Brian Palmer, chief executive, Tharsus Engineering

Brian Palmer is not just an engineer. He is a mechanical engineer at heart. And therein lies the difference. Aranda Rahbarkhoui talks to the Tharsus Group CEO about his rise to the top

Brian Palmer, chief executive, Tharsus Group
Brian Palmer, chief executive, Tharsus Group

What makes Brian Palmer tick are machines, materials and manufacturing. Growing up, he was more of a fiddler with objects, a builder of things, discovering exactly how things worked. Sitting down to talk to him at Tharsus Engineering’s head office in Blyth, Northumberland, he’s quite ready to discuss his passion for the industry. Circuitry and currents were never on his wavelength. Electrical engineering never gave him the same thrill as real world physics and calculations.

“For whatever reason, I’ve never doubted that mechanical engineering was the right thing for me to do. I always wanted to be an engineer. Mechanical systems are at the heart of most machinery and I’m very good at seeing mechanisms and looking into how things work. The thing with electricity is that you can’t see it, so I struggle with it. I don’t have the same feel for electrical systems and I think that’s where true engineering is quite vocational. You either have a feel for something or you don’t.”

Growing up in Chapel House, Newcastle and attending Walbottle Campus, Palmer, now 47, describes himself as a ‘proper local lad’. But his rise to the top wasn’t an easy one. This was typified by his younger years and experiences, during which his parents dissuaded him from getting into naval architecture.

He said: “I didn’t do very well at school and had to resit my A-levels at North Tyneside College. I did consider going into naval architecture at first, but my parents thought it was a dying industry. I somehow managed to get a place on a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST). It was one of the top five mechanical engineering courses in the country – and I had the lowest grades of anybody, despite having resat my exams. Quite why they let me in, I don’t know! But I came out with a 2:1, so it was obviously a reasonable decision on my part. Going into engineering was never a calculated way of making money. It was just a subject I always wanted to study.”

After university, Palmer got a lucky break back in the North East, being part of Nissan’s first graduate intake.

He said: “I got very lucky after graduating by joining Nissan in 1988. At that time they were building Bluebirds from kits in the UK. They built about 15,000 cars a year. As a typical engineer I love cars, despite owning a pretty boring Porche today!

“Nissan initially approached me while I was still at university. I think they had a list of local mechanical engineering students. I went through the interview process and got an unconditional offer which was great as it really took the pressure off my final exams.

“It was a brand new car factory and it definitely seemed like the future. Back in the 1980s the UK car industry wasn’t doing well, but the Japanese looked like they were doing things very differently and it was an absolutely fantastic place to start a career at that time. There was huge amounts of pressure, but an incredible focus on launching new products.”

During his time at Nissan, Palmer worked in Nissan’s European technology centre at Cranfield, Bedfordshire in the engine design department.

“There was so much that was new all the way through. They had a real determination to show what could be done in the UK. Sir Ian Gibson who ran Nissan at the time was a really inspirational leader,” said Palmer.

But having been thrown in at the deep end as a young Nissan graduate, how did Palmer find it?

“As a young graduate I had a lot of responsibility because we were doing things no one had ever done. I’ve never worked anywhere with as much purpose, there was a real buzz and I consider myself very fortunate. There are very few start-ups on that scale with a whole new supply base.”

Despite exciting times at Nissan, Palmer still felt he had not reached the peak of his career and being a keen sportsman, he opted for the great outdoors.

He said: “I’d been at Nissan just coming up for five years, when I decided to leave and become a ‘ski-bum’. I left in November 1993 and went to Meribel in France for a couple of winters. It just felt like the right thing to do. Although Nissan was great, I didn’t really fit into a big company. It was an incredibly constrained environment – and it had to be – working as part of the engine design team. But it was quite frustrating at times too.”

However, after returning from his ski exploits, Palmer found trying to break into other areas of mechanical engineering very difficult.

“I started looking for jobs elsewhere when I came back, but I found that in reality while it was easy to get jobs in what you’d always done, trying to move into something completely different was difficult so I ended up going to work as a contractor for Ford in Dunton, Essex.

“I didn’t have any family at that point, and I knew people down there. It wasn’t where I chose to live, but I knew how Nissan worked and I wanted to do something different. I needed a new experience.”

Unfortunately the experience wasn’t nearly as exciting for Palmer as he’d imagined and it wasn’t long before he returned to his routes. However the real driving force behind his return was down to love.

He said: “I was there less than a year when I realised I needed to move back. I’d met an American girl called Trish while ski-ing and she had come to the North East after getting a job at Northern Counties School for the Deaf. We’d been commuting up and down the road for a while before my return. We’re now married and have two daughters.”

So how did the sheet metal fabricator and its metal bashing roots become Tharsus Group and specialists in Original Equipment Design and Manufacture (OEDM)?

Palmer said: “It was an accountant who made it possible for me to buy into Tharsus. I couldn’t do it by myself. Back then, the business only had one computer, which was on its last legs and only installed to keep the accountants happy! They used a comptometer to do the accounts. The company had almost closed six to eight months earlier.

“Tharsus had some really interesting customers though, which in 1997/98 read like a really good list, but then came the tech crash of 2001/2 which turned it into a corporate disaster.”

Palmer’s dream of running his own company nearly turned into a nightmare and he was forced to rethink the business. He points to skilful managing of risk which brought the firm back from the brink.

“We lost some of our biggest high-tech customers, the likes of ISL Viasystems and Marconi. We’d had a good two or three years before that, but the crash was pretty painful and from 40 staff we ended up with 20.

“We had to work hard to find new customers, rationalise the business. I parted company with the accountant and became the full owner of the business in 2003. Then between 2003-2008 we were mainly dealing with the telecoms sector.

“Looking back, I was probably a bit naive. I wanted to do my own thing. To run my own company and be involved in engineering was always my goal and that ticked all the boxes for me. A business with a high level of engineering content was always very important to me. It also gave me an opportunity to have some machines and toys to play with!”

Today Tharsus has returned to strength and employs 150 staff across four sites, two in Blyth, one in Hebburn, and a small unit in Birmingham, but how has the firm evolved?

“Back then, we had a much more local focus. What makes us different now is that we have evolved from just making components into full products. When things leave us now, they usually have a CE Mark and serial number plate on so they can be shipped directly to customers. We export about 42% of goods, primarily to Germany, Italy, France and Spain, but some further afield to places like Lebanon and China. It’s quite a mixed bag. Back in 2008 we exported very little,” said Palmer.

Palmer is a firm believer in recruiting young talent across a variety of engineering disciplines.

He said: “We’ve had apprentices for about 10 years now and if I had my time again, one thing I would change is to bring even more apprentices into the business. If you have a constant flow of apprentices through the business, they bring fresh ideas, understand how the company works and become the backbone of a business. We took three on last year and aim to take another four this year.”

Now working with the likes of BAE Systems, SMD, Turbo Power Systems, Joyce Loebl and CMR locally and nationally and internationally, 3M, Rapiscan and Safety Clean, what does the future hold for Tharsus?

“We are getting involved in discussions on specification with our customers, we then take on the fundamental design of the product. 90% of the content of the product will have been designed by Tharsus. We see ourselves as a virtual extention of someone’s business and that’s how we end up with long-term manufacturing deals.

“Research and development is at the heart of our business because it differentiates us. That’s where you create great products.

“You can try and save a few % here and there when you are manufacturing a product, but if you design it intelligently, you can save 30% to 40% – really significant savings.”

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer