As a youngster, Graham Hartley harboured ambitions to become a PE teacher.
Then, his beloved grammar school in Nottinghamshire was turned into a comprehensive.
“I fell out of love with the education system at that time,” he says.
“I thought: ‘If this is the future of education, I don’t want to be a part of it’.”
Hence, at 18, Hartley left for the working world – a decision he would discourage young people from emulating today, but one that’s allowed him to travel and gain an enviable wealth of professional experience.
Now he’s heading up one of the best-known companies in the North East as managing director of Siemens Energy UK and Ireland, taking direct responsibility for the firm’s service fossil fuel business as well as for large gas turbine plant.
It’s an exciting time to be in the role, as Siemens and other energy companies seek to fulfil the UK’s decarbonisation goals.
It’s also a time of high-profile projects, from the upgrade of the Drax power station to a major project on a station in Iraq, in which Siemens is not only involved directly but has a role to play in training Iraqi engineers.
Given the scale of the work – and the fact that decarbonisation remains so much in the public eye – it would be understandable if Hartley had the occasional sleepless night.
He insists, however, that love of the work trumps the potential for anxiety.
“The thing I get up for in the morning is the challenge – doing a successful job, creating good customer relations and getting repeat business because of those things,” he says.
“It’s all based on sound engineering, with hundreds of years of experience coming together.
“There’s a huge amount to do if the Government is going to realise its emissions targets in a short space of time.
“But it is achievable so long as we get some clarity.”
Clarity – an oft-repeated word among energy companies right across the UK, concerned there simply isn’t enough flesh on the bones when it comes to Government proposals, leaving investors with too much uncertainty to back major projects with confidence.
“We support the decarbonisation of the energy sector, but the key thing for me is making sure the Government and those around the Government have a very clear view and are able to communicate a clear view, creating an industry in which our customers can invest,” Hartley says.
“Whatever way you look at it, £110bn to £150bn is required in the energy sector for decarbonisation – for upgrades, the building of power stations and the building of the renewables business.
“That’s a huge amount of money and somebody has to finance it.”
Progress is being made, he adds, through the creation of the Electricity Market Reform bill.
However, the details still need to be fleshed out to get anywhere near an ideal situation.
And while Harley, like others in his line of work, firmly believes the UK needs a mix of energy sources, the brave new world of renewables brings with it its own set of challenges, especially as offshore turbines are to be positioned at staggering distances out to sea.
“Certainly, there are logistical and safety issues to consider, while, when it comes to onshore, the key issue is seeking permission,” Hartley says.
“People do appreciate the need to have wind turbines, but there’s a balance between on and offshore.”
The service renewables business has been based at the Siemens site on Shields Road, Newcastle, for around four years, while the other strands of Siemens Energy have taken root in the region largely through a series of acquisitions in the 1990s, including that of Parsons and VA Tech at Hebburn.
As Hartley points out, the North East has a proud history of engineering innovation that gives it an advantage when it comes to this kind of work.
“It’s almost in the culture of the region to take these challenges on and we have a workforce that’s been very willing to change when market conditions have required it,” he says.
Through an innovative training school, Siemens Energy is also making sure it has the workforce it needs for years to come.
“We have invested something like £27m in the past five years on the Shields Road site, of which around £9m was put into the training school,” Hartley says.
“We have about 120 apprentices at the moment, taking part in traditional apprenticeships in conjunction with Tyne Met College.
“We support apprenticeships because we need to have confidence in the future of the business and the sustainability of the business.
“In the fossil business locally we have an aging workforce that we need to consider and in renewables we have a growth agenda.”
Indeed, it’s far cry from Hartley’s early days of employment, which began somewhat aimlessly in a three-man engineering services business in Chesterfield, responsible for switchgear refurbishment on power stations.
The salary wasn’t great – £3,700 – but it saw him fulfil a vast array of roles, providing a solid introduction to business.
Three years later and he had upped his income to £5,000 (with an all-important Mini), after moving to take up a sales role and perfecting the old-fashioned discipline of door knocking.
“I was always the person who could talk to customers,” he says.
“I found it probably the most important part of the job.
“But I didn’t have any sales training – I had to make it up,”
Hartley’s next move was to a family-run service business in Stoke-on-Trent, where he rose the ranks to general manager within two years .
“It has to be said that I still had a lot to learn, I was only 25 or 26, and there were about 60 people in the firm.
“It was definitely overwhelming with the sheer hard work and hours, but it gave me an introduction to all the key things about people management.”
From there, he moved to Nottingham where he was responsible for transforming a business that undertook heavy engineering work for the fast-disappearing British Coal into a firm responsible for the repair of components for the automotive industry.
It sounds like quite a shift, but the skills were already there – they just needed redirecting towards an industry with a huge gap in the market.
“The trigger of the change was a discussion with Ford at Dagenham, in which it was mentioned that there was nobody to do these repairs, which was causing huge downtime,” Hartley says.
“We found out that there were others in a similar situation – it was throughout the automotive industry.”
Travels further afield followed, as Hartley joined a company in London, through which he was tasked with hydrogenerator refurbishment in Zambia.
It wasn’t exactly plain sailing – on the first day a crocodile had to be pulled from a turbine it had become trapped in and when it came to collecting World Bank funds allocated for the project, Hartley was shocked to find they had been siphoned off fraudulently by a senior employee.
Still, it didn’t put him off travelling – his next venture brought him to the Middle East, where he was predominately involved with the servicing of generators and the supply of high voltage coils.
“It was interesting going to the likes of Saudi Arabia and Dubai after Zambia,” he says.
“I went from seeing people who had nothing to this huge wealth driven by oil revenues in the Middle East.
“It defined things for me that have driven me since then in terms of caring about people.”
Indeed, caring remains a crucial part of Hartley’s management style at Siemens, which he joined as project director in 2006, overseeing a major restructuring of the business.
“If you care about people, they will care about you and the company,” he says.
Credibility, integrity, reliability and listening skills are likewise crucial, he adds, while the kind of staff he likes work with are open-minded, enthusiastic and prepared to ask “lots of daft questions”.
It’s high pressure work – and can be round-the-clock given the number of businesses Siemens works with in other countries – but Hartley says his job is made easier by the support he receives from colleagues.
“Very, very occasionally I have to make a decision on the spot,” he says.
“That’s what I’m here to do, and I hope I make more right decisions than wrong ones.
“I’m still learning and I don’t have all the answers, but hopefully I’ve got people around me who do. We work as a team and take a collaborative approach.
“There are some exceptionally talented people in the company.”