Graham Honeyman, Chief Executive at Sheffield Forgemasters International

Francesca Craggs speaks to Graham Honeyman, the native Teessider who rose from engineer to chief executive of Sheffield Forgemasters, saving it from the brink of closure

Graham Honeyman
Graham Honeyman

Professor Graham Honeyman is a quietly spoken, but self-assured man. The recent recipient of an honorary doctorate from Teesside University, where he studied for a Ministry of Defence funded PhD in Metallurgy, he’s transformed the fortunes of the only UK-owned steel company.

His career has seen him win plenty of accolades along the way from a Winston Churchill Medal to a CBE. But Graham’s biggest achievement, in his own words, is “Safe-guarding the livelihoods of our workers and suppliers by preventing Sheffield Forgemasters from closure”.

Graham was born in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, before moving to Hutton Rudby where he spent his formative years. He was a keen visitor to The Riverside, Middlesbrough Football Club’s ground, at which he still holds a season ticket.

Graham recalls: “My time on Teesside is very important to me. A Teessider is a special sort of person, it’s a combination of being friendly but tough – that’s served me well.”

Graham gained an undergraduate place at Aston University in Birmingham to study Engineering Materials. He stayed on to do a masters, and then went to Teesside University to study for his PhD, funded by the Ministry of Defence, to develop new weld metal for armour plate.

He recalls: “My PhD made me strong on the research side, as well as being a very practical course, so I got my first job for Parsons Turbine Engineers in Byker, Newcastle.

“I was a research metallurgist and eventually became a principle engineer.

“A key early year for me was 1987. I won the Winston Churchill medal for Engineering and that was life-changing. It allowed me to travel the world studying power stations in Japan for three months and in the US for three months.

“Shortly afterwards I was offered the job as technical director in Sheffield.

“I think it surprised most people that I switched from technical to business.

“I won a silver medal in 1996 from the Royal Academy for outstanding performance in British Engineering and from there I left technical behind and went into a management role.”

Graham moved to Sheffield in 1988 to take up his new position and rose through the ranks.

In 1998 the group was sold to American company Atchison Castings Corporation. But in 1999 he came into conflict with the US owners over the way they wanted to take the company forward, and 10 weeks after being appointed as managing director, was fired.

He recalls: “The owners fired me because I had a big disagreement on future strategy. They wanted to go for a high volume cheap product but I wanted a hi-tech project.

“I was gutted, it took me several months to find another job and I wasn’t expecting it at all, you don’t when you’re in a job 10 weeks.

“I had to slowly pick myself up again and then in 2002 they approached me and asked me to return.”

By this time Sheffield Forgemasters were haemorrhaging money and it faced almost certain closure.

Graham says: “It was losing so much money the banks were going to shut it down.

“I spent a few tough hours and managed to persuade the banks to back me, which they luckily did, three hours away from closure.

“Because I’m from Teesside, I have a strong character, I’m a believable guy and they believed in me and I delivered for them.

“We were floundering in poor products and we needed to focus on hi-tech products, now we are regarded very highly in tech products.

“We had competitors around the world with lower cost bases, cheaper electricity and lower wages. You can’t compete with that cost. In our field it has to be technically based and that’s the route I took.”

When Graham returned to Sheffield Forgemasters however he was still faced with a big task.

He recalls: “When I came back in the company was losing £750,000 a month and I had to very quickly turn it around. In May 2002 they gave me until Christmas 2002.”

Graham got to work quickly and the results were impressive.

He says: “By that Christmas we had made a small profit so the banks were very pleased with that.

“Our parent company in the US however was going bust and there was an arm of the organisation in Crewe also going bust, so we had to ring-fence ourselves away from the Americans. But I still needed their signature to sign off to us.

“I phoned them up and said unless you sign this piece of paper within the next three hours you will be responsible for making a lot of people lose their jobs.”

Thankfully the parent company signed over the company to Graham and his team – saving 770 jobs and around 1,000 suppliers that depended on Sheffield Forgemasters for a large proportion of their business.

“The pension fund was hugely underfunded by £65m, then there were other loose ends to tie up. We managed to get the Government to take on the pension scheme and were free to move forward.

“It was a lot of hard work and it took from 2002 to when we completed the buyout in 2005.

“It was extremely hard from a personal point of view but once we completed it we were safe.

“We’ve had one or two hiccups including a flood in 2007 and a press crack into three pieces, but we’ve got through it all as a company.”

The result is that Sheffield Forgemasters are the only British owned steel company left in the UK.

Graham states: “Thirty percent of my shop floor own shares in the company. As a group we own the company 100%, it’s not owned by banks. I feel pretty good about that. I got CBE for it a few years ago and fortunately I was voted chief executive of the year.”

Key to Graham’s success is his care for the workforce and his experience.

He says: “I’m a very family orientated person.

“I get on well with my shop floor as I’m not dictatorial, we work as one team and if you were to come around to the factory floor you’d see that we’re like the three Musketeers, but there are 770 of us.”

Graham says his experience from a technical background has sown the seeds for Sheffield Forgemasters success.

He adds: “In the UK you can’t compete on price but you will compete on technology. Teesside University is good for technology and that is a big strength.

“My tech background came from my university education, my business background came from being around and learning how to manage people, listening and learning.

“My tech background also means I know what’s going on so I can walk around and understand everything, how we make everything which makes that invaluable.

“It is my speciality to be able to talk to someone on the floor and then speak to Prince Charles or whoever.”

Unsurprisingly for an area once dominated by steelmakers Sheffield Forgemasters is very highly thought of in the local area.

“There is a lot of support for Sheffield Forgemasters,” Graham comments. “We’re one of the biggest companies in terms of workforce and because we are exporting 80% of our products, and we make interesting products, offshore, nuclear and defence, we attract a lot of people to work for us.

“We’ve currently got 60 apprentices from the local schools.

“This year we took on 12 but had over 300 applicants which shows the demand for positions. We’re very ingrained in the community.”

Graham’s honorary degree from Teesside University is the icing on the cake.

He says: “I’m over the moon with the honour and I couldn’t believe it when they wrote to me.

“As a company we’ve taken a lot of apprentices and graduates and our biggest ethos is to be true to yourself and always try and reach for the top. You can’t be ordinary, you have to be extraordinary.”

The Questionnaire

What car do you drive?

A black Jaguar F Type

What’s your favourite restaurant?

Veeraswamy’s in London

Who or what makes you laugh?

Mickey Flanagan and Frasier

What’s your favourite book?

The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning

What was the last album you bought?

Disclosure. I love dance music

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?

Chef. I once cooked in a restaurant for a day

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?

Bonjour

What’s your greatest fear?

Losing my mobile phone

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?

Never look backwards

And the worst?

You can’t afford the time to go on holiday

What’s your poison?

Grappa

What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?

Sunday Times

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?

£2.20. Working in a solder plant.

How do you keep fit?

I go to the gym twice a week

What’s your most irritating habit?

Always on my phone

What’s your biggest extravagance?

My car

Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?

James Bond

Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?

Winston Churchill, David Beckham, Miles Davis, Prince Charles

How would you like to be remembered?

As a maverick

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