Offshore training and manufacturing group Advanced Industrial Solutions is growing at a phenomenal rate and - despite the issues facing the oil and gas industry - has ambitious plans for further rapid growth. Peter McCusker reports.
The north east corner of Tyne Tunnel Trading estate feels like a collision between a college campus and a retail park on Black Friday.
Rammed with cars - white van man is forced to double park – a constant flow of short-sleeve workers crisscross eagerly between the functional industrial units.
The non-stop buzz of activity mirrors the man responsible for creating it. AIS founder and managing director Paul Stonebanks greets us on arrival, we later bump into him supervising the transformation of one of its 13 units elsewhere, and 10 minutes later we sit down for a chat in the boardroom in a separate unit close to where the tour started.
Last year AIS trained 12,000 people and achieved sales of £12m with a roster of blue-chip clients including the major oil companies BP, Shell and leading lights of the contracting community.
He says it expects to train 17,000 people and achieve revenues of £20m this year, excluding any potential new overseas sales from three projected developments in the Middle East and a new business opening in Trinidad.
Staff numbers have grown to 125 and will grow further, whilst AIS also has plans to develop a similar facility to the North Tyneside one elsewhere in the UK.
Back on North Tyneside, AIS will open a new 14,000 sq ft education academy in June and later this year a new 35,000 sq ft training academy, which will include ROV simulators, CAD design and provide mechanical, electrical and general engineering training.
The education academy will take youngsters straight from school, and where necessary teach basic English and maths and Levels 1 to 3 apprenticeships.
His eventual aim us to seek accreditation to take students through to degree level qualifications and says he is open-minded on whether this will involve working with established universities and colleges.
He said: “Our aim is to establish an all energy diploma/degree covering wind, oil and gas, nuclear and subsea. The key for us is the will of a potential partner to be as nimble as we would like them to be.
“Our aim is to join all of the dots and provide potential employers with jobs ready people possessing the required knowledge to work in the offshore sector.”
AIS also plans to develop a not-for-profit recruitment arm which will help employers find the right people for their business, explained Mr Stonebanks.
Early next month AIS’ latest facility, a £1m renewable energy centre, will open bringing the company’s total footprint on the trading estate to over 200,000sq ft, providing over 100 courses.
This purpose-built 6,000 sq facility features 15 meter high climbing and rescue platforms, and is aimed at workers in the wind sector requiring technical training.
AIS has also negotiated an agreement with Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult in Blyth, formerly Narec, to use its 30-metre training tower. The two-year agreement will also undertake high voltage and cable-laying and repair training.
Mr Stonebanks, who was born in Percy Main, North Tyneside, said: “Multi-skilled operatives delivering companies what they want - that is our aim. Many competitors will deliver some of what they want, but not all of it.
“We listen to the companies and ask them what they need. What will help your business grow? And then aim to deliver that; providing the total solution.”
AIS was launched in 2007 when Mr Stonebanks invented a waterproof insulation jacket for pipework and offshore structures.
He says the main driver of this was the desire to spend more time at home on North Tyneside after years of peripatetic offshore shifting.
The business then went on to invent the Jet Fire Pro, the world’s thinnest flexible fire protection jacketing system, and the manufacturing arm continues to grow today.
He said: “From the money we’ve made from that, we’ve been able to reinvest in training.”
Rope training was the first diversification, being a natural progression for a business making jackets to protect fabrication and pipework on offshore structures.
Further specialised tuition is delivered for riggers and Banksman Slingers (how to handle the transfer of a cargo from a ship to the berth, they tell me).
Blasters are trained in a separate unit, and in the ‘smoke room’ simulator trainees learn how to escape a fire in the dark mirroring conditions offshore.
Last year AIS opened a £2.5m offshore centre. This 20,000 sq ft unit features a 4.5m deep pool where workers can learn survival techniques for scenarios like a helicopter ditching at sea.
The centre - which is approved by a number of industry bodies - also includes classrooms, changing facilities, a restaurant and meeting rooms.
It offers mandatory safety training including BOSIET (Basic Offshore Safety Induction and Emergency Training), medical training and MIST (Minimum Industry Safety Training), all of which are required by those working offshore.
Charlie Guthrie, AIS marketing manager, who hosted the whistle stop tour, believes AIS has the best and most competitive facilities in the UK.
This was boosted with the opening last year of a hotel, with rooms from as little as £20 a night it has hosted delegates from as far afield as Thailand and New Zealand.
He said: “This hotel is a real USP for us. None of our competitors have their own hotels. It’s more cost effective for an Aberdeen-based company to send its delegates to AIS for training and stay our hotel, with Aberdeen hotel prices being some of the highest in the country.”
He says AIS trainees include many freelancers looking to upskill and improve their existing qualifications.
They also host ambitious people from across the world looking to break into the offshore industry, including one Lithuanian man who recently spent six weeks going through a variety of courses.
While many business facing the offshore oil and gas industry are intent on keeping their heads down and weathering the storm being caused by a plummeting oil price, AIS is planning for further growth.
Dave Bowyer, director of training and education at AIS, said: “We are confident we are heading in the right direction, despite the ongoing and forecast job losses there industry will need 12,000 UK offshore staff due to retirements.
“We expect to see growth in the petrochemical industry, which will be boosted by the fall in the oil price and we expect to see further growth in the nuclear industry. We offer training in these areas and will develop this further.
“North Sea operators and contractors have to maintain their existing assets and achieve health and safety standards. They will continue to spend, with an estimated £10bn to be spent on operational expenditure this year alone.
“Platforms and infrastructure which had been designed for 25 years are being extended for a further five to 10 years. We are a diversified business and if something drops of for a while we are able to push into an area that’s growing.”
Some 400,000 people are said to be employed in the UK offshore oil and gas industry with over 50,000 of these said to come from the North East.
For many years most North East and UK companies have had concerns about a widening skills gap and ongoing skills shortage.
Mr Bowyer added: “The North East has a proud heritage, but the skills shortage has been acknowledged for some time and we are here to provide a solution.”
AIS places great emphasis on its corporate culture, described by Mr Stonebanks as: ‘high energy, honesty, integrity and trust’.
“Our passion is to help change the mindsets of the people we train and recruit. We want them to know how important their work is to themselves, to the business and to the economy as a whole,” he said. “Higher level skills can lead to a better life for themselves, their family and can benefit the country.
“We have seen the shipbuilding industry fade away and that was mainly the result of the stranglehold the unions had on business back in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Overseas investors would look at the country and see the labour issues we had and then look to invest elsewhere, but that is now changing and we are slowly chipping away at those perceptions.
“As we grow then we want our people grow with us. The individual is the biggest part of our business; we need the right people to take the business forward.
“We focus on what the customer wants regardless of what it may take. If a customer rings up and says he want 20 people trained the following day we will find a way.
“This goes back to where we started as a business – as a solutions provider.”
One recent example of this ethos saw ship owners contract AIS to deliver training when it docked on the Tyne, during what would be normally down time for its mainly Ukrainian crew.
‘When the boat comes in’ on Tyneside these days, do not be surprised to find a crack team on AIS trainers waiting to get on board.
Follow Peter McCusker on Twitter @mccusker60