Skillful deployment

Innovating around methods for employee retention is a priority for firms, especially SMEs trying to keep their heads above water. For some though, strategic repositioning or right sizing may mean that jobs and skills will be lost.

Left to Right, Peter Cook with Task Force members Ross Gill, Chairman Paul Carter and Barbara Cooper and Mike Dawson and Tim Ingleton

The following account however, shows that the latter part of this scenario does not necessarily need to be the case. There is an opportunity, and a responsibility, for companies in the process of rightsizing to consider the wider needs of industry and the national economy by protecting the valuable technical skills of the staff they leave behind.

When chemicals company ICI announced it was shutting its headquarters in Runcorn, Cheshire, in the late 1990s it was feared the closure would have dire economic consequences for the town. But ICI site managers believed the laboratories and office facilities could be transformed as a magnet to attract new business to the area – supported by the “gold dust” of highly skilled technicians who, up until then, had provided support services exclusively to ICI scientists. The site managers purchased the site from ICI, and established the innovative regeneration company, SOG.

Dr Peter Cook, a former ICI manager who is now SOG’s CEO says: “Most people thought the only option for this site, with its 1960-style buildings, was to bulldoze it down and create some warehouses and a residential development. We took a different view. We felt the real gold dust at The Heath were the skilled personnel that worked on the site and who supported scientific research here.

“These are highly trained people with skills you won’t find in the Yellow Pages. Our business model for purchasing the site from ICI revolved around taking on these skilled technicians to support new businesses. Instead of providing technical support for one single organisation they are now available to help all of the businesses currently located at The Heath and many more companies in the UK and around the world.” Today the 170-plus companies operating from the 60-acre site employ over 1,700 people, more than in the halcyon days of ICI in the 1980s, and resident businesses can access a wide range of specialist services, including scientific glassblowing, precision engineering and bespoke laboratory design and build.

SOG’s unique model for regeneration has recently prompted the launch of ‘Fusion’, an initiative which will allows SOG to share its knowledge and expertise with organisations who find themselves in possession of commercial or industrial premises they no longer need. This knowledge, which has led The Heath to success without the need to recourse to any public funding, will be of undoubted value in the current economic climate with its dichotomies of austerity and demand for growth.

Fusion uses a four-stage process to advise on the regeneration potential of sites. This process includes an initial Scouting Study, a Feasibility stage that considers potential planning, legal, skills and financial issues, and an Enabling stage that involves the creation a detailed development blueprint. These three steps lead to the final stage – Implementation.

Depending on requirements this final stage can potentially involve a long-term relationship, with SOG providing a broad range of support services.

SOG is now working on Fusion assignments with several multinational pharmaceutical companies including Sanofi-aventis’ which closes its manufacturing site in Dagenham in 2013, and the Sandwich Economic Development Task Force, set up by the Government to safeguard the skills jeopardised by Pfizer’s decision to pull out of it R&D base in Kent.

Highlighting the importance of the work SOG has been doing over the past decade, Dr Cook pointed to the alternative futures that might have been faced by the old ICI site and its staff: “But for the intervention of SOG, a lot of those skilled ICI workers [at Runcorn] would have been lost to the science world – destined to work in supermarkets or as taxi drivers. These are people with vocational skills and its vital for UK plc that we ensure these skills are retained and used to drive regeneration of scientific sites.”