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First century down, now there's lots to do in future; MANUFACTURING group Ford is celebrating its centenary year, having survived two world wars and two fires. CHRISTOPHER KNOX meets Geoff Ford, third-generation chairman and the man known as Mr South Tyneside.


IT'S hard not to admire Geoff Ford, not just for the support he has given to the South Tyneside business community, but for the way he has endeavoured to maintain Ford's position as one of the area's biggest employers, despite the kind of challenges that would have put lesser operations out of business.

Such dedication to the cause has seen him appointed to a number of high-profile positions, including chairman of the South Tyneside Committee of the North East Chamber of Commerce and head of the South Tyneside Manufacturing Forum, which he set up.

His efforts have also received the royal seal of approval, with the Queen's Award for Enterprise Promotion in 2007 and an MBE in 2008.

Despite this lofty position, and the fact that he has grown Ford's turnover from pounds 330,000 to pounds 10m since taking over the reins in 1974, he insists there remains a lot of unfinished business.

He said: "I may be 66 but I have no desire to be put out to grass just yet. Although the company is 100 years old, there are a lot of challenges which I feel I can help the company to overcome, particularly as it rebuilds itself following the recession.

"Anyway, Mrs Ford wouldn't have me sitting around the house all day, so I have to do something."

The Ford group, which manufactures small components for the aerospace industry at Tyne Dock, South Shields, and for other sectors at its site in Hebburn, was founded by Mr Ford's grandfather Robert Ford, who started up with two staff after receiving pounds 25 worth of investment from each of his Freemason colleagues.

Although the business proved successful early on, and Robert Ford was able to pay back his investors, it may never have been founded if it wasn't for an accident that he sustained in 1909 at his former employers Newton and Nicholson.

Robert Ford had worked at the manufacturer as a maker of corrugated steel joints but was forced to take a break from the company after cutting off the ends of two fingers while working on one of its presses.

It was during this time that he was made redundant, forcing him to start up his own business in order to make ends meet.

Ford said: "I guess the business was founded out of pure necessity. In fact, I'm constantly reminded of this fact as we have a picture of my grandfather in our reception, which has him clutching a thick cigar between his two severed fingers.

"The joints were the only products he knew how to make, but he still managed to grow the business and attracted people that could help it grow and expand, and by 1914 Ford's output supported the steam industry as a major source of power in pursuit of the war effort."

The founder's son, Robert Ford Jnr, took over the running of the company with his brother Joycey in 1942, with the pair helping the company to survive the Second World War, and the bombing of the docks by the Nazis.

Although his father had been quick to take up the reins, Geoff Ford decided to break away from tradition by working towards a chartered accountancy qualification throughout the 60s, which included a spell as a management accountant at the Newcastle steel foundry of George Blair & Co.

He would spread his wings further afield after accepting an accountancy position at Transitron UK Ltd, Maidenhead, Berkshire, before working in France for one year as an internal auditor for US company Burroughs Machines.

He said: "I absolutely loved my time working in France, although at the time I was greeted with as much suspicion as the Gestapo by many people.

"The language barrier was also an issue as most of the people I came into contact with at Burroughs would outright refuse to talk to me in English, despite the fact that they were working for an American company. "It was a steep learning curve, and I have 1972 to thank for the above-par schoolboy French that I can speak today." Although Mr Ford insists that he did not bow to pressure, he took up the position of managing director at the family business then known as Ford & Co, in 1974 following a conversation he had with his father during a trip back home.

He said: "My father said to me, 'I just want to know if you've decided not to join the family business as I will need to find somebody else'.

"He always said that he never outright asked me to join but it was a decision that I knew I had to make, pressure or no pressure.

"Having worked since the age of 16, as well as training as an accountant, I think he thought that I deserved a chance and that the time was right for me.

"Also, Newton and Nicholson went out of business in the 70s, so I took that as a good sign."

His intervention would prove pivotal to the growth of the company, with Mr Ford helping it to break through the pounds 1m turnover mark by 1979 and launching it into the aerospace market in 1982, before taking over as chairman in 1985 following the death of his father.

Although the recent recession has tested his mettle, and unfortunately led to the recent axing of 40 workers, one of his biggest challenges came in August 2003, when the Tyne Dock facility suffered its second and biggest fire, which put the company's growth back several years.

The fire started after oil in one of the factory's lapping machines ignited, causing it to explode and melting a power press. This resulted in significant water, fire and nitric acid damage, as well as releasing asbestos following the collapse of the factory roof.

The company, which now employs 150 staff, had been confident of hitting the pounds 11m turnover mark for the first time between 2003 and 2004, but was instead picking through the wreckage of its assets and wondering how to carry on production.

Fortunately, South Tyneside Council helped the company set up at a site in Monkton in Hebburn so that it could continue its pressing operations, a site which the company still operates at today and which provides pounds 4m of its pounds 10m annual turnover.

"I was horrified and thought we might not have been able to survive," Ford said. "However, the biggest problem was getting the insurance company to pay up.

"I think they were holding out to see if we ran out of cash and were willing to sell on what we had left.

"However, there was no way that was going to happen. We have extremely loyal staff here and you have to repay that loyalty, even if it did mean waiting three and half years before we received the payout.

"The council were fantastic in finding us a site in which we could continue to operate from and this site has become a key part of our business today." Although the firm's finances have taken a hit as a result of the downturn, it is hopeful of hitting that elusive pounds 11m turnover target by 2012 and is looking towards emerging technologies to fuel this growth.

Meanwhile, the company is forging ahead within its traditional markets and has just landed a three-year contract with AgustaWestland to provide parts for its helicopters, which could be worth around pounds 17m.

Ford said: "I see the development of electric cars in Sunderland and wind turbines in places like Blyth as key sectors that we need to plug ourselves into. However, this will not replace the work we do now, but will sit alongside it."

A passion for the place in which he grew up has resulted in Mr Ford heading up a number of initiatives designed to support business in South Tyneside, particularly those based in engineering.

Roles such as chairman of the South Tyneside Enterprise Partnership and vice-chairman of South Tyneside Local Strategic Partnership have seen Mr Ford take on the moniker of Mr South Tyneside over recent years.

He said: "I have to say that, flattered as I am, everything I've achieved has been as part of a team, through a variety of initiatives and strategic partnerships.

"However, if I've helped South Tyneside out in any way, it has been my pleasure."

Recent events at Ford, though, have seen him stand down from many of these roles. He said: "I've had to be a lot more selfish recently as I the worst thing I could do for South Tyneside is let Ford go to the wall.

"That's why I am only part of initiatives like EEF North East and the South Tyneside Manufacturing Forum, as they can directly benefit Ford and ensure that we are actively involved in creating the engineers of the future by promoting things like the product manufacturing and design diploma here in the borough.

So what does Mr Ford have in mind for his two sons and will Ford have a fourth-generation chairman at the helm? He said: "My eldest son Dan, 28, is pursuing a career as an actor in the West End, and is a proper actor as he is currently out of work.

"My other son Chris, 24, is an economics graduate from Hull and is studying to be an a management accountant.

"He's now working at Ford as we are sponsoring him through his studies.

"However, I have not put any pressure on him to join Ford full-time.

If he wants to return to Ford after working elsewhere that's up to him, but there's certainly no expectation."

Mmm ... that all sounds very familiar.


DISASTER The Ford Automotive site the day after suffering a fire in 2003 FREEMASON Ford founder Robert Ford had help from the Lodge COMMITTED TO AREA Geoff Ford followed the family tradition by becoming chairman of Ford manufacturing grou up on South Tyneside
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 6, 2010
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