You reap what you sow

Posted on 10 Mar 2009 by The Manufacturer

Company success is not only measured by profit. Graham Whitehurst of Michelin Tyre advises Louise Hoffman of the importance of productivity and corporate social responsibility

The Michelin Tyre bus and truck tyre facility in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, is somewhat of a survivor within its sector, being now the only truck tyre manufacturer left in the UK. In fact, the site is soon to celebrate no less than 40 years in operation. So what are the secrets of its success?

For a start, there is motivation: “Michelin strategy generally is to bolster and muscle up factories in the west and grow new capacities generally in the east. So the factories that will be here in the long-term are the ones that show they can become more and more productive every year. Therefore we do have some stringent productivity goals that we stick to,” explained plant manager, Graham Whitehurst.

Indeed, the factory looks to make at least 30 per cent net productivity gains for the period 2005 to 2010. “There’s two ways to improve productivity,” Whitehurst began. “One is that you invest in new machinery. Another way is you take the existing workforce you have and you make them more efficient by introducing new techniques and methods.”

Where investment is concerned, Michelin Ballymena has made available £7 million each year for the past 10 years solely for the upgrading of its equipment and machinery. “As part of that, we will try and automate, partly so we can make tomorrow’s tyres today, but also we automate to become more productive,” said Whitehurst.

And to cover the methodical aspect, the firm implements its own lean system, named the ‘Michelin Manufacturing Way’, which is “a very structured and focused way of improving the efficiency of processes by maximising the potential of employees through good training, adequate and professional target-setting, daily reviews and monitoring of performance. It also involves obviously listening to any problems people have and trying to resolve them as soon as possible.”

In this way, the Ballymena site maintains a fine balance between increasing efficiency and capabilities and taking good care of its 1,000-strong workforce. “The company also has a very strong corporate social responsibility, so we are heavily involved in reducing our environmental footprint all the time,” Whitehurst added.

“Michelin has a charter, called Michelin Performance and Responsibility Charter, and this is on the internet and is available to everyone. It sets out the values of the company and how we actually implement those values in an operational way. So the things we do for the environment and the community are in there as well.”

The site has won several awards for its environmental performance and is currently pushing towards an impressive 100 per cent waste recycling goal. Wind turbines are also in the pipeline and, planning permission permitting, should be installed during 2009. “Things that affect the environmental footprint are very important and we have to make sure, as a corporate socially responsible multi-national company, that we do the right thing,” Whitehurst commented.

But undoubtedly the most inspirational aspect of Michelin’s CSR programme is the way in which it helps other people and companies along the road to success. “We do try to help the community as much as we possibly can. For example, we have set up a subsidiary called Michelin Development, and what this does is it provides expert support and subsidised loans to SMEs to allow them to grow and develop.”

Over the past three years, Michelin has been able to help create 150-plus jobs at SMEs in the local area by way of this scheme and has provided the expertise of its specialists, such as the environmental manager, to smaller businesses to help them advance.

And the community work does not end there, as Whitehurst explained: “About four years ago, we physically relocated our factory’s apprenticeship school into a college of further education. So we now not only train our own people, we also train people from other companies – if you like, we provide a service to the community by providing engineering apprenticeships and training, which we need for our own people obviously, but we also do it for other people. It’s a nice win-win situation.”

A forthcoming addition to this educational offering is the adult apprenticeship, set to being this year, which aims to upskill existing workers. “For instance, if you didn’t have the chance to do a full apprenticeship when you were younger, but you’ve been working and have some engineering knowledge, now you will have the opportunity to do a proper adult apprenticeship at the college. This is a two-year course, and you will come away with a full qualification in maintenance engineering, NVQ level three.”

When asked of the importance of training in the manufacturing sector these days, Whitehurst replied: “We have to develop the skills of our people, because there is a skills shortage in some key areas, and unless we have the raw material in terms of the people, then we’re not going to meet those shortages. From the company’s view we’re very focused on trying to help that, and even personally I’m trying to push that from my own chair as well.”

In conclusion, Whitehurst drew attention to the dual concerns of low cost base competition and the economic climate that are also facing the UK manufacturing sector today. “One of the key challenges we face in the west is globalisation – that if we want to stay in business we need to become more efficient because we are always in competition with one another.”

And, the basis of Ballymena’s continuing success? “Two key words for me are flexibility and productivity, within the overall context of a company that tries to ensure it looks after its corporate social responsibility.”