Paul Blackaby loves his job. But he says that a hard Brexit will threaten the future of this Georgian-era company.
Painting fantasy models at Games Workshop on a wet Saturday morning looks like the epitome of a teenage fantasy swot.
Paul Blackaby’s sons are just two of those Games Workshop fans. Paul’s connection to Games Workshop goes much deeper than most Warhammer geeks though. His company, James Briggs Ltd, manufactures the aerosol paints used by the FTSE-250 company.
“We’ve been innovative for them,” says the sports-mad Paul. “The aerosol paint…has been specially formulated to ensure none of the fine details on the models are diminished during the coating process. The paint has also been designed so the liquid pot paints and washes flow across the surface so that shadowing and other paint effects can be created to produce the best finish possible.”
Games Workshop is just a small part of James Briggs’ customer base. Under its seven different brand names, the consumer chemicals company provides products ranging from dishwashing liquid and air fresheners, to spray-paints and de-icers.
Originally from Stevenage, Paul is a trained chartered accountant who’s worked in senior financial roles in the manufacturing industry for more than 20 years. He became a finance director at the (now defunct) chemical giant Laporte in 1996, and since then has worked with multiple companies before joining James Briggs as CFO in 2016.
Though he loves the challenge of working in different environments, including Germany and Switzerland, Paul was tired of commuting between Macclesfield and mainland Europe.
“I’ve done the weekly commute for 10 years and it’s really good, because you can throw yourself into work. But it is quite exhausting. I also got to the stage where I wanted to see my family a bit more.”
So, he chose Oldham, which may not be as serene as Heidelberg, but is more convenient for work if you live in Cheshire.
Paul truly loves the firm he now runs. Many employees have worked there for decades. He is especially attracted by its history; it was set up in 1830 during Manchester’s ‘Cottonopolis’ period and initially produced lubricants.
Aerosols are the company’s main product today. The business has worked in partnership with Applied Graphene Materials to develop an aerosol applied coating which Paul says has “seen the fast-dry coating give outstanding anti-corrosive performance with slat spray testing in excess of a thousand hours.”
He believes the appeal of James Briggs’ products comes from their quality and innovativeness.
“We pride ourselves on delighting our customers by exceeding their expectations for quality and service and being right first-time. We are not the cheapest and never will be, so we must appeal to our existing customers and new ones with an obsessive approach to high quality.”
Indeed, the company has ambitious growth plans with a specific focus on attracting more customers from the Middle East, where its aerosols are highly valued.
“Our aerosol technology is advanced compared to what is currently sold in that area,” Paul says. The weakened pound caused by the Brexit vote has also made James Briggs’ products cheaper.
But he adds that the devalued pound is the only positive aspect to come out of the Brexit vote, claiming that leaving the EU is “a calamitous and historic mistake.”
“It is not often in this country’s history that we have been misled by such an awful group of politicians and I hope that history will judge them accordingly…Further, Brexit is a pain because there is simply no certainty as to what the landscape will look like when the politicians have finally worked out precisely what it is they want to do.”
The self-described “chief worrier” at James Briggs has been busy contingency planning for around a year now. And though he says the company is well-prepared for a no-deal or hard Brexit, it will face immense challenges should such an event occur.
He says there are four major concerns James Briggs is facing from Brexit: regulation, tariffs, cross-border movement, and recruitment.
A deal which replicated the status quo is described as being the best deal for the company. In a highly bureaucratic industry like chemicals, regulatory alignment with the EU will ensure its goods are sold on the mainland.
Avoiding tariffs is also essential; 60% of the business’s material inputs come from the EU and so tariffs will inevitably raise costs.
Logistically, free movement of goods is essential to the enterprise’s success. “Our business does to some extent depend on just-in-time deliveries,” observes Paul, “Therefore, a no-deal scenario should be avoided at all costs.”
Finally, the status of non-UK EU nationals working for the business needs to be set in stone. Paul says the non-British European, mostly Eastern European, staff are “concerned about all this and they’ve certainly been concerned ever since the day of the referendum.”
Paul says the Prime Minister’s much-maligned Chequers deal would be best, although he has little confidence it will happen. He predicts Britain will get a “blind Brexit” with a long transition period where the arrangements are worked out.
Away from Brexit, he would like to see the National Living Wage scrapped, or at least regionalised.
“I am desperate to keep the James Briggs’ employment in the Oldham area, but as a nation, we must be careful not to price ourselves out of the market for these type of jobs,“ he says, adding that it’s better to have manufacturing jobs at lower wages than no manufacturing jobs in Oldham. (The ONS rates Oldham the most deprived town in England)
Despite Brexit anxieties, Paul is confident James Briggs will survive for the long term. He thinks a no-deal Brexit is unlikely to happen and that the company will live to celebrate its 200th birthday in 2030.
“I’m old enough to know that the EU is pretty good at making a bit of a fudge of these kinds of things. So, what I’m actually expecting is something in the middle.”
He is much less optimistic about his football team Macclesfield Town though, with whom he closely follows. They just won their first game of the season last Saturday, but remain 24th in League Two, third from bottom.
Are Macclesfield Town’s poor results more than made up for by James Briggs’ success? “Absolutely,” Paul confidently affirms.
Reporting by Harry Wise.