40 years in the Rear View Mirror

In a few days, I will be marking forty years working for the same company. It’s not only a personal milestone but also a rare occurrence these days and so I want to share some thoughts.

On September 1st 1980, straight out of school, I joined an intake of apprentices at the Dowty Group, based in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, UK. Each year, Dowty brought in undergraduate, technician and craft apprentices and drove the development of their future workforce through a dedicated apprentice training school, close relationships with universities, colleges and vocational schools and well-structured patterns of rotation around all their various businesses that ensured we received the widest possible range of experiences before specialising.

In a throwback to the days when parents might turn their child over to the village blacksmith to learn a trade, I was indentured to the Dowty Group and a three-way agreement was signed between me, my parents and the company. Like many, I was away from home for the first time and the company arranged accommodations and paid a fair wage through the whole process. In a sign that the system wasn’t just set up to process young men (because we were 99% men) into working robots, they worked with me when my academic path shifted and continued my development in a new direction after I switched from university to technical college.

Near the end of my apprenticeship, I had trained as a draughtsman (pen, ink and blueprints, no computers!) at Dowty Mining Equipment and expected to be making my career there, when Dowty Seals Ltd. asked to “borrow” a draughtman for two weeks for a special project. Those two weeks never ended, and I’m still here, still embedded in the sealing industry but with much water under the bridge. Through various acquisitions, divestments, mergers and reorganisations, we are now Trelleborg Sealing Solutions although there were five other business names in between.

Rumour has it that one reason that the apprentice scheme did not survive long after our intake was that the people coming out of the scheme were so well-qualified that it was hard to retain them and indeed many of my former colleagues were gone within five years. So why did I stay around?

Put simply, I’ve rarely felt the need to look outside for anything different. I’ve worked at eleven different jobs in six different locations and three different countries and I’ve always found exciting and challenging things to do.

On completing my apprenticeship, I moved straight into designing and building manufacturing equipment to make rubber seals of all shapes and sizes. It was highly rewarding to see my ideas turn into reality – and highly frustrating when they didn’t perform as expected! I believe that the last of the machines I designed are still running 35 years later somewhere in Poland or the Czech Republic.

I spent three years and 250,000 miles on the motorways of the British midlands in sales – that last thing I ever expected to do as an introverted techie. I still recommend it to any engineer who really wants to understand why your customers buy your products. I learned about the differences between price, cost and value; how they are set, how they are agreed and why you can’t just ask any price you want and expect to get it. Lastly, I learned that technical sales isn’t about being aggressive and forceful; it’s about listening, it’s about understanding what people want and then working inside your organisation to make it happen.

We got to live in the beauty of the Pembrokeshire countryside while working at our Milford Haven factory and, as a result, my children are both Welsh by birth. While I was there we took a manufacturing location that was 180 miles remote from head office and dependent upon head office for everything and turned it into a stand-alone business unit. An extra opportunity arose when I came to work one day to find that (a) the Quality Manager had been fired, (b) in addition to my current role, I was the new Quality Manager and (c) I had an audit in three days. We passed and I was welcomed to another new world. Our two largest customers were both acquired by Japanese parents about the same time so, with them, I learned about Kaizen, Statistical Process Control and Continuous Improvement long before they became the standard practices that they are today.

As we tried to grow our Automotive business in the US, I was given the chance to go to Detroit for two years; this turned into twenty-five years meaning that my Welsh children also have American accents and dual passports. In Detroit, we basically set up a new business from scratch. We used sales engineers from our sister company, but had to develop new ways to work with potential customers, carry out design work with our UK plants (hard copy drawings sent by post – no online collaboration) and then purchase, import, inspect, repackage and ship the imported product.

I was in Detroit for eight years and for most of that time, we were almost exclusively a rubber company but as the business grew we also acquired Busak+Shamban, a leading PTFE seal manufacturer who had a major operation and R&D centre a couple of hours south of Detroit in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Following some turmoil after the acquisition, I was given the chance to manage the R&D team there.

One of the upsides of working in the seal business is that seals are needed in almost every market and so our variety of work never ceases to fascinate. The move from automotive to R&D brought me in contact with new markets, new products, new materials and new ways to do business. We had truly world-class test labs, material development facilities and numerical modelling capabilities to simulate seal behaviour in ways that could not have been imagined when we first modelled a seal in six elements on an Apple II in 1985. The R&D team grew from ten people to thirty and our range of capabilities continued to grow, but after 17 years in the Indiana cornfields, Britain started calling us home and we returned to Gloucestershire in 2018. I still work for our global R&D organization building new business processes for innovation, training, materials management and product launches. Maybe I’ll make it to that fifty year anniversary yet…

The products, materials, applications and manufacturing processes are fascinating, but what really makes it worthwhile are the people, many of whom I still call friends and I have deep gratitude to those who guided me, believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself and gave me opportunities along the way. The list is long but notably includes Alex Phelps, Tony Brown, Mick Davies, Dave Semple, Jeremy Sykes, Neale Yeomans, Tim Callison and many more. Most importantly, Celia has been at my side for 34 of these 40 years, up for any challenge and always ready to try something new – and to guide me home when the time was right.

Of course, it’s not all been fun and excitement, there have been difficult times along the way and challenges that seemed insoluble, but they did all eventually resolve and with the benefit of a lot of grey hair and a rear-view mirror, they melt away and leave only positive memories in their place.

Dowty Seals Milford Haven manufacturing automotive radiator gaskets
Colin Macqueen
Dowty Seals - Milford Haven
Original photo in the Dowty archive at the Gloucestershire Heritage Hub

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