UK: Profile - Noel Davies - VSEL CHIEF EXECUTIVE.

UK: Profile - Noel Davies - VSEL CHIEF EXECUTIVE. - The calm determination of VSEL's chief executive could save the day for Barrow.

by Christ Blackhurst.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The calm determination of VSEL's chief executive could save the day for Barrow.

Ask Noel Davies's former colleagues what the chief executive of VSEL, the submarine-builder is like, and they all mention his dogged determination and his courage. He needs them both at the moment - in bucketfuls. At VSEL, he is overseeing the massive Trident project but as the peace dividend bites, he is also having to shed employees at a terrifying rate.

Since he became chief executive three years ago, he has cut the workforce from 14,000 to 9,000. If he sticks to his original plan and VSEL secures new orders to take the shipyard beyond the completion of Trident, that figure will fall further to between 7,000 and 9,000. If no contracts are forthcoming, 4,000 looks more likely, an incomprehensible total a few years ago.

Again, as boss of a quoted company with a strong institutional following, he owes a duty to its shareholders. But, as the sole employer of any size in Barrow-in-Furness, tucked away on the southern tip of Cumbria, he also has to bear the expectations and hopes of a whole community. It is a stressful prospect. His predecessor resigned through ill-health and when it came to appointing a new chief executive, VSEL was in limbo for many months. Step forward Davies.

With his swept-back hair and pointed features, he cuts a sharp, intense, figure. He confesses to being 16 stone but does not look it.

In a working-class stronghold like Barrow, where the shipyard managers are constantly scrutinised for any sign of extravagance or weakness by the local population, it helps that he comes with no frills attached. He wears a sombre suit and his office, just a stone's throw away from the shop floor, is the same as that used by his predecessors. Even the shocking green carpet and drab decor is unchanged. Only some porcelain figurines on a shelf give any hint of a life beyond the cranes and slipways.

The VSEL public relations man stresses his boss does not like talking about himself. Personal details are given sparingly and his official autobiography fills just half a side of A4. Later, after the interview, the PR man phones to say that his charge is worried in case I fail to mention that running VSEL is a team effort. Later still, when I have cause to speak to Davies again, he reiterates his concern. He is just one of a threesome - the other members being Norman Broadhurst and Tony Peak, his joint deputies - who manage the company.

His plea appears genuine - although a cynic might say it could also be a subtle attempt to share some of the spotlight for Barrow's troubles - but team effort or not, Davies is VSEL's chief executive and highest-paid director (£165,000 last year).

To understand the pressure he faces, you have to know Barrow. It is a place of 60,000 souls stuck on the end of the Furness peninsular. The A590 road that runs from the M6 motorway 30 miles away to the town has been described as "the longest cul-de-sac in Britain."

In Barrow, you either work for VSEL - or "the yard" or Vickers, as it is still called by most people who remember its former owner, or, the chances are, you don't work at all. Over half the working population are employed directly by VSEL or one of the small businesses that keep the company serviced. The next biggest business, a paper mill, employs just 400 people. The nearest alternative large employer is 40 miles away up the coast at Sellafield.

Vickers dominates every facet of Barrovian life. Teams in the local football league reveal their places of work: Ship Drawing Office; Engineers; Welders. One of the largest car dealers in the town is the Invincible Motor Co (named after the Falklands carrier, HMS Invincible).

Everywhere, in the numerous pubs and working men's clubs, in Dalton Road (the main shopping street) the huddled terraces and the managers' houses at Hawcoat up on the hill, the "yard" exerts a hold on people's lives.

Generation upon generation of schoolboys have left school and gone straight into the yard. Whole families rely on Vickers for their livelihood. The son may be an apprentice, daughter a secretary, father a craftsman and grandfather retired.

To add to the sense of domination, overshadowing everything is the enormous green metal shed in which the Trident submarines are assembled. Once you could read the time on the town hall clock from anywhere in the town. Now, the looming building, known as "Maggie's Shed", or officially as the Devonshire Dock Hall (DDH), gets in the way.

Today, though, the outside world is making its presence felt with a vengeance. The coincidence of the unexpected end to the Cold War and deep recession have dealt Barrow a savage double blow. With no substantial new orders in prospect, Davies is having to cut and cut again.

It is not just existing jobs that have been slashed. He recently announced that 250 apprentices who had completed their training would not be offered permanent work. In addition, VSEL was postponing its apprentice scheme indefinitely. By next year, it is projected that some 10,000 people out of a local population of 43,000 could be unemployed.

The fact that he was not born and bred in Barrow may ease his burden. If he were the latest in a long line of Davieses to have worked at the shipyard, to have grown up with relatives, friends and neighbours all working there, his suffering would undoubtedly be worse.

As it is, he is an outsider, and as a result someone who can take a cool, calm look at problems and make decisions that local people would find unpalatable. He was born in Shropshire in 1933 - he still speaks with that flat, west of Brum, accent. "I'm a Shropshire lad," he says, "with no connections with ships or the Navy". He went to the local Ellesmere College and left to become an apprentice at Longbridge, for the Austin Motor Company. While he was there he won a scholarship to university and took a degree in mechanical engineering. Shortly afterwards, he decided to become more adventurous. Submarines was a boom industry and he applied to join Vickers Shipbuilders at Barrow.

Even in those days - it was the late fifties - he was working on nuclear submarines. Today, he oversees the building of the four Trident vessels; then, he was involved in the design and development of the first propulsion machinery. He spent a period at the Atomic Energy Authority facility at Harwell, then, in 1962, went to the far north of Scotland, to Dounreay, as chief engineer.

They were happy days. "I look back and think it was the most satisfying time in my career," he says. "Unfortunately, you can't stay still, the world is not that kind."

Just for a moment, the cares of the present are swept away and he is transported back to when he was a boss - but not the top boss with all that entailed - working on what was then one of the most exciting projects in the world. Life is cruel: he was in at the beginning and if Trident is not to be followed, he will be in at the death.

In 1964, he went back to Barrow and climbed steadily through the ranks: quality control and assurance manager; manufacturing division production manager; divisional manager of the armament division and local director of the engineering works.

When he was made general manager of the engineering works and director of the shipyard, he was, in Barrow terms, a lord of all he surveyed. The top man was the legendary Sir Leonard Redshaw and Davies was number two or three or thereabouts. More important than his position was his age. At 44, he had plenty of time on his side. Married with three young children, all he had to do was sit and wait, and the number one slot would surely be his.

Unfortunately, as Davies had discovered previously, the outside world does not stay still. In 1977, Vickers Shipbuilding was nationalised and Davies's response was to bring his idyll to an abrupt halt. It was his own, typically dogmatic, black and white decision. "I could see no prospect of being comfortable within a nationalised industry, so I left."

He left Barrow but remained with Vickers, as head of its engineering group. He went south to Vickers' head office at Millbank, in central London and stayed there six years. At Vickers, he is chiefly remembered for being a fine engineer and for never backing down - a characteristic that did not always endear him to Sir David Plastow, his boss.

In 1984, he finally got the chance to run his own show - not with Vickers but with 600 Group, the engineering company, as its managing-director and chief executive. Then, he says, "out of the blue I was asked to go back to Barrow." He did not need to go. He was head of a successful group based in thriving Staines, in Middlesex. The back streets of Barrow may as well have been on a different planet. But he owed it to himself to go. "I was attracted by the place," he recalls. "You could call it a fatal attraction. There were the people, the Cumbrian countryside and the excitement of what Barrow was making."

Even so, he was nervous. "I knew it was dangerous to try and recapture the satisfaction I had felt before I left to go to Vickers Millbank. I also knew a lot had happened in those 12 years."

Already, there were hints of what lay ahead. Even then, he says, with the Berlin Wall still standing and the eastern bloc remaining intact, "it always looked as though there would be problems for us in the post-Trident era. But we reasonably supposed defence procurement would go back some way towards its pre-Trident level."

It did not and Mr Davies is grappling with the consequences. He has put Cammell Laird, Barrow's smaller, sister yard on Merseyside up for sale - there have been no takers and he now recognises it may have to close as a shipyard completely and be broken up for alternative use. He has fought tooth and nail with Yarrow, the GEC subsidiary, for the new Type 23 frigate order and lost; is exploring other areas like offshore equipment; is searching to buy businesses that could provide jobs in Barrow and is encouraging local development agencies to do their bit to help.

All the time, though, he is having to put more and more workers out on to the streets. He is finally resigned to the inevitability of his task. But it still hurts. "The day I forget the pain my actions cause to the individual I am as dead as a dodo," he reflects, "but I can't let emotions override business."

He has examined what happened in other one company towns where the company fell on lean times. He knows, for example, that Barrow's still relatively buoyant air, despite the cuts, is illusory. "Economic activity still continues at the old pace for a while," he explains, "the redundancy money acts like wages."

He draws some relief from the way, so far, at least, that the local community has responded to his actions. Its lack of protest, he maintains, is proof that he is getting the balance between pleasing his shareholders and not ignoring the needs of local people just about right.

He will never, he say, be dishonest or give his workers false hope. But realistically, they should not expect too much from him. "At the end of the day, you can't make major business decisions that are not in favour of the shareholders. Because if you do, you won't have a business anyway."

There is a positive side. He never thought he would like lobbying MPs and members of select committees but he does. (They no doubt hear his strongest theme, that Barrow's dilemma is the fault of government, that it was under state ownership that Barrow was told to concentrate on submarines and nothing else. It did and is now counting the cost.)

And even out of misery there may come hope. Stopping the apprenticeship scheme was tough but "it had some bad consequences. It made the local person too reliant on VSEL. It made them less adventurous. Barrow people fail to recognise there is a big wide world out there. Apprentices will go to jobs elsewhere and maybe they will be glad they've done that. Maybe they will lead better and fuller lives."

As for his own life, it appears full enough. He works hard in the week and tries to keep the weekend free for his major hobby: renovating and old racing motorbikes and cars.

He owns two houses, one in the south and the other in a village outside Barrow. Why two? Couldn't he rent? "It is essential, because people need to know my house is going down in value as well as theirs." He smiles. It may seem strange, but if you sit where he sits, you know it makes sense.

1933

Born Shropshire. Educated at Ellesmere College. Became engineering apprentice. Studied for BSc degree mechanical engineering.

1956

Joined Vickers Shipbuilding at Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria. "The point when my career began." Worked as engineer on early nuclear submarines. "I look back and think it was the most satisfying time in my career."

1977

General manager of engineering side of Vickers' Barrow works. Left Barrow upon nationalisation and went to London to head Vickers' engineering arm.

Blames state ownership under British Shipbuilders for much of Barrow's present plight. "It became a one product company with the systems for just one product."

1984

Leaves Vickers to run 600 Group.

1989

Returns to Barrow, to run the privatised VSEL, the builder of Trident submarines. "To be head of one of the most exciting engineering companies in the world is a great thrill."

1992

Scraps, for time being, apprenticeship scheme in middle of huge redundancy programme. His personal opinion on defence cuts is: "I am pleased there is less need for defence. But as the head of VSEL, I am not."

For reprints of this article, contact Anne Oakley (071)413 4336.

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