When Industrial and Marine Hydraulics’ general manager, James Griffiths, needed a fresh perspective to help drive business growth, he turned to a Teesside University business growth initiative. Mark Lane finds out more
There’s always something more to learn. Just ask James Griffiths, general manager of Middlesbrough business, Industrial and Marine Hydraulics (IMH). The business he manages is growing steadily and heading into an increasing number of market sectors. As such, he felt the need to look at self- development, and to think about how he could take the company forward from a strategic perspective.
IMH was founded in Teesside by hydraulic engineer Paul Griffiths MBE in 1983, and has grown from a home-based business to an established leading player in hydraulic engineering with experience of working across more than 50 countries.
“We deliver major hydraulic engineering projects and offer services across design, manufacturing, installation, commissioning, maintenance and repairs, as well as component supplies and training,” James (pictured right) explains. “By closely engaging with IMH, companies can tap into a deep source of hydraulic engineering talent and access a range of specialist skills not normally available in their own engineering departments.”
IMH is active across a number of sectors, which can vary from year to year. In the UK, the infrastructure and marine markets are busy right now, while the offshore and oil markets are also forecast to see a spike in work. The business also recently entered into the transport sector, providing support to clients in the automotive and rail markets.
There is a major overseas dimension to the business as well. Indeed, IMH has supported overseas client needs for decades, with assignments having taken the business to every continent at some point.
“In the last month, we have had teams working in the US and mainland Europe,” says James. “The number of opportunities to work internationally continues to grow and we believe this will be a significant market for the business in the years to come.”
In many ways, IMH is the archetypal SME which reaches a stage in its growth when there is a need to take a more holistic look at the business – in essence, to ask how the company can be taken on to the next level. Integral to that is learning and development.
For his own part, James saw the opportunity to do that by joining the Leap 50 programme, a learning initiative for businesses with strong ambitions and growth potential which is fully funded and led by Teesside University and the Tees Valley Combined Authority. IMH was identified as fitting the criteria and selected to be part of the inaugural programme, which focuses on individual business needs and personal development to help successfully lead and manage the growth.
Explaining the rationale, James says: “It is far too easy to get tied up in the day-to-day of company work but we recognised that I needed time in my role to develop my skills and knowledge in order to view IMH from a strategic perspective and offer further value to the company and implement processes that move the business forward. The Leap 50 programme gave me this opportunity, as over a course of six months I attended one or two workshops each month.
“Prior to joining the programme my personal career development wasn’t something I really gave priority to. However, since having this opportunity I have been able to learn new skills and put them into action and see the benefits to the company. Each workshop provided new skills and insights. I feel the business development workshop taught me skills which are now used in every IMH sales presentation – to good effect.”
James says the Leap 50 programme supported his role development from commercial director to general manager, providing several techniques which he can apply to IMH as well as learning strategic and management thinking that he can use in growing the company.
“It also gave me new levels of confidence and a growing network of people to learn from and share ideas with,” he adds.
For any business, the benefit of programmes such as this is that business leaders get to mix with their peers from other industries. Often, the insight they gain from bouncing around ideas is as valuable as the learning from the actual programme itself.
James says: “The programme did a great job in bringing together people from different sectors and backgrounds, all with interesting and inspiring experiences.
“Despite having different backgrounds it was helpful to talk through challenges and business ideas as reassuringly people would often have similar experiences and challenges and therefore some great first hand advice to offer.
“For me, it was also good to offer support to others with this challenge and gave me confidence that what we are doing is right and that we have strong and robust growth plans in place.”
James can’t speak highly enough of the team from Teesside University who deliver Leap 50: “The professionals who came in to teach on the programme were excellent and they had a wealth of experience and provided very helpful advice and taught lifetime use skills.”
“We were part of the first cohort on the programme and I think the content they delivered was top class. I, and IMH, have taken a lot from being part of this and, for me, it was really enjoyable working with Teesside University, so much so that we’re already thinking about what we can do next together.”
James says IMH is already looking at what other programmes would be suitable for the company, including a management catalyst programme which he believes could help develop the next generation of senior managers at IMH.
He says the company is also looking at expanding its apprentices programme, so where it has previously only had craft apprentices, it is now looking at business administration and engineering positions as well as the potential of others.
In fact, IMH has a long and proud tradition of developing apprentices – and there is good reason for that.
James explains: “Initially we engaged with apprenticeships because of the amazing apprenticeship that our founder Paul Griffiths MBE received from Dorman Long and Co Ltd from 1965 to 1969, but also because of the national political situation which withdrew all sponsorships from central government to employers: as a consequence, most employers abandoned their apprenticeship training schemes.
“Many young people were finding it harder and harder to find an apprenticeship through responsible employers. In 1995 we appointed our first apprentice and because of our very supportive staff it was not difficult to continue what then became our ‘scheme’, and this has since carried on.
“Some time after we did realise that as the company grew we would not find the engineering staff with our specialist experience from the jobs marketplace and the apprenticeship scheme became our ‘training scheme’, where we have taken staff with engineering skills and experience and added very specialised hydraulic training and workplace know- how, where trainees work with and shadow our senior and experienced staff.
“Our business longevity and future prospects could not flourish without this commitment to training, which very much includes our apprenticeship programme.”
The business now takes apprentices directly from secondary education at age 16, generally recruiting through TTE (Teesside Training Enterprise) or NETA (North East Training Enterprise) who then take the apprentices through their first year of basic training.
“We do this so that the young people are taught by specialist trainers and are well versed in health and safety and basic engineering skills before entering our own workshops,” says James. “We then add to their skills, primarily through work shadowing senior tradespeople and technicians until four years in total have been completed, at which point they become a tradesperson.”
James’ description of the fantastic learning experience which apprentices receive at IMH makes one realise that there are some amazing careers to be had by taking the apprenticeship route. It is often assumed that a degree in engineering is the best way to build a career in such sectors, yet that need not be the case. Some youngsters prefer to jump straight in and earn while they learn and, with many students crippled by debts from university after three to four years, one can’t really blame them.
James explains: “During their three years with IMH we also significantly add to their trade skills by providing hydraulic training in-house within our own training school. They are also fully sponsored in further education opportunities to BTEC National and BTEC Higher National.
“After the apprenticeship, training does not stop and the intention is always to encourage our apprentices to work up through our own system to become hydraulic engineers where they will be able to carry out their work, unsupervised, anywhere and this very much includes worldwide.
“Further education is also encouraged to Degree level if the apprentices are able and willing to commit to this.”
There is good reason for this commitment to staff. It is well recognised that there is a lack of engineering talent in the North East, so training the next generation of staff and retaining them is a major business imperative.
Says James: “We recognise the importance of retaining our highly skilled workforce. Our retention strategy focuses on engaging with our employees and involving them in the long-term growth plans of the business. We encourage employee innovation and regularly provide opportunities for our employees to develop their skills and career options.”
He adds: “We also recognise the importance of providing the right terms and conditions that reflect the level of quality and competence we have in the business.”
It’s an enlightened approach and one that comes right from the top. James himself has recognised the importance of lifelong learning, both for him and the business, and this culture of learning permeates down through the organisation he leads.
International markets are no place for organisations which lack knowledge and expertise, and on this front there is no danger of IMH being found wanting given that all members of the business are constantly developing in their roles. It’s a lesson for all local businesses which have ambitions beyond the shores of the North East.