Interview: The UK steel industry’s Iron Maiden

Stainless steel is useful in a surprising range of environments and can be relied upon to perform well in tough conditions. Alison Kinna, managing director of Outokumpu UK, displays similar qualities, discovers Jane Gray.

This month’s lead interview is a politics and modern history graduate – and a woman. And yet she oversees UK operations for the world’s largest stainless steel manufacturer and distributor and she does so from the global capital of that industry, Sheffield. Alison Kinna, managing director of Outokumpu UK, has a robust career in defying expectations and she is not about to stop.

Talking to TM at the start of 2013, Ms Kinna explains her story so far, assesses the outlook for her industry and her own opportunities as the her industry enters an important year. It is 100-years since the invention of the now ubiquitous stainless steel.

Alison Kinna, Managing Director of Outokumpu UK
Alison Kinna, Managing Director of Outokumpu UK

“When you think of the amount of money that has been given to the banks over the last three or four years and how many times they have been told to lend to business it is a disgrace that the Business Bank is still necessary” – Alison Kinna, Managing Director of Outokumpu UK

TM: Your choice of degree is surprising given your seniority in heavy industry. What decisions brought you to your role today?

“I didn’t want to go down the traditional routes expected of my course. Most of my peers went into teaching, media or finance. I wanted something different and although I had taken an arts degree I knew that I had always been very good with numbers. I took the plunge in an alternative direction and became a graduate trainee at British Steel where I started working in supply chain and logistics roles.

This was a great choice. Supply chain work is an excellent way to gain a broader understanding of an industry relatively quickly – it shows you the balance of supply and demand and other dynamics of the way business is done.

Looking to qualify and upskill further I took an MSc in distribution and logistics at Cranfield University. At the same time I moved into some more commercial roles with Outokumpu including export sales work, followed by a position in distribution and I was appointed MD two years ago.”

TM: What do you think got you the job?

“I am ambitious – though perhaps not as overtly as some of my male colleagues. This is often the case with women in industry.

Essentially I got the job because I am very good at what I do. I could offer a rounded background and I am a good team player. In a big international company like this, much relies on people’s ability to cooperate and to maintain relationships, perhaps in spite of cultural differences.

Thanks to some valuable experience working under an excellent boss in a previous job at Outokumpu I have also developed good leadership and communication abilities – essential during a tough time for the company and the industry. It’s good to remember that your own success is dependent on learning from and collaborating with those around you.”

“Often if you ask a customer if they would support local sourcing the answer will be ‘yes’ but supply chains are so fragmented and so many products globally manufactured that it can be hard for customers to actually make that choice” – Alison Kinna, Managing Director of Outokumpu UK

TM: You say that in industry women are often not as overtly career-driven as men. British industry has a big gender imbalance, particularly in senior roles. Should the UK set sanctionable targets for gender balance in big business?

“My instinct is to say that I don’t believe in target stetting or positive discrimination. Talent should play its role. However, Outokumpu is a Finnish company and I do a lot of work in Scandinavia where target setting is widely accepted. Norway, for example, has embraced this approach and it is one of the most successful economies in Europe so perhaps there is something to be said for it if it can be implemented in the right way.

A better route is to encourage more female mentoring. I could do more of this, but in a subtle way I have contributed to encouraging female talent in the stainless steel industry. I will always consider female candidates for any job vacancy at Outokumpu very seriously. Unfortunately for a Scandinavian company like Outokumpu there are few females in very senior positions.”

The new ballustrades in Leicester Square, London were made using Outukumpu's stainless steel.
The new ballustrades in Leicester Square, London were made using Outukumpu's stainless steel.

TM: Is it a problem that British industry has such a poor gender balance compared to European nations?

“If the industry does not consider women more seriously it limits its talent pool to fifty per cent of the workforce and seriously risks missing out on some of the brightest talent.

In my experience female colleagues have often also been the most cooperative, flexible and open minded to change. So, yes – I believe it is putting the industry at a disadvantage.”

Highs and lows: Alison Kinna’s best and worst career experiences

Best: Being appointed managing director of the UK business. There are not many senior females in Outokumpu or the industry more generally so that was a fantastic moment of endorsement for me.

Worst: We’ve been going through a tough 18-months and have had to do some aggressive cost cutting and restructuring. This is particularly tough in the current economic climate because at the same time as making redundancies you also have to lead and motivate your staff to look for growth and new opportunities.

TM: What do you feel more generally about the outlook for UK stainless steel and British industry?

“It is hard to see any opportunities for substantial growth in 2013. During the global financial crisis demand for stainless steel products in the UK shrank by twenty per cent and we do not expect that to recover for another three or four years. The Chancellor was right to say that 2018 should be the soonest we expect to see any growth.

My concern for recovery really lies with the UK manufacturing base, our customers. The variety of applications for stainless steel mean that this customer base is extremely broad, from construction through automotive, oil and gas, catering, medical instruments, nuclear and more. We rely on all of these different parts of the economy finding business and not offshoring their operations.

I would like to see more support for the UK manufacturing base, all the usual things like increasing the availability of credit in order to encourage investment, but also reducing the burden of investment. There is often a lot of red tape, which can hold investment back.

I hope the new Business Bank established by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills can do something to address the credit problem, but honestly it is a tragedy that it has come to setting this institution up. When you think of the amount of money that has been given to the banks over the last three or four years and how many times they have been told to lend to business it is a disgrace that the Business Bank is still necessary. A critical move to improve the outlook for UK stainless steel would be to see some big infrastructure projects come to fruition, but the Autumn Statement was pretty disappointing in terms of what it promised here.

There are contracts out there to win though. Sheffield City Council recently announced it will spend £2 billion on local infrastructure and we have met with them and their development partner to make sure that we promote our name and locally manufactured stainless steel as much as possible during the bidding process.

Often if you ask a customer if they would support local sourcing the answer will be ‘yes’, but supply chains are so fragmented and so many products globally manufactured that it can be hard for customers to actually make that choice. You also have to ensure that project specifiers identify stainless steel in the first place and then perhaps a particular grade. The name and location of the supplier is often the last thing on the customer’s mind by that stage.”

TM: What are your own ambitions for your career now? “The company is going through a big period of change at the moment with the acquisition of Inoxum. This will mean some new responsibilities for me with regards to our Scandinavian markets. Longer term I would naturally look to progress further in the company and this will mean looking to more global roles. I would be keen to gain this experience as I enjoy collaborating across diverse cultures. It is a great challenge and a great opportunity.”

March 8 is International Women’s Day. See TM’s March issue for more news and interviews with inspiring female figures in UK industry.

About Outokumpu

Outokumpu acquired Inoxum, the stainless steel arm of ThyssenKrupp, for Eu2.7bn in January this year to become the largest manufacturer and distributor of stainless steel in the world.

A Finnish company, Outokumpu’s headquarters are in Helsinki but production centres span the globe from the UK and Germany to the USA, Mexico and China. Its manufacturing operations in Sheffield include a melt shop, bar mill and a service centre and the company employs around 600 people in the city region.

The UK is Outokumpu’s third largest market for stainless steel products and the company sells between 80,000-100,000 tonnes of stainless steel to UK customers every year.