Dr Stan Higgins, Chief Executive and Director, NEPIC

Dr Stan Higgins has become the voice of the chemical industry in the North East.

Dr Stan Higgins, Chief Executive and Director, NEPIC

AS A student at York University, a young Stan Higgins notched up 40 goals in one season as centre forward for the university team - including six hat-tricks.

His mother’s cousin Charlie Woods, a former professional footballer and close friend of the late Sir Bobby Robson, came to watch him during this purple patch, but put a swift end to the youngster’s footballing dreams.

Higgins, 57, recounts: “He said I should stick in at school, which was probably good advice.”

He had left school in Whitehaven at the age of 16 with six O Levels and secured a job at Windscale nuclear power station as a laboratory assistant.

He recalls how he was very happy with his life at the time, but how a chance conversation at work led to a change in direction.

“Things were going well – I had a Lambretta, a steady girlfriend and I was able to watch the Workington Reds (Workington Town football club) every weekend.

“I was in the lab testing some urine when one of the graduates said to me ‘Are you going to do this for the rest of your life?’ ”

That set young Higgins thinking and he took up the opportunity that was then being offered by his employers, British Nuclear Fuel, to undertake further study.

“I was waiting in the queues for the night classes and there were two queues, one for biology and one for chemistry.

“Everyone was in the biology queue and there was no one in the chemistry queue so I plumped for that one.”

It was a good decision by Higgins and he excelled, landing the prestigious title of the best under-21 employee, which saw him win a scholarship to York University. He got a 2:1 in chemistry, economics and technology and stayed on to complete a PhD in two years.

His first job on leaving university in 1979 was with Reckitt & Coleman as a chemist, where he excelled in organic chemistry, but his ambitions lay elsewhere.

“I was doing well in the organic chemistry field but I really wanted to be a plant manager and started looking for a plant manager’s job,” he says.

These ambitions were fulfilled when he joined GlaxoSmithKline in Lancashire as an assistant production manager.

He later joined Akzo in 1985, where he experienced the sharp end of management, seeing through a rationalisation process which saw a number of plants closed and the 400-strong staff roster reduced to 100.

His first managing director post was at independently-owned business PEBOC in North Wales.

He recalls: “I worked with some brilliant chemists during that time and that is when I knew my skills lay on the operational side of the business.

“I feel as though I helped change the culture of PEBOC with the experience I had gained in my previous jobs.

“It was a small operation and I was able to apply the management and organisational skills and techniques I had learnt and developed in my previous jobs.

“We were able to grow it from a £5m business to a £25m a year one.

“We also won two Queen’s Awards for Industry.”

When this company was sold to multinational Eastman, Higgins helped with the integration and then moved to the United States as technical director with responsibility for five of Eastman’s plants across the globe.

Higgins says he enjoyed his time in the US, although he found living in the States more of challenge than the working aspects.

Both Higgins and his wife Catherine, to whom he has been married for 37 years, found the experience of living in small town America in Kingsport, Tennessee, to be a little too slow. This quickly led to a return to the UK after just one year, where he landed his first job in the North East with Laporte at its Fine Organics division, which is based at Seal Sands, Billingham.

He was appointed divisional director with responsibility for the manufacturing and operation at seven global manufacturing facilities and five research facilities.

The post saw him responsible for worldwide research and development and technical development.

In 2001, Laporte sold the business to Degussa and, in 2003, after spending a year with James Robinson in Huddersfield, Higgins was headhunted for his current job as chief executive and director of the North East Processing Industry Cluster (NEPIC).

NEPIC was the brainchild of Newcastle entrepreneur Ian Shott and Bob Coxon, former chief executive of Teesside company Synetix, and advisor to global private equity giant the Carlyle Group.

Higgins recalls: “They wanted to give a higher profile to the processing industry in the North East and basically asked One North East for more support for the sector.”

The process industry is the powerhouse sector of the region, directly employing 34,000 people in 500 pharmaceutical, biotechnology, speciality, petrochemical and chemical companies.

NEPIC members generate in excess of £10bn of annual sales and account for 30% of the region’s industrial base.

While generally perceived as a Teesside-based sector, Higgins is always quick to point out that its tentacles are spread right across the region, from Alnwick over to Carlisle and into North Yorkshire.

He bought into the concept almost immediately after being approached.

“I think that, at the time, the region as a whole and the regional development agency One North East did not fully appreciate the scale and impact of the region’s process industries.

“They commissioned a report into the sector and this confirmed what people were telling them. The next step was to try and create a body which could create a voice for the industry.”

NEPIC started with around 180 members. Higgins was aware of the informal networks that existed between the companies which used to be part of chemical giant ICI, but he was keen to develop these networks across the region’s process industries.

“My goal was to build a voice for the industry. I wanted to bring everyone together.”

NEPIC says its brief is to dissuade those in the industry from accepting the status quo and show that, by working together, individual companies can have real influence on the state of the sector.

If success can be gauged by the increase in membership then NEPIC has performed admirably, having increased numbers to 560 today.

Higgins is an amiable and engaging character – tactile and demonstrative. This was never more clearly demonstrated during our interview than when we talked about the future of the chemical industry on Teesside.

At one point last year, many commentators were airing doubts over its future. Three companies based on the Wilton site near Redcar closed last year. Bad news at Invista was quickly followed by more from Dow. Dow’s closure meant the end of ethylene oxide (EO) production, which led to the demise of the Croda plant which relied on EO for its end products.

Higgins bangs his fist on the table and points his finger at the mention of the closures and the loss of hundreds of jobs on Teesside.

“These closures will have no major effect. Any suggestions otherwise are complete rubbish. Some of the utility companies have been affected such as BOC and Sembcorp and this has led to some reshuffling.

“But the biggest problem is how others perceive the situation. People who talk us down are more dangerous than anything else. We are having to build companies’ confidence because of the way people have talked us down.” He continues, barely catching breath: “I am out there telling people what they have heard has happened, has not happened.

“I am having big battles with global companies that are looking to invest, telling them that this is the place to invest.

“Deciding to invest in a location is all about having the confidence to do that. Confidence is about assessing the risk and my message is that there is no risk in the North East. The only two companies to disappear are Dow and Croda.”

Higgins points out that there is £2.5bn of investment earmarked for the region and highlights the companies who have invested in the last 12 months.

These include the £250m Sabic polymer plant and the Ensus biofuel plant which have opened on Teesside, and the announcement of a further £50m of investment at the INEOS Bio project.

In fact, Higgins believes the region is well placed for further investment and is developing a solid reputation as hub for some of the new renewable and recycling industries.

Through NEPIC, the region’s process industry companies are working to promote the attractiveness of this sector as a career opportunity, saying the sector will need a further 10,000 staff by 2020.

By 2020, Higgins expects to have retired and may well be spending his time on the golf course or watching football – his two favourite leisure pursuits. But he believes the process industry will continue to be a mainstay of the North East economy for many years to come.

THE QUESTIONNAIRE

What car do you drive?
Peugot 407 2.2L diesel – economy and performance.

What’s your favourite restaurant?
Strathearn at Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire, Scotland.

Who or what makes you laugh?
Oor Willie and The Broons cartoons.

What’s your favourite book?
Night Falls on Ardnamurchan, by Alasdair Maclean.

What’s your favourite film?
Ben Hur – saw it 10 times as a child. What was the last album you bought? The Beatles at the BBC.

What’s your ideal job, other than your current one?
Football Association chief executive.

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you’d teach it to say?
He likes whisky for presents.

What’s your greatest fear?
Workington Reds get promoted back into the football league and go bust.

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Listen!

Worst business advice?
Cut promotional and marketing costs.

What’s your poison?
Malt whisky – young ones. I don’t like the mellower old varieties.

What newspaper do you read, other than The Journal?
The Times.

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£30 per month (£365pa) – lab trainee.

How do you keep fit?
Golf.

What’s your most irritating habit?
Telling terrible jokes.

What’s your biggest extravagance?
Newcastle United season tickets.

Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with/admire?
Michael Faraday, picture top.

And which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
My wife says I have to say Cheryl Cole, Victoria Beckham, Leona Lewis and Madonna, but my own choice would be William Wilberforce, Michael Faraday, Albert Einstein and Pele, above.

How would you like to be remembered?
As a man who was great fun to work with and a champion of the process sector.

CV

DATE OF BIRTH: 30. 6. 53.

EDUCATION
1998 Eastman Chemical Company - Business Management Curriculum (MBA equivalent.)
1979 University of York - PhD Process Understanding & Development 1977 University of York - BA Chemistry, Economics & Technology (2:1).

EMPLOYMENT
2003 - to date NEPIC chief executive and director
2002 - 2003 Yule Catto - James Robinson, divisional director
1998 - 2001 Laporte, divisional director
1997 - 1998 Eastman, divisional director
1988 - 1997 PEBOC, managing director
1985 - 1988 Akzo, manufacturing manager
1981 - 1985 Glaxo, assistant production manager
1979 - 1981 Rekitt & Colman, chemist
1970 - 1975 BNFL, trainee chemist

INTERESTS Golf, soccer, reading, gardening.

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