How group NOF Energy helped us break other markets

One of the North East's leading business groups is celebrating its 25th birthday this week. Peter McCusker speaks to a founder member of NOF Energy, and its chief executive

Robert Bowles, managing director of Barrier
Robert Bowles, managing director of Barrier

"We wouldn’t be here without NOF Energy," says Robert Bowles, managing director of painting and fire-proofing firm Barrier.

Wallsend-based Barrier was formed in 1975 and is one of the founder members of the Northern Offshore Federation – now NOF Energy – in 1988.

As NOF Energy celebrates its 25th birthday this week Bowles is happy to elaborate on the significance of the organisation to the growth and ongoing success of his £25m turnover firm – and the North East too.

“We were a business with one main contract and knew we needed to break into other markets. NOF helped us achieve that.”

Barrier began as a contractor painting the North Sea offshore modules made by Tyneside fabricator Press Production Systems.

In the months prior to the formation of NOF Bowles had succeeded his father as managing director of Barrier and was looking to secure additional work.

Bowles says it was former Amec executive Dennis Clark, now honorary president of NOF Energy and chairman of Tyneside offshore fabricator OGN, who was the driving force behind the Northern Offshore Federation.

“We were in recession and the price of oil was down to something like $20 a barrel and we were looking for opportunities to grow outside our North Sea markets.

“Dennis was a true visionary. He was looking forward and asking what will we do when the North Sea work goes?

“He wanted to put the North East on the global map. To show the oil majors the skills the region possesses.

“The aim was to showcase and strengthen the local supply chain and help North East companies use these skills to win work overseas.”

The first North Sea oil rig was built on the Tyne and three quarters of the 400-plus installed on the United Kingdom Continental Shelf originate from the region.

Supporting the main fabricators such as Amec, McNulty, Hereema, and Kvarener were scores of smaller supply chain companies like Barrier.

Bowles continued: “Dennis wanted to take these North East skills outside the region, and saw the Northern Offshore Federation as the vehicle to do that.

“Within a few years we had secured our first overseas contract in in South Africa with Amec.

“By the mid-1990s we had 50 members and we were saying to members and North East businesses: ‘Would you like to come and meet Amec or one of the oil majors and hear what projects they’re working on?’.

“It was a no-brainer.”

As well supporting each other in the search for work NOF was also lobbying Government – and the US oil majors – to ensure much of the North Sea work was kept in Britain.

In the early part of the new Millennium, as oil production in the North Sea started to decline, membership numbers at NOF fell from over 200 to around 170.

In 2005 it appointed George Rafferty as its chief executive and within a year he had drafted a new strategy with the aim turning it into a national, self-funded, business development organisation operating across all energy sectors.

Membership numbers have since doubled to 423, with fees vary from £400 to £1,500.

It had always relied on public sector funding support and Rafferty and the NOF board devised a strategy to allow it to stand on its own two feet.

Rafferty said: “Our aim was to be self-financing by 2013 and we achieved that last year.”

In 2011 Rafferty conceived and continues to drive forward a new NOF strategy to encompass the emerging energy sectors.

Consequently North East England’s Renewables Group, Energi Coast was formed by NOF Energy in 2011 and is led by a steering group of 24 companies involved in the offshore renewables sector.

Rafferty added: “We created Energi Coast with the objective of showcasing the capabilities of North East’s integrated offshore renewables supply chain.”

The North East is a leading player in the development of technology to recover oil and gas from underwater basins such as the North Sea.

Subsea North East was established with NOF Energy’s support in 2007 and the organisation continues to provide support to the group.

Rafferty said: “We expect oil and gas to be the prominent market for the coming years but offshore wind will ramp up gradually.”

He continued: “Back in 2007 we highlighted the opportunities emerging in the nuclear sector and something like 46% of our members are now placed to secure contracts in the nuclear supply chain.

“NOF allows companies to network with the supply chain, it allows companies to unearth new sectors and global markets in which to operate and opens doors for members.

“We are all about providing a high-quality service that adds value for our members.”

Rafferty added: “We can be very proud to have reached our silver jubilee, but this is just the latest milestone in a very bright future for NOF Energy.”

A silver jubilee dinner celebrating 25 years of NOF Energy takes place tomorrow night at the Newcastle/Gateshead Hilton Hotel.

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