In 1993 finance director Wyn Jones built his own computer model to convince overseas directors not to close the Alcan aluminium plant in Northumberland. It worked and Jones is now managing director at the plant, Peter McCusker reports.
THEY were very dark days for Northumberland. In November 1991 one of the smelting lines at Alcan in Lynemouth was shut and 500 people were laid off.
The future of the county’s major employer was shrouded in uncertainty with speculation mounting closure was imminent.
Two months later a new finance and planning director arrived at the plant with colleagues elsewhere in the company raising eyebrows at the Welshman’s departure from a cushy office job at Alcan’s Oxfordshire headquarters to this northern outpost.
Jones said: “I was familiar with the business. I felt it could be saved and wanted to help make it happen.”
Alcan MD at the time Paul Belanger liked what Jones had to say and the two of them set about developing a strategy to secure its long-term future.
Alcan Lynemouth, like many aluminium plants, has its own power station and at the time the price of electricity was much higher in real terms than it is now.
Jones says: “There was certainly talk in the company that it would make business sense to develop the power generation side of the business and sell electricity rather than aluminum. There was a strong school of thought at the highest level of the company that the time was right to close down Lynemouth’s aluminium facility.”
Perhaps the people who scoffed at Jones were right. Perhaps he was mad moving his family north and now preparing for a fight with powerful directors and major shareholders.
But Jones, who is from Welsh mining stock and has his feet firmly planted on the ground, was adamant that if he fought the right fight, he could secure its future.
“This was always an intellectual battle. With shareholders it can never become an emotional battle about jobs. We had to prove the plant had a future and we did.
“It was a very complex argument which involved a huge number of variables, such as raw material prices, exchange rates and so on. When discussing it, people would look for the answers they wanted and then would find an argument to support their case.”
Jones’s faith in its future embroiled him in many of these discussions and set his mind thinking along the lines of developing an unshakable argument in its favour.
The industrial economics graduate and accountant used his analytical skills to construct a computer model which encompassed more than 100 variables.
“At the end of the day it basically came down to three or four variables which proved the plant had a future, but what it did was get rid of the smoke and got the facts on the table,” he concludes. Jones’s journey to Lynemouth, 2008, began in the Welsh town of Cardigan in 1949 where his parents, both from mining families, were teachers.
After leaving school, Jones chose Nottingham University to do economics despite being offered a position at the most prestigious school of learning at the time, the London School of Economics, which he shunned because of its reputation for left-wing militancy.
A graduate trainee position at a forerunner of Alcan in a work study capacity was his first position and then at the age of 22, with the first of his two children born, he decided to train as an accountant and for five years he studied in his own time before qualifying.
By now the parent company was called British Aluminium Company and he was working and living in London.
He was drafted to work in one of its subsidiary companies which had been set up by an entrepreneur called Jonnie Johnson and in Jones’s words this was the “most fun time of his working life”.
“It was a small company selling aluminium. The previous accountant was last seen running and screaming across the car park after locking himself in the toilet. This was in 1978 and I worked there for eight years, which was far too long, but it was so much fun. We were a small company but a highly profitable one.”
“It was a great place to work. We held a party to celebrate the company’s 21st birthday and we had such a good time we held three more 21st parties.”
Jones recalls how they were supplying aluminium to the Argentinian military junta for their main strike aircraft when the Falklands conflict started.
“We had a shipment which was due for dispatch. Jonnie was in Australia, but I knew we couldn’t send it. I called the MoD, but as no embargo had yet been officially introduced they said we could.
“I knew I couldn’t do it, so I went to the airport where the shipment had already passed through Customs and was awaiting loading, so I went in and got it back.
“The following day The Times ran a piece with a picture of the cargo crates saying ‘this is a shipment of rifles to Argentina’. “Jonnie was furious because he wanted to know how we were going to sell the stock. But the funny thing is we got paid twice for the goods. Once during the conflict and then after the conflict we got a second cheque from the Argentinians.
“When we informed them they didn’t need to pay us they got all touchy about it and insisted we take the money to impress upon us that they were not incompetent!”
Jones also received his most memorable piece of business advice. He recounts: “I reminded Jonnie of something he said in an argument we had had three years previously. He said: ‘I know I did not say that. I do not have to think about what I have said as I always speak the truth and I always speak as I find. I therefore do not have to remember what I’ve said before!”
After four years as finance director at Lynemouth, Jones took over as works director of the plant’s coal-fired power station.
This move again raised eyebrows across the company as he was the first non-engineer to do such a job.
“I stuck to first principles,” remarks Jones. “I asked the stupid question.”
Jones helped transform the fortunes of the plant, bringing about performance improvements and embracing the emerging green agenda by reducing CO2 emissions.
His appointment as managing director of Alcan Aluminium UK Ltd in 2000 saw him become head of the Lynemouth smelting plant and power station, as well as a sister plant and its two hydro power stations in the Scottish Highlands.
Shortly afterwards Jones proved his doubters were wrong once and for all when he signalled the dawning of a new era for Lynemouth with the re-opening of the second smelter – the one which had been closed nine years earlier, just before Jones had arrived.
This move saw 115 staff added to the company’s payroll and this is now regarded by Jones as the highpoint of his business career.
He said: “Getting the second ‘pot line’ open again is what I came here to do. It was what I sensed I could do from a distance and I had eventually achieved it, although it was not easy.”
The Lynemouth plant produces enough electricity to power a city the size of Sheffield. Jones’s immersion in the world of power generation has developed in him a high degree of expertise on CO2 emissions.
His unshakable faith in reducing CO2 emissions is rooted in the basic economics of saving energy and waste.
Jones has been seconded and appointed to several high-powered bodies and committees advising on and debating energy policies. He was awarded an OBE in 2004, which recognised his achievements in showing the highest standards of environmental performance can go hand in hand with increased competitiveness.
He also participated as an expert panelist at the G8 Davos Summit on climate change.
Lynemouth is now one of the most environmentally-friendly coal fired power stations in the world, but impending European legislation on carbon emissions could impose cost penalties on EU aluminium producers which the industry says will damage their competitiveness.
Jones, now 58, and having worked for the same company (under a number of new owners) for 38 years, had been planning to retire at 60.
He is settled in the North East and his two daughters now see the region as home.
“That’s something for us Joneses! We have always been people who have moved about.”
So when I ask if he will keep the promise to himself and retire at 60 he exhibits that fighting streak all too familiar to his colleagues over the years.
“It’s possible, but there’s still so much to do. There’s this looming EU legislation we need to deal with.”
Watch out, Brussels – Jones is on his way – and no matter how many IT bods, statisticians and economists you line up, you’ll have a fight on your hands.
And don’t be surprised if your computer model is outgunned by a lad from the valleys who has already won one major battle for the place he now calls home.
Wyn Jones: The CV
Born 1949, Cardigan, Dyfed, Wales
Fluent Welsh speaker
Married to Wendy and has two daughters Wendy and Tracey and a granddaughter Jessica (to Tracey)
Educated at Cardigan; Nottingham University BA Industrial Economics
Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants
British Alcan Aluminium plc (chair)
Alcan Aluminium UK Ltd (MD)
Alcan Farms Ltd (chair)
Association of Electricity Producers
Chair of Materials Innovation and Growth Team (DTI)
Former chair of CBI Energy Policy Committee (six-year tenure)
Expert contributor to European Commission High Level Group on Competitiveness, Energy and the Environment (2006)
Member of Prime Minister’s G8 WEF/ Industry expert advisory panel on Climate Change, feeding into the Gleneagles summit in 2005.
Member of Whitehall/Business Climate Change Policy Review Group
Adviser to New and Renewable Energy Centre
Founder member of UK Emissions Trading Steering Committee
Member of Special Expert Group of NETA (1999-2000)
Playing guitar, gardening
OBE in 2004 New Year’s Honours List
What car do you drive?
All aluminium, lightweight Jaguar
What’s your favourite restaurant?
One with good company. For food – Artisam, Corbridge
Who or what makes you laugh?
Tom Sharpe’s books
What’s your favourite book?
Apart from Tom Sharpe, Catch 22
What’s your favourite film?
What was the last album you bought?
The Script, The Script
What’s your ideal job, other than your current one?
Working for my wife
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you’d teach it to say?
“I’m a good boy – but just what did that frozen chicken do to upset you?”
What’s your greatest fear?
Forgetting something important ... now what was it?
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
If you always speak honestly, you won’t have to remember what you said
Worst business advice?
Time will tell
What’s your poison?
Dry white wine
What newspaper do you read, other than The Journal?
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£5 weekly milk round. £100 a month graduate trainee
How do you keep fit?
I’m glad you noticed! Gardening probably
What’s your most irritating habit?
I defer to my wife’s opinion on this subject
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with/admire?
John Maynard Keynes
And which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Leo Fender, Les Paul, Peter Green, Richard Thompson with their guitars
How would you like to be remembered?
Not yet! Someone who usually got it right – or thereabouts, but got it done