Business Interview: Martin Lawlor, chief executive, Port of Blyth

He sells muffins in his spare time and treated himself to a classic car as a birthday present, Martin Lawlor opens up to The Journal

Port of Blyth Chef Executive Martin Lawlor
Port of Blyth Chef Executive Martin Lawlor

The Government’s lack of clarity on future UK energy policy was blamed by renewables giant RES when it shelved plans to build a £300m biomass power station at Port of Blyth.

The shock announcement in March put paid to the creation of hundreds of jobs and hundreds of millions of pounds of associated investment. It also seemed to check Martin Lawlor’s upward trajectory of success piled on success – from reshaping the port as a centre of expertise for the renewable energy sector to delivering record growth of £17m in the year his biggest customer went to the wall.

The decision must have been a huge blow – a RES spokesman called it bitterly disappointing – but Lawlor would only admit to sadness at the missed opportunity for the wider North East, saying at the time: “I genuinely feel for the region and the port because it was going to bring jobs, economic activity, electricity-generating capacity, all sorts of things that are important to the area.”

It is surely to his credit that Port of Blyth was even considered for the RES scheme. In the nearly 20 years he has been there he has built up Port of Blyth from a moribund operation with limited growth capacity to one firmly established as a significant hub for the offshore energy sector.

However, it was thanks to an early setback that he ended up at Blyth. He and colleagues on the junior management team at the then Tees and Hartlepool Port Authority lost a buyout attempt and he decided to look for other opportunities.

He said: “All of a sudden from being close to owning the port as a group, we had new owners. I came up here (to Blyth) in the mid-90s, initially as commercial director. The trouble here was that we had all our eggs in pretty much one basket which was paper products coming in from Finland twice weekly. It was something ridiculous like 90% of what we did, plus Alcan.

“To be fair, management realised that they needed to diversify and particularly so because there were all sorts of mergers going on in the Finnish paper industry. The difficulty I had was that all the warehouses were full and because management thought there was a good chance of losing a big chunk of this work, they wouldn’t authorise building new warehouses. I started to develop the container service, open storage of bulk cargoes, anything that didn’t require a warehouse.

“I got the paper products side down to about 75% of what we did but we had a big hit in 2000 when we lost a huge chunk of that trade and it was a case of building it up from there. We knew we would get some fairly rapid growth because all of a sudden we had some empty warehouses but what I didn’t expect was that by 2004-05 we got to the point where we were full so we would say to people, ‘We can build you one but it will take six months’ and the people were signing up anyway, so we were building new warehouses at Battleship Wharf for bulk cargoes.

“The other key strategy has been diversification. Never again do we want to get caught with our eggs in that one basket. So we made sure we’ve got container services, we’ve still got forest products, we’re doing a lot of renewable energy-related work, offshore oil and gas work, we’ve still got dry bulks that we did before, metals, we’ve made sure we’ve got a really diverse range of cargoes because it’s about stability and growth for the long term and with our trust port hat on we want to make sure that we’re making a contribution to the regional economy.

“Back then, unless you were a specialist user of paper products, a lot of companies didn’t really deal with Port of Blyth. Now we have such a diverse range we deal with most in the region. We also developed non-tonnage-related work so we set up Transped as a logistics provider, door-to-door worldwide; we’ve got a training division that works around the UK and beyond; property revenue; we’ve deliberately built this portfolio of stuff. The proof to me that the strategy had worked was that over the past two years we again lost what was our biggest customer, which was Rio Tinto Alcan, and we had a record year. To do that at the same time all seems a bit weird but it’s all growth in other things.”

Blyth has been a trust port since 1882 and Lawlor says he is very comfortable with that status. “We’re still very commercial, very hungry, and we operate like any other commercial port. The only thing is I guess we can look a little bit longer term, perhaps in terms of our strategy, we’re very into partnerships, being part of the economy and the local community so it’s nice having those twin strands to it. We have a very good relationship with the county council, they see us as one of the major economic catalysts for the region.

“We also work closely with their development company Arch. For example, the old Blyth Power Station site, which was knocked down a few years back, is huge, 35 hectares, I think. We’re working with Arch to try to bring that back to economic use so we’re looking at potential users of that site. It shows some joined-up thinking. Sometimes, where you’re talking to inward investors, if you’ve got the regional authority on board they know that from a planning point of view it must be ticking the right boxes, they know that they’re going to work with you in terms of any grant assistance that’s available, that sort of thing. It does help, most definitely.”

The young Martin Lawlor joined the Tees and Hartlepool port team from university, where his main dissertation was about the development of trade on the Tees, which, he admits, may have helped him land the job. Or perhaps it was the fact that his father was a customs officer at Hartlepool docks. He says it wasn’t a given he would end up in the business, he wanted to do marketing or advertising, and wasn’t too bothered which sector. “But being a Hartlepool lad, I was in there and stayed ever since and I have enjoyed it.

“I’ve never thought of doing anything else because of the variety of it. I’ve had opportunities to move elsewhere but to date my view is there’s so much exciting stuff going on here ... the day I get bored with it is the day I’ll leave. I’ve been chief executive for six years, I think, and I don’t recall ever having one day of being bored in this place – occasionally I‘d be longing for just one day where I can say, ‘You know, nothing really happened today’.”

While welcome, the rapid growth of the past few years has brought complications. Lawlor explained: “When we had the big hit in 2000 we had significant cutbacks and we’re grown so rapidly we’re sort of having growing pains, if that’s the right phrase. In terms of the senior team there’s myself, port director Alan Todd, a finance director who is company secretary and the harbour master. Obviously there are other managers but I didn’t have a full-time PA until the past few months which has been difficult. PR and communications needs strengthening, I could do with additional business development resource, various different things. I’m looking at the next step; we’ve got some big schemes coming and have already started to bring in project engineers to move the business forward.”

He won’t be drawn on the details of these big schemes but the renewable energy industry is sure to loom large. Projects already in the pipeline include a major new marine fuels terminal and the conversion to biomass of the defunct Lynemouth power station.

Lawlor said: “The large opportunities for biomass are hopefully still to come. We’re working with Narec in looking at an offshore demonstrator site with talk of maybe 10-15 turbines a couple of miles offshore. That would be more interesting to us because then we would get involved with mobilising the wind turbines that come in through here, maybe even operating maintenance facilities.

“The RES scheme now looks as though it’s gone but biomass may be a part of what we do in the future. I think uncertainty has been one of the issues for the renewables industry. It’s certainly one of the reasons that the RES scheme fell by the wayside because, particularly about a year away from an election, UK energy policy seems to be almost like Punch and Judy, jumping from one thing to another and who knows which way it’s going to go.

“So I think there’s a difficulty in getting funding from the markets at the moment because of that uncertainty but the Government is still putting money into schemes that it thinks will be good value for the end user, ie, you and me. Lynemouth power conversion has Government funding and we’re now just waiting to see whether it gets main board approval and hopefully that willmove forward.

“We’ve got things like the marine fuels terminal which is halfway up, and one or two other interesting schemes, not quite public domain yet, that, on top of the diverse range of what we’ve got, gives us stability. If one sector is down, the likelihood is that another is up and as long as we have the development schemes coming forward to move the business along at the same time, then we’ll be satisfied.”

Away from the office he relaxes by drawing cartoons – “Sort of a bit like Far Side type stuff, single-picture cartoons. I’ve been doing those for a few years now but never get a chance to do as many as I’d like.” – and has had one or two published. He walks the dogs, helps his wife Janet with her Northumbria Muffins business, spending weekends selling muffins at shows and fairs, and cleans his car – he recently celebrated what he coyly calls a significant birthday and treated himself to a 1973 Triumph Stag.

Back at his desk, he is faced with the challenges of maintaining his recent run of successes, including making sure he delivers on some of those bigger schemes.

“We’re talking about levels of investment we haven’t previously been involved with, particularly the level of technical expertise involved. A lot of organisations looking to the future say, ‘Where are our next opportunities coming from?’ Well, we know where our opportunities are. I tell my board that our biggest challenge is delivering the schemes we already have in the pipeline, just maintaining this wide stable trade base beyond the next two to three years so that when we do have aquiet year, or we do lose a customer – and it happens everywhere – I’d like to think that the foundations are there now and nothing is going to make us topple.”

The Questionnaire

What car do you drive?

Audi A6 Avant (with enough room in the back for two dogs and horse/hen feed). Also have a 1973 Triumph Stag (but given the British weather spend more time polishing rather than driving it. Hopefully will be able to get it out more over the summer).

What’s your favourite restaurant?

Difficult one. I like Six at the Baltic (despite it overlooking the opposition!). Also the Treehouse at Alnwick. We are currently building a new port heritage centre as part of BEACH (Blyth Education & Community Hub) which will hopefully include a high-class seafood restaurant so this may become a favourite.

Who or what makes you laugh?

I like some panel shows like Mock the Week and Have I Got News For You. Also like Nina Conti the ventriloquist (she’s very funny and clever).

What’s your favourite book?

I like George Orwell’s 1984, also Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

What was the last album you bought?

I think it was Reflektor by Arcade Fire or something by Muse.

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

Probably a cartoonist as I dabble in this with my cartoon series Sign of the Times based on gags with no dialogue (purely signs, notices, etc). If and when The Journal needs a new cartoonist, I’m your man!

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

As I know a lot of people but am terrible with names I would probably teach it to whisper in my ear “That’s Brian” or “This is Jane from The Journal” – I mean Jo!

What’s your greatest fear?

That I might one day lose my hair!

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

“Work hard, enjoy it and success will follow.” Can’t remember if someone said it to me or I read it but it works for me.

And the worst?

Anything with Americanisms like “blue sky thinking”, “push the envelope”, “touching base” etc. People who use these phrases are definitely not “singing from the same hymn sheet” as me!

What’s your poison?

Nice glass of wine (either colour) or a real ale.

What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?

Normally Sunday Times but often don’t get chance to open it.

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

£130 per week standing in for someone “getting their bunions done” in a finance department down on Teesside. Happy days!

How do you keep fit?

Occasional game of tennis, occasional run and looking after dogs, horses and chickens (I come back to work for a rest after the weekend).

What’s your most irritating habit?

Making a joke out of everything and, according to my wife, being forgetful. And also being forgetful.

What’s your biggest extravagance?

Probably the Triumph Stag although it is good fun.

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

Strong leaders like Winston Churchill, people ahead of their times like Einstein or creative maniacs like Gaudi.

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

Probably the above three plus a translator (or a medium given they are all dead!).

How would you like to be remembered?

Making a difference in the region, as a creative genius and breaking the record for scoring the most goals in a season for Hartlepool United. Not sure how many of these I will manage but you have to aim high!


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer