YOU get a rare view from the window of Phil Dryden’s office ... the skyline is dominated by the smouldering, sprawling mass of Redcar Steel Works.
Dryden draws my attention to it with some evident pride: after all, it’s one of only three remaining steel making plants in the UK and its furnace is the second largest in Europe – and, as SSI UK chief executive, it’s his baby.
His personal history is closely bound up with that of the plant. He was the man who, as Corus’s group director in its Long Products business, announced the mothballing of Redcar in 2010, and who is now responsible for nursing it back to life.
He is a man of contradictions. When we meet he is nattily dressed in black- and-white striped shirt and even a tie, and yet has a day’s growth of beard. His manner is diffident, almost shy, but once he starts to speak he rapidly eases into a relaxed, fluent eloquence. He began his career as a determined non-risk taker but it’s a career characterised by seeking out challenges.
He himself says: “I’ve had what I consider to be an orthodox career in terms of everything I did, but I’m quite an unorthodox person to have had such an orthodox career. I conform but not quite in the way corporate organisations usually expect.”
His early upbringing and early career were conventional enough. He was born in South Shields in 1956, his mother was a nurse and his father was a joiner. When he was eight, the family moved to Beverley in East Yorkshire, which was a culture shock.
He recalls: “When I moved to Beverley nobody understood a word I said. In those days, not many people used to move around with their jobs, so when I turned up in Beverley from South Shields they thought I was actually from a different country.”
He went to Beverley Grammar School and then became the first member of his family to go to university, attending Leeds to read chemical engineering.
“You go to a grammar school at 11 and you do some stuff and you find out you are good at maths, physics and chemistry and you do them for A-Level and then you are probably going to be an engineer at that point,” says Dryden.
He went to Leeds in 1974, the age of student radicalism and protest. Did he get caught up in that? “I wasn’t a hippy student, I was probably more a drinking, sporting, womanising student. I was more a lad than a hippy.”
When he graduated, the petrochemical and oil industries were booming and it was easy for someone with a chemical engineering degree to get a job.
“Again, it’s back to defaulting into the obvious,” he says. “In my early life I wasn’t a great risk-taker, so I looked for some kind of high-profile institution and I joined BP Chemicals. It’s hard to get into big companies later in your career, so if you are going to do it and if you want the street cred which goes with having that on your CV, then that was the right starting place.”
His first job was in the new petrochemical works at Baglan Bay in South Wales, next to the Port Talbot Steel Works which was to play such an important part in his later career.
He learnt a great deal there but, after five years, a downturn in the industry led BP to close parts of the site and called for voluntary redundancies. To his employer’s surprise, Dryden took a severance package.
“It was me being a little bit more adventurous and driven by a bit of personal greed. As a 25-year-old I was trying to pay off my credit card and my car loan and other debts, and I had the opportunity to go to work abroad for two years in the US and Saudi Arabia. Living away from home as a young engineer and doing all the things that young engineers do of a night time, I hadn’t accrued much wealth.”
He went to work on a project to build a petrochemical works in Saudi Arabia. He initially spent 18 months in Houston, Texas, on design and preparatory work. Living in Texas in the early 1980s – era of Dallas – was a heady experience.
“They loved the English and they loved the English accent, that’s probably when I lost my Geordie accent. I really felt I had landed on my feet, having an experience you could never have imagined. Five years earlier I was doing exams at university and here I was in a condominium in Houston as a single man having a great time.”
He laughs. “You’re going to make me out to be some kind of philanderer.”
After 18 months in the US, he went to Saudi Arabia for six months, which wasn’t so much fun but he had saved enough money to at least return to the UK and put a deposit on a house.
He came back in 1984 and had interviews with global engineering, procurement and construction group Foster Wheeler, and Exxon. Foster Wheeler offered him a job first, which he accepted and went to work at their offices in Reading. This was not to prove a happy experience.
“They gave me a clocking-in card and set me up at a desk and gave me a piece of work to do which was filling in some design specification sheets on a project,” Dryden says. “This sheet came back with red rings all around it where, instead of putting say two comma six, I’d put two point six. They had all these protocols that you had to follow. With all these constraints I was almost breaking out into a sweat.
“It was such a controlling environment that, even after one day, it was driving me up the wall.”
When, on the second day, he broke his pencil and found he had to sign for a new one, he decided Foster Wheeler was not for him and he joined Exxon.
He went to work at the Fawley Refinery just outside Southampton. He relished a more business-oriented culture than he had been used to but found that, as an experienced recruit, he was pigeonholed as an engineer and was not on the company’s career ladder.
“I fought the system a bit to try to get on the ladder.”
He succeeded and, in 1992, was moved to the business office in London, commuting from Southampton. There he was operations director for a speciality chemicals business.
Then, following the trend for oil companies to pull back from the speciality chemicals sector, Exxon put the business into a joint venture with water treatment company Nalco.
Dryden explains: “It essentially involved merging two businesses, consolidating manufacturing and products, shutting plants, moving plants, bringing volume from one place to another, setting up new supply chain capabilities – reinvent the planet, basically.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, it was the most difficult thing I’d ever done. It was two years of hell. But we fixed it.”
By this time he was married – to Julie – and in 1994 they had a son, Luke, who two years later was followed by Jamie.
In 1997, he was head-hunted by Californian polymer products company Raychem, which specialised in electronic connectivity systems, but was having problems meeting demand, particularly with the sector’s just-in-time delivery disciplines. “It was a perfect opportunity because I could take the Exxon and BP manufacturing capabilities and morph that with the supply chain stuff I’d done in the last two years, and all of it was applicable in the Raychem world.”
Based in Swindon, within two years he had helped resolve Raychem’s supply chain problems and was given worldwide responsibilities for that product line. He then became a player in a process that hit economies throughout the Western World – moving manufacturing to countries with lower cost bases. I ask: does he see a moral dimension to that?
“At the time it was noticeable how much more difficult it was to move a plant in some European countries than it was in others in terms of the reaction of unions or governments,” he says. “The UK was probably the easiest country to move things out of. Having said that, some of the stuff we were doing had to be done, otherwise the business was going to go to the wall.”
It was a changing world and Dryden the non-risk taker had changed with it. “What I got in the last two years at Exxon was an appetite for not wanting to live in a steady-state world. I like fixing broken things, things with unexplored potential,” he says.
His world then got even more volatile. In 2000, Raychem was bought by Tyco, and Dryden did about 20 acquisitions in four years. It was a fast- paced, high-pressure environment.
“I had four years being hugely accountable with a very low level of tolerance if you didn’t succeed, and living in a world that some people just couldn’t hack, but it was full of excitement and never a quiet moment.”
Then came the Enron scandal and wheeling and dealing was no longer viewed favourably. Regulation and compliance became the order of the day.
At this time, he received an approach from Philippe Varin, the Corus chief executive who was looking for a new MD for Corus in the UK to work in Port Talbot, where Dryden began his career.
“I said you must be joking, I worked there for five years, I know the culture, I know the place and I’m not interested.”
But, eventually he was persuaded, tempted by the enormity of the challenge. The Port Talbot plant was massive, occupying some 20sqkm and employing around 6,000 people. Only a few years earlier it had suffered an explosion in the blast furnace which killed three people and maimed 13, and it was losing millions of pounds a day.
At Port Talbot he found himself in a hierarchical culture he thought long dead, and also found an awesome sense of responsibility and expectation.
“That steelworks is the biggest in the UK and you are not just the guy who runs the steelworks, you are the sort of stand-in mayor, the underpinnings of the industrial foundation of South Wales and a sort of father to the population of Port Talbot and beyond.
Every day he was exposed to the media and politicians while trying to turn the business around as the first outsider to run any UK steel business.
“In that first year I was intimidated by it ... by the scale of the place, the expectations of the people and by working against the crowd and having to deliver a result knowing it was the hardest thing I was likely to take on,” he says.
After just a year there were two more fatalities in the plant and, at the age of 47, he saw his first dead body and had to visit the grieving families. He began to have his doubts about the job.
“I seriously thought about running away,” he says. But he didn’t. He instituted a change programme, The Journey, using and directing the passion of steel industry workers and persuading them to embrace change, a process which was more painful for the management than the shop floor. By 2007, the plant was breaking records every day, safety had improved massively and it was held up as a model for Corus.
In 2008, Dryden was promoted to run the rest of the UK operation, which included Teesside, then operated by a consortium of Corus and four other steel companies which had committed to the site until 2014.
In the financial and economic crash of 2009, Teesside suddenly occupied most of his in-tray when the consortium walked away from its commitment to the plant. Dryden tried to find buyers but time ran out and, towards the end of 2009, he had to announce the plant’s mothballing. The following year he left the company, now Tata Steel, and went to work in venture capital.
A year after that he was approached by Teesside’s new owners, Thai company SSI, to put back to work a plant that had lain dormant for two years. The plant was to supply SSI with steel for its own production of automotive and white consumer goods.
In 2011, Teesside was brought back into production and, with the following year, came huge challenges with difficult world markets and cash management problems, all while being backed by a parent which was many times smaller than Tata.
The operation has been a success and the plant has produced its two millionth tonne of steel, but a depressed market meant losses and the need for a capital injection from SSI.
But the market is picking up and, in May, the plant receives a new investment in the shape of a pulverised coal injection plant which will allow output of 3.6m tonnes a year.
Is it satisfying for him to be reviving the plant he closed?
“It is, but you have to serve your time. When I turned up here I don’t think people were overjoyed to see me because they still had memories of me being the person who made the announcement. I thought there was a chance we could sell it so I used the word ‘mothballed’ but they all thought I was copping out and just didn’t have the balls to say we were closing it.
“It’s like being the guy who got Newcastle United relegated trying to get them promoted again.”
But now he’s optimistic he will pull that off. He says: “Since I started at Port Talbot, I’m not intimidated by the job I’ve got. When my grandchildren ask me what I did, I’ll be able to say I played a part in putting Teesside steel-making back on the map.”
What car do you drive?
1996 Volvo Estate and Porsche 911.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
My local Indian Tandoori.
Who or what makes you laugh?
What’s your favourite book?
Not 50 shades of Grey! Mostly biographies: Bobby Robson, Tony Blair, Ronnie Wood etc.
What was the last album you bought?
Coldplay – Live 2012.
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
What’s your greatest fear?
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
You can have all the systems, procedures and equipment in the world. Without the engagement of people, you have nothing.
And the worst?
Don’t answer back, do what you’re told.
What’s your poison?
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£8.40 a week as garden labourer.
How do you keep fit?
Running, weight training, gym work.
What’s your most irritating habit?
Talking too much.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with?
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
How would you like to be remembered?
For making a difference.