60 second interview: The Master Cutler

Neil MacDonald is The Master Cutler. Since 1624, The Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire has existed to protect and promote the craftsmanship of Sheffield’s manufacturing industry.

Master Cutler  Mr Neil A MacDonald
Master Cutler Mr Neil A MacDonald

What is the Cutlers Company?

To join the Cutlers Company you have to be involved in manufacturing, and I was a Freeman while at Firth Rixson. I joined as junior warden in 2010.

Its principle purpose is to represent the interests of manufacturing industry in the Sheffield region and nationally. I travel to London a lot, where there is a Cutlers Company. Outside London we are almost unique, there is one in Bristol.

The Company’s role is very active and evolving. In South Yorkshire, we changed where we are active to mirror the Sheffield LEP, so it is now South Yorks, Derbyshire, a bit of Nottinghamshire.

The DNA is in advanced engineering and metals, but the role has broadened out to support other sectors. Automotive is growing strongly, construction business Polypipe has just joined the Company. You have to remain relevant. We recruited more freemen last year than we had done for years.

Sheffield is a very integrated community. How do all the business support organisations avoid duplicating their work?

If you go back 10-20 years in Sheffield you wouldn’t see the same integration – we were not pulling together. We had the infamous “Republic of South Yorkshire”, the councils who were not interested in business and local politics. We’ve formed some new bodies yes, but today we are all pulling in the same direction. Richard Wright has set out the Chamber, Barnsley and Rotherham have joined in a truly private sector-led partnership. The universities are heavily involved with the Advanced Manufacturing Park. Everyone is working in a coordinated way.

Sheffield is pulling together now – the AMRC, on the education side, the Cutlers Curriculum, Workwise – we are all off our backsides and doing it.

Do you play a part in making sure these parties work more efficiently?

That is exactly the role. The Cutlers Company is apolitical, with no hidden agenda. In a sense we are the voice of quality and credibility to make this work. The Global Manufacturing Festival is a classic example. We don’t have the resources to do it alone, but we can be there and we have a huge network within our team to pull it together.

Do we need more trained professionals like chartered accountants running manufacturing businesses? Some grow nicely and then stop; is management a reason?

AESSEAL was unique. It’s a different sort of business because here, Chris (Rea) had all the entrepreneurial spirit and the ambition in the world. The key was to put some professional guidelines in place that didn’t restrict the growth vision, but covered the governance and reporting aspect. Contrast that with Firth Rixson; we were very successful but by the time we looked at going public to private my previous CEO had been over-promoted several times and we needed an influx of new blood, some accountants, but other new skills as well. Some thrive in a private equity environment, some can’t hack it.

In some of the SME engineering firms in this region, the finance directors are not first class. In a couple of the roles I do now, I’m mentoring FDs. When things [the economy] are going well they are fine, but when times get tough they are not really able to cope with it.

What needs to be done to make The Global Manufacturing Festival the “Farnborough of advanced engineering”?

Moving it to the Advanced Manufacturing Park is crucial. I pushed for this because that is the future of Sheffield manufacturing. Here, they are selling the future. It is a long way to go to get to a Farnborough. The main issue we need to overcome is that Sheffield does not make many final things like cars and aeroengines, so it doesn’t get a very strong association. To attract foreign delegates, we need to tell our supply chain and academic research story properly. Ultimately all you can do is have the Festival and keep evolving – just like the Cutlers Company.

Go to https://www.themanufacturer.com/articletype/interviews/ for the full interview with the Master Cutler.