The waters of the Wear have been reawakened. Once again, the landscape is fluid – ships move up and down the banks of the river, and there is a literal and figurative buzz in the air as Port of Sunderland’s 40-strong team go about their business.
“It’s really exciting,” says Matthew Hunt, who joined the Port of Sunderland team in 2010.
“There is constant activity here now. From the forgotten landscape it once was, we have managed to build something special, and there is a real sense that we’re only just scratching the surface.”
The municipally owned Port of Sunderland is starting to carve out a reputation as a hub for emerging sectors including offshore renewable energy and oil and gas. Having not realised its potential for many years, the business has turned a profit for the second year running and there is a renewed confidence about the place, something helped by investment in the port from Sunderland City Council, which is helping the port to unlock more and more of its previously-untapped potential.
“Part of developing the port was about really getting to grips with what makes Port of Sunderland special. That was really the first major challenge when I joined the team here. There was no real sense of identity or understanding of where our place was in the market and what opportunities there were for us.
“The team here were so passionate about the port, but we needed to really get to grips with what we were about and understand what would make Port of Sunderland attractive to customers.”
The concept of finding a unique selling point and capitalising on it is one that Mr Hunt experienced early on in his career. The father-of-two worked at Seaham Harbour Dock Company, operators of the Port of Seaham, for four years in the early 90s, taking up a role as commercial manager after becoming aware of an opportunity to join the team, having worked with them in his first professional role with East Durham Development Agency.
“I had gone down the education route straight from school. I studied for a qualification in government and public policy at Newcastle Polytechnic, then a post graduate diploma in enterprise management, so I never really had designs on entering the shipping world. It was in the blood though. My father was in the merchant navy, and there was always an interest there for me. However, at the time that I had to make the decision about what career path I would take – down the education route or straight into industry – the British Merchant Navy was going through a really tough time, and that almost made my mind up for me.
“After studying, I joined East Durham Development Agency, which at the time was a spin-out from Easington District Council.
“I got involved with Seaham Harbour Dock Company, and when the chance came to join the team there, I knew I had to take it.
“Seaham is where I learned my trade, without any shadow of doubt. The days spent at Seaham Harbour were the ones that taught me the very basics about the things I know today,” says Mr Hunt.
Though his official title was commercial manager, the days at Seaham Dock Harbour Company were spent getting his hands dirty and learning about the industry.
“It was a small team, but one that was so committed,” says Mr Hunt. “The kind of place where you would turn up in your suit and tie, but always end up running to the car and getting your overalls out of the boot. It was all hands to the pump every day, but massively customer focussed. That was the main thing – the ethic. It was a company that knew its strengths and played to them. As we diversified into new markets, we’d treat every customer with the same level of care and attention.”
Mr Hunt credits one of his early managers, David Clifford, as the man responsible for shaping his approach to business today. Clifford was his managing director both at Seaham and his subsequent employer, Port of Tyne, where he moved to in 1996. Making the move up-river was one that gave Mr Hunt a completely different perspective, joining a well-oiled machine that had established the Tyne as an iconic working river.
“I had a fantastic 14 years at Port of Tyne. I was commercial director at the end, a role that gave me the chance to play a part in the process of shaping the port’s business plan, and helping to identify markets we could capitalise on.
“It was a culture change. I was based at the port’s headquarters – then in Bewick Street in the centre of Newcastle – so I wasn’t at the coal face like I had been in my role at Seaham. I had a dream job at Port of Tyne, though, and enjoyed some really great times there,” says Mr Hunt.
It was just before he was going on holiday that Mr Hunt saw the post for port director at Port of Sunderland advertised in the paper. Having grown up in Sunderland, and “always realised that Port of Sunderland had so much untapped potential” during his years at both Seaham and at Port of Tyne, it was an opportunity that Mr Hunt felt he could not pass by.
“I studied public policy at college, and spent years working in the shipping industry, so to find myself in a role at a municipally owned port is almost beyond coincidence.”
Joining the team in 2010, after what he describes as an “arduous selection process”, Mr Hunt set about quietly revolutionising the port.
“To join a team that was drawing a line in the sand, and assisting it with its value search, helping really define its strategic direction was just so exciting. I wanted to help Port of Sunderland to add sound economic value to not only its owners, but to the city and region. The North East has such a proud tradition in industry, and the Wear was once the lifeblood of the city’s economy. I wanted to help revitalise the port, and wake what I believe was a sleeping giant.”
And awaken the port he has most certainly done. With what Mr Hunt calls “fantastic corporate support and commitment” from Sunderland City Council and the port board established at the time of Mr Hunt’s appointment, Port of Sunderland is now looking ahead to a third year of profit. The waters of the Wear have enjoyed some of their busiest periods in decades, and waves of investment and development projects have helped to attract new customers to the port, keen to exploit the commercial opportunities that exist in Sunderland.
Mr Hunt, who is a fellow of the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers, says, “It’s been quite incredible.
“It has been hugely rewarding over the last few years to see our hard work start to pay off. We’ve made some significant investments – the council invested in a £500,000 Liebherr crane in 2012, and we took delivery of a second crane only recently – and some modest ones. But every decision we have made is about generating the best possible return on investment and it is working.
“We spent time really thinking about what made us special. We know our strengths. We know what our customers like about us. That’s how we have been able to turn things around – we play to our strengths as we have to do this and work hard at it as business just doesn’t fall into our laps.”
So what are the port’s strengths? Operating in five key areas, bulk cargo handling; project and unitised cargo; ship repair and marine engineering; North Sea oil and gas industry support and offshore renewable energy and subsea engineering, the port has built its business on its closeness to the North Sea and a flexible approach.
“We’re 10 minutes from open sea and once docked, seafarers are 15 minutes away from the city centre. That’s really special. But more than that, I think what customers really value is the fact that we look after them.
“The team here is time-served. It’s not made up of people who don’t know one end of a ship from another. They’re the most grounded bunch of people you could ever wish to meet – and they value every single customer they look after. They know what they are talking about, and to me, that’s special and most importantly, that is recognised by our customers.”
This special ingredient has attracted investment from companies including AJ Woods, an Essex-based engineering business, and LV Shipping, which recently opened a branch at Port of Sunderland.
And of course, the port recently played host to hundreds of Nissan cars, as NMUK, itself Sunderland-based, trialled the port for export.
“That was one of my proudest moments in my career. Being from the city, and seeing cars made here, leaving from the banks of the Wear was a massive coup and something I am lucky to have been part of.
“I do feel lucky, full stop. I have a job here that I love, and I feel utterly privileged to work with a great team and in a fantastic industry that I think we’re only just starting to make waves in. It’s a massively exciting journey, and I am thrilled to be at the helm as enjoy what it has to bring.”
What car do you drive? Volvo XC60.
What’s your favourite restaurant? Anywhere that does a good Sunday lunch.
Who or what makes you laugh? The Inbetweeners.
What’s your favourite book? 1984.
What was the last album you bought? Ministry of Sound Anthems 90s.
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got? Beer/wine taster.
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say? Matthew you are right, men are capable of doing more than one thing at a time.
What’s your greatest fear? Illness in those most close to me.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received? You have two ears and one mouth, use them in that ratio!
And the worst? There is no value in a relationship with any customer.
What’s your poison? Any Italian white.
What newspapers do you read other than The Journal? Guardian/Daily Mirror/Darlington & Stockton Times.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for? ï¿½650.00 per month as a Marketing Researcher
How do you keep fit? Back garden 'sports'.
What’s your most irritating habit? Leaving meetings early for another meeting.
What’s your biggest extravagance? Handbags (not for me and you can never have too many so I am told).
What historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire? Alexander the Great
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with? Andrew Marr, Bear Grylls, Peter Kay, J-Lo
How would you like to be remembered? Fondly.