He points to one particular success story which sums up TSP philosophy. Project Engineer Hannah Ridley joined the company aged 18 with no formal engineering qualifications. Her first project as a trainee with TSP (then Tata Steel) was assisting in a £1.3m contract to refurbish a piece of complex equipment destined for the nuclear industry.
Last December, aged just 22, Hannah proudly received the Rising Star (Manager/Technician) Award at the prestigious Works Management Manufacturing Champions Awards.
“We have spent about £4m in the past three years on training and development across the plant on people like Hannah,” says John, who won the Manufacturing Leader award at the same event. “That money goes 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.”
TSP works in tandem with skills trainer Gen2 and Lakes College to select trainees and guide them through the various courses available, such as welding. Trainees attend college on a full-time basis in their first year, then on day release.
Back at the plant, each trainee is paired up with a senior colleague who acts as a mentor, providing advice and helping to solve problems or issues arising both in and out of the workplace.
“We continue to develop them way after they have completed their basic training because the more skills we can give them the more loyalty we get, because they can see a progression within the business,” says John.
The results are significant: the company has had gold medal winners at the National Skills Competition and staff are actively encouraged to enter awards.
You can spend millions on new equipment but without the best people you’re not going anywhere.
– John Coughlan, Director of Operations, TSP Engineering
“Everybody benefits from it – the company, the industry, and most importantly, the individual.” But it’s not just fresh-faced trainees who are making the difference at TSP. John firmly believes that age and experience is just as important as youth and enthusiasm, and as a result has actively sought to bring former workers back into the fold. These include a man known within the company as “Young Bob”, who is 72 years old.
“You don’t lose a lifetime of valuable skills just because you retire,” John says. “The experience the likes of Bob can bring to the younger workers is invaluable.”
John has brought a wealth of experience of his own to his role at TSP. Having started off as a design engineer, he progressed to a variety of high profile management positions including Global Commercial Operations Director and MD at Avery Weigh-Tronix Ireland, President and General Manager at Upright International and UK General Manager at the Gates Rubber Company.
It’s a career which has taken him as far afield as Mexico, the USA and the Philippines. Today though, his home is very much in Cumbria. Keen to attract a local workforce, he practiced what he preached and moved to Workington in 2014.
“When I came here we had a lot of contractors working for us who would arrive on Monday and leave on Thursday. They didn’t have the business at heart and they were taking money from the local economy.
When John took over in 2014, TSP – previously owned by British Steel and later Tata Steel – was on its knees with annual losses in excess of £1.5m. Yet in a little over two years, the company is now in profit to the tune of £2m.
“If we are raising money as a business we should be feeding it back into the local economy. It raises standards of living for everyone in the business and keeps people here.”
Having turned TSP around, John is now looking to prepare the company for the skills-based challenges ahead. Aware that work in the nuclear sector is likely to be finite, connections have already been made with the defence industry, in particular BAE Systems in Barrow and Rolls Royce.
“We are looking now at how to develop people so they are ready for the next technological advances and requirements. I see robotics as being a major area of advancement in the future, but you can’t wait till it happens – you have to look ahead and ensure the training is in place.”
We continue to develop our staff way after they have completed their basic training because the more skills we can give them, the more loyalty we get.