Attracted by the industrial might and engineering capability of coal-fired power stations, Bruce Heppenstall was keen to gain an understanding of their inner workings as a lad.
And these huge structures not only fired up his imagination, but ultimately gave him fuel for thought about his future.
Heppenstall, now in his 40s, grew up in Preston, Lancashire, and was educated at Aston University. His father worked for Bass Breweries as a statistician, while his mother was a physiotherapist.
He said: “My dad worked as a statistician which was a bit like a Lean Six Sigma type role. He used data to analyse how the business was operating and where it should make operational changes.
“He worked there for a long time, then left and bought his own business making medals in Birmingham, which he ran very successfully. I think I take after my father in some respects and I think he would have pursued a career in engineering if he’d been guided that way early on.”
From a young age, Heppenstall was fascinated with engineering, making things and taking them apart in the family garage held special appeal.
“I’d play with Lego and Meccano which helped fuel my interest in engineering,” he recalls.
“When I was about 12, the lawn mower stopped working, so I took it apart. I got it working again, although there were a few extra bolts left over. It did work for a period of time – I do remember that!”
And Heppenstall’s engineering interest also influenced his academic choices.
“I drifted towards the sciences and ended up doing maths and physics with chemistry at A-level. I liked chemistry and maths because I was obviously stronger in those areas than I was in English, French or the humanities,” he recalls.
In 1988, Heppenstall won sponsorship from the then UK nationalised power industry – Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) – to study engineering alongside around 20 other students at Aston.
“My interest in power stations actually began when I was studying for my A-levels. It was just the sheer size of them, as well the engineering capability within them, that’s how I went on to take electrical and mechanical engineering at Aston.
“The university wanted to get more students to do electrical and mechanical engineering at the time. I preferred the mechanical engineering side because you can see what you are working with. Electrical engineering is much harder to visualise.”
His course gave him a solid grounding in the workings of big mechanical systems within the energy sector and also helped foster his industrial talent.
His career began in earnest. Soon after completing his BEng, Heppenstall went to work at Cottam Power Station, near Retford, Nottinghamshire, where he stayed for eight years.
“My first job was working as a trainee. It involved going around the plant to see what the mechanics and electricians were doing, it was a hands-on role. Then I moved to be with the engineers,” he said.
“I enjoyed it a lot because it was a time of great change in the industry.”
Heppenstall experienced a sudden surge in his early career following privatisation in the early 90s – a time when the power industry faced huge upheaval.
“Following privatisation, it opened up a huge amount of career opportunities for young engineers like myself, who previously would have had to stay in a job for 20 years to progress.
“Suddenly there were a huge number of jobs available. I took over from someone who was retiring, running the section responsible for optimising the emissions of the power station.”
Heppenstall’s role involved checking how the power units were operating, whether they were optimising and then coming up with ideas to optimise things further.
He added: “My role involved persuading different groups, particularly the operations groups, to try and do things differently to optimise it further. Just a simple steam leak on a power station can sometimes cost up to £300,000 a year in wasted energy.”
By the age of 22, Heppenstall found himself in charge of the efficiency department leading a team of 25 engineers and time-served fitters, a role which carried great responsibility.
“I got the chance to move into the plant maintenance groups where I led a team of engineers and craftsmen who maintained a section of the power plant. That taught me a lot about team-working and also just trying new things.”
Heppenstall says that looking back, he realises just how important it was to have a strong team with which to build the business, spreading resources effectively.
Having a ‘common sense’ approach meant a job that had taken 24 days to complete was finished in just 12.
“One thing I learned is to never assume the way you’ve always done things is the right way. We halved the time it took to overrule some of the main problems on the power station by finding different ways of working, It really got the guys energised.”
Heppenstall then gravitated towards leadership and by the age of 32 was in control of running a gas-fired power station in Wales. It meant, however, that he had fulfilled his ambition.
Heppenstall knew he had to reset his career goals. And after a stint of energy trading, he joined GE Energy.
Eighteen months ago, he became general manager, for Wellstream Flexibles at the Newcastle site of GE Oil & Gas. It’s been a rewarding voyage of discovery for a man who initially thought about joining the Navy.
And the opportunities Heppenstall found when he was working in the power sector are now apparent in the oil and gas industry today.
He said: “There is a huge crew change coming where a lot of the experienced engineers out there are within 10 years of retirement, so that creates a fantastic opportunity for young engineers right now.
“The industry is facing a real problem in that there will not be enough engineers available unless we do something about it.”
And with the gender imbalance in engineering still proving intractable, Heppenstall is keen to bring a better balance to the equation.
He said: “We are focusing on encouraging women into engineering roles – because that’s half the population we are potentially missing out on. So GE Oil & Gas are really proactive on that.
“We are working with schools on something called ‘Girls Get Set’ which encourages them to take science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects in order to study engineering at university.
“We had 23 female students between 14 and 18 from Durham visit the plant in the past few weeks and we are engaged with a number of schools in the area.
“We are also currently involved in a scheme called ‘Primary Engineer’ where we are supporting 10 out of 50 North East primary schools. We’ve allowed them to use our facilities for training and are providing our young engineers to those 10 schools which we are sponsoring.
“Making simple things out of cardboard, sticky tape and wooden wheels in primary school will help us move away from the previous image people had of engineers.
“It’s important to open teachers and parents’ eyes to show broad career routes available for young people. You can start as an apprentice, a mechanic, electrician or machinist and develop all the formal qualifications to degree level. You can then take it further and progress to become a chartered professional engineer and travel the world if you want to.”
Heppenstall stressed the importance of inspiring young people and believes by taking on four graduates every year, it will feed the business.
Since he took over the running of GE’s Walker Riverside plant, there has been renewed investment in the factory, but particularly in R&D and new technology.
He said: “It’s been three years since GE Oil & Gas took over and the number of technicians and engineers has increased significantly. We now have more than 80 people in Newcastle working on R&D technology and many millions of pounds being spent annually.
“The North East is clearly an area of high quality engineering and you’ve got great access to the heavy goods exports. There is a great deal of potential, so later this year we will be officially opening a new technology centre in Neptune Park just down the road. At the moment, we have one technology centre in Newcastle and one in Rio, Brazil. We are opening another one to give us deep water access. It’s less than a mile away from our main site.
“We are hoping that in the future there will be a heavy lift load link built between the two sites and that will open up the whole of the north bank then to increase development. It’s very exciting times for the north bank.”
And what about the future?
“We have invested heavily in our new manufacturing storage carousel which means a huge change in our capability giving us a faster installation time, because you have one continuous pipe instead of it being cut into sections.
“The whole building is around the size of a third of a football pitch. From the carousel, it is a straight load-out on to a vessel.”
Heppenstall is a firm believer in businesses giving back to the community.
He said: “Last year we were the principal sponsor of the Mission Christmas campaign with Metro Radio.
“We do it because it’s all part of the cultural ethos of GE to give back to the community in which you exist in. I think it’s important that big business takes a lead on this sort of thing and we get our employees engaged in the local community and we are again this year.
“Before Christmas we took 60 staff out to do Mission Christmas. It is voluntary, but those that get involved get a lot out of it. Employees have up to a week of volunteering time.
“The local impact is huge, but for us it’s the pride in what they are doing for their local community.”
So what characteristics are important to become a leader?
He said: “I had my first experience of leadership in the mid-nineties, and one of the key things is that everyone has an equal input and everyone buys into the shared goals. It is crucial to take a cross-section of everybody within the business.
“Wellstream is a product line that is part of GE Oil & Gas subsea division, so we’re split into two businesses, one that serves Brazil and then the one that’s based in Newcastle that serves everywhere else outside of Brazil.
“We have a local customer base and the flexible pipes that are manufactured here for the subsea industry are exported everywhere from Australia through the Gulf, the North Sea, West Africa and the Gulf of Mexico. More than 90% of our manufactured equipment here is exported.”
So does he think he made the right choice by going into engineering?
Heppenstall said: “I think on reflection going into engineering was the right decision. What engineers do at the end of the day is problem-solve. You could take any principles that engineers use in order to run a business. It’s a great background for anyone.”
And what does the site leader want to achieve now?
“I want to make Wellstream the most successful business under GE. It is three years since it was acquired and we are still finishing up some aspects of that integration.
“I think the North East has the industrial heritage and the core skills in a region of industrial innovation.
“It’s got the infrastructure, heavy ports, the rivers, and the core DNA of a region that allows technical innovation to flourish. We have good universities here and people who come here tend to want to stay.”
“I think it’s good for the region to have a global player like GE here and we have our pipeline inspection business up in Cramlington too. GE has more than 800 employees in the region. And that’s a significant number.
“Having world-class players such as GE and Nissan in the area can only be a good thing really.”
What car do you drive?
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Castellamare in Swansea overlooking Mumbles Head
Who or what makes you laugh?
What’s your favourite book?
No moon tonight – about a wartime bomber crew very similar to my grandfather’s experience in bombers
What was the last album you bought?
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you’d teach it to say?
What’s your greatest fear?
Losing the health of one of my family
What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received?
No one is indispensable! Life goes on even if the most experienced person is not around any longer.
What’s your poison?
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
Working in a medal-making factory for a week in Birmingham
How do you keep fit?
Cycling and running
What’s your most irritating habit?
What’s your biggest extravangance?
My carbon-fiber mountain bike – that I never ride!
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire and why?
Shackleton - for his determination and leadrship
Which four famous people would you like to dine with?
Tom Finney, Don Bradman, Ayrton Senna, Bobby Moore
How would you like to be remembered?