When Lee Carlin left university with a degree in geology and geography he still wasn’t entirely sure where his true vocation lay.
But a keenness and courage to explore any and every option available to him proved more than invaluable.
His willingness to go wherever he saw an opportunity was spotted very early on by Grundfos, a Danish pump manufacturer, which poached him from a rival firm and he now runs the firm’s successful Wearside operation.
Lee was the global firm’s first general manager to rise to the top having started out in sales and that sales background has served both him and the business well.
Last year saw the Sunderland plant’s sales rose by 5.7% to £102.9m, up from £97.3m.
The previous year’s profit of £4.3m became a loss due to the end of favourable copper contracts.
But this year the firm is more than on target to hit forecast growth of 4.6%, thanks to the firm’s new product – a more energy-efficient UPS2 pump.
Lee has now been in his post for five years and he is very much focussed on their new products, his managerial direction having already transformed the Sunderland site, which now employs 190 people.
Running a large manufacturing base wasn’t an early ambition, however.
Lee, 38, was born and bred in Birmingham and after graduating from the University of Birmingham he admits he didn’t have much idea as to what he wanted to do after completing his degree.
He said: “I enjoyed my time at university and it was an eye-opener – there were 18,000 students, 60% of whom were from abroad, it was a real melting pot.
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do on leaving, but successfully applied to a graduate managing training course with Wolseley Centre, the building materials company.”
After completing two years of training, he was given his own Plumb Center branch of Wolseley’s in Redditch, just south of his home city.
He didn’t stay long. Wanting to broaden his horizons, and developing a keen interest in the sales side of the business, he left to become a sales rep with a water heater company.
“I enjoyed the work and it gave me a great opportunity to learn about sales, about the challenges and how to deal with people,” he explained.
He was appointed area sales manager for the company – and then in 2001 was approached by Grundfos.
The company designs and manufactures pumps for domestic and commercial buildings as well as providing larger pumps for the water supply and treatment industries.
Its main products are circulator pumps for heating and air-conditioning and centrifugal pumps for the water supply and sewage industry. It was a firm he was more than aware of.
“It was a bigger company and I knew they had a good reputation so I didn’t have to think for too long,” he said. “It was the same sort of job, area sales manager for the Midlands.
“I went from that job to business development manager and then to key account manager, a role in which I was dealing with big national and international companies.
“I was still based in and around Birmingham but then in 2007, Grundfos acquired a Kent company that became Grundfos Watermill. I was sent there as national sales manager, but then became operations manager of the site.”
This move was significant, and unusual for Grundfos, whose headquarters is in Denmark and who employs 17,500 in 80 companies, producing 16m pumps a year.
“I was one of the first to move from the sales side of things into a more technical, managerial role,” he said. “It was a change in direction for me, an opportunity to challenge and stretch myself. It was great to get involved in the whole business, from the supply chain right the way up.”
Grundfos was obviously pleased with the results because in November 2009 Lee was appointed general manager at Sunderland’s Castletown site aged only 33.
“I was given a mandate for Sunderland – to change the direction of the business, give it an identity and by evolution, not revolution.”
Five years on, he’s satisfied with the results.
“It was a successful site, but the market had changed and we had to make sure we did too.”
He’d been making a weekly commute from Birmingham to Kent, but on being given the Sunderland role, decided to move to the North East with his wife and three children.
He built a new management team around him, keen to ensure his senior staff had the confidence and ability to challenge him and his decisions: “I didn’t want a team of people like me or who would all agree with me, and the fact that I’ve managed to achieve that is one of the reasons for our success.”
He moved the business model away from only making mass-produced water pumps, while at the same time reducing the cost base.
“We’ve been able to grow the business from 2009, deliver improved profitability, reduced the cost base and introduced new products, like our new energy-efficient UPS2 circulators, on to the market,” he said.
“We’ve also introduced our bespoke engineered systems, which is an area of huge growth for us.
“While we’re still successfully producing high volumes of A-rated energy-efficient domestic water pumps, we’re now also creating specially-made fire suppressant packaged pump houses to customers’ specific orders.
“The increase in this area of the business has built up momentum and we’re on course to hit our target of 25% growth, which would be a huge achievement for Sunderland.”
The new units have already been delivered to Terminal 5 at Heathrow and to the London Gateway, a huge new port being constructed on the River Thames. Others are due to be delivered to an oil refinery, a Welsh hospital and a UK power station.
But the relatively new engineered-to-order area of the business isn’t the only one that is doing well.
“In Europe, we have the strongest order book we’ve ever had,” said Lee.
“We’ve seen a steady rise in confidence across our markets over the last nine to 12 months, and we’re doing particularly well in key sector areas like commercial buildings and water utilities.
“We’re certainly above pre-recession levels and there is lots of optimism around our markets.”
Not that Lee attempts to take any credit for the success - time and time again, he compliments his team and workforce, praising their flexibility, their work ethic and their commitment.
“I’m a good listener,” he said. “I don’t jump to conclusions and once I’ve agreed a plan I’ll make sure it happens, but I think the main reasons why we’ve been successful here is the team. It’s my team now and it’s high-performing, trustworthy and very talented.”
His succession planning involves identifying not one but two likely successors if and when Lee decides to move on.
That plan also embraces the firm’s dedication to providing solid training programmes.
He said: “We’re really proud of our record and reputation for innovation, but that can only happen if we recruit and develop the right people. Our training programmes range from a very local level through to our two-year graduate talent programme and our talent development programme.
“The former is offered to a small number of handpicked, high-potential graduates and is aimed at kick starting a global career with Grundfos. Participants on the course spend time abroad working on specific projects.
“Our talent development programme, also known as the Talent Engine, is designed to create a pipeline of talented specialists, innovators and leaders again on a global level. It focuses on people who demonstrate high potential and who are believed to be capable of creating a strategic difference in Grundfos.”
Once enrolled, those participants have access to development opportunities like mentoring, coaching, master-classes and strategic assignments.”
Lee himself has benefitted from Grundfos courses, having been on the forerunner to the talent programme, and says the company is generous in providing development opportunities.
He is keen to ensure the whole workforce feels part of a team. Last year’s celebrations to mark the 40th anniversary of the Sunderland site involved everyone at the plant, while this year the workforce enjoyed a World Cup penalty shoot-out, with prizes presented by SAFC 1973 FA Cup winning hero Dick Malone.
In what little downtime he has outside of his long office hours and frequent trips to Grundfos offices abroad, he relaxes by playing squash, mountain-biking and following the fluctuating fortunes of Aston Villa.
And now a dedicated member of the North East community he also takes the role of the company in the region seriously. He sits on the Sunderland Business Group, is a member of the NSPCC Business Board and recently became a governor at the nearby Castleview Academy.
Grundfos played a leading role in last year’s inaugural Work Discovery Week, linking school pupils with industry and business. It played a central role this year too.
The company is also working with Sunderland College on developing an apprenticeship programme, while at the same time nurturing a closer relationship with the University of Sunderland, sponsoring an award at their recent graduation ceremony and providing staff to lead engineering masterclasses.
“We’re a major employer in Sunderland, and the vast majority of our workforce live here, so it’s only natural that we take an interest in the city as a whole and want to help where we can,” said Lee.
Although the work with the college and university isn’t entirely altruistic.
One issue facing Grundfos is a lack of qualified, skilled engineers, but it’s one he and team are dealing with.
He added: “It’s a challenge, but one we are tackling through our work with Sunderland College and the local universities.”
What car do you drive?
Range Rover Evoque
What’s your favourite restaurant?
The Savoy in London, but locally the Rib Room at Ramside Hall.
Who, or what makes you laugh?
Satirical or slapstick comedy
What’s your favourite book?
She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith
What was the last album you bought?
The latest CD from Rival Sons, an American rock band
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Working on a larger production site, or something linked to developing people
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
Always look on the bright side of life
What’s your greatest fear?
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Build a team around you that complements your skills and who will challenge you.
And the worst?
When you first go into a new job you need to ‘shake the tree’ to make a good impression.
What’s your poison?
Red wine, particularly chateauneuf.
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
Just The Journal really, although I do read the NECC’s Contact magazine and keep up to date with what is happening in the world through the BBC news website.
How much was in your first pay packet?
My first salary was £9,000 a year!
How do you keep fit?
Squash and mountain biking
What’s your most irritating habit?
My wife would say I can’t let anything lie.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
I have a good Swiss watch and a great mountain bike.
How would you like to be remembered?
As somebody who made a positive difference at home, at work and in the community
Which four people would you most like to dine with?
Sir Jackie Stewart, Billy Connolly, Andrew Marr and Simon Schama ( that’s sport, comedy, politics and history covered).