The chemistry is right for manufacturing

In the first of a series of guests contributors leading up to this week's manufacturing summit at the International Festival for Business, Harry Swan of Thomas Swan and Co. discusses the UK's industrial future.

Harry Swan
Harry Swan, managing director, Thomas Swan and Co.

The recession, although painful, provided our business with a platform for growth. The chemical sector tends not to overstretch itself, even in times of plenty, as our investment cycles are longer than most other sectors due to the high levels of capital expenditure. We weathered the storms reasonably well and in 2012 Thomas Swan emerged from the recession to achieve our best year on record.

Six years earlier, we took a (then) surprising decision – to stay put and invest in our UK plant, while taking advantage of market or geographically justified opportunities in China.

Even in 2006 China was already becoming expensive as demand for improved quality, tougher environmental standards and increased labour costs all started to force manufacturing onto a more even footing with the West.

Today, as growth returns to the UK economy, I see a new found enthusiasm for manufacturing from our government which is welcome. Most people now recognise that a balanced economy is a healthy thing and, a little like our own UK plant; we spent far too many years underinvesting in our core assets.

In a more balanced world it is no longer about how cheaply you can make it but more about quality, innovation and speed of response. Britain is remarkably well placed to exploit these values and benefit from genuine wealth creation. We just need to identify the opportunities and invest accordingly.

I also sit on the Chemistry Growth Partnership (CGP) – a collaboration between government and the chemical industry and part of the UK Industrial Strategy. This approach, which was first established by the Automotive Council, is a powerful way to implement a shared vision to change the British manufacturing landscape.

For me the most exciting aspect of the CGP is that it doesn’t hold onto past glory days and whine about what government should be doing to help industry. It is collaborative, forward looking and has a real appetite to grow the chemical industry in a way that plays to our strengths and in co-ordination with other sector councils.

It is an exciting time to be involved in UK manufacturing. A lot is changing on a national and international level and change usually provides opportunities. We’re just trying to land a few that will allow our fifth generation to take over…eventually!

Harry Swan is Managing Director of Thomas Swan & Co. Ltd., a family owned and run manufacturer of speciality chemicals. The company was founded in 1926 and is based in North East England with offices in the USA and China.