Richard Dodd, Engineering Director at British Engines (UK) Ltd

Richard Dodd followed in his father's footsteps to lead a successful career with one of the region's oldest engineering firms. He talks to Francesca Craggs about the importance of investing in people and his pride in working for one of the North East's most successful family businesses

Richard Dodd
Richard Dodd

Two black and white photographs of the Tyne Bridge under construction hang on the wall of businessman Richard Dodd’s office.

“This one is my favourite. It shows the very last piece being lifted into place,” he says.

You would be hard pushed to find a homespun Northerner more passionate about engineering than Richard, but then he is group product and engineering director at British Engines Limited, one of the region’s greatest success stories. And while his company had no hand in the creation of the iconic landmark, he nevertheless feels an affinity towards it.

“We’ve been around for a similar amount of time,” he explains, “and for me the Tyne Bridge encapsulates the long heritage of engineering in this region.”

In fact British Engines Ltd, formed in 1922, predates the bridge, which was officially opened by King George V and Queen Mary in 1928. Nevertheless, Richard and his company identify with it so strongly that British Engines recently sponsored an event to mark its 85th anniversary at the Raval Indian Restaurant in Gateshead. A business in the shadow of the bridge on Gateshead Quays. The event also provided an opportunity for British Engines to confirm its commitment to the region and its workforce.

And it can rightly be proud of that commitment. The company, which has its headquarters at St Peter’s, Newcastle, employs 1,200 people globally across its six divisions and in the past year alone created 123 new jobs.

Engineering is most definitely in Richard’s blood. His grandfather was an engineer and his father Ron has been an instrumental figure at British Engines since he joined as an apprentice in 1952. As well as setting up the company’s pioneering apprenticeship programme, Ron worked his way through the ranks as a mechanical manufacturing engineer to become chairman, and was awarded an MBE two years ago for his efforts. He still takes an active part in the company’s Stephenson Gobin division based in Bishop Auckland.

And it’s safe to say his example inspired the young Richard Dodd to follow in his footsteps. He remembers accompanying his father to work as a young child.

Richard, 39, said: “I remember my dad bringing me in to work with him at weekends when I was as young as three or four, so I suppose I was destined for a career in engineering. I’ve always grown up in the engineering disciplines had a strong affinity to all the sciences like engineering and physics and chemistry.

“I always wanted to move into some form of engineering type role, whether it be mechanical or manufacturing, but always had the aspiration that I wanted to get into being successful in my chosen career in terms of being able to lead and direct.”

Born and bred in South Shields, Richard attended the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle. After finishing school in 1992, he took a year out to complete a short form apprenticeship at British Engines, before going to Birmingham university to complete a degree in mechanical engineering, manufacturing and management.

“I grew up in a progressively changing world whereby my father started off as an apprentice and worked his way up through the business. I grew up in that environment. My dad’s career with British Engines has had a big influence on my own. I’m very close to my father and he’s been sort of a mentor to me. Being an engineer himself has obviously helped me throughout my career,” said Richard.

He took on his current job, group product and engineering director at British Engines, three years ago. This globe trotting role sees Richard regularly visit the company’s overseas division in Bangalor, India. This site was set up in 2001 to help support the business in terms of manufacturing components and computer aided design and manufacture.

Richard said: “We have a very good management team out there. I find history fascinating and India has a lot of heritage and culture to thrive upon.’’

He also frequents the world’s main oil and gas centres Houston, Aberdeen, and Stavanger, as well as Paris, Milan, Beijing, Singapore, Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur. It’s this sector, according to Richard, which has helped British Engines stand firm against the recent economic climate.

“A big proportion of what we do is oil and gas centric. The latest recession, while it affected one or two of our companies in different sectors, it hasn’t hit us as hard because the oil and gas sector has stayed relatively buoyant.”

There has also been a move back towards traditional engineering, says Richard.

“The UK economy had changed and become less focussed on engineering and manufacturing, and more towards the likes of service sector activities. That’s starting to change back again for the better as people are starting to invest more in the manufacturing and engineering sectors, realising that actually we need to be starting to export more out of the UK in order to generate more revenue.

“We’ve always had a focus towards export. All of our companies within the British Engines Group put together export more than around 75% to various sectors.”

Investing in people, and especially the young people in the region, is paramount to the business. In July the group’s pioneering Apprenticeship+ scheme, which takes on around 20 new recruits a year, became the first in the North East to be awarded a Certificate of Accreditation from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

“Firms that have done well have constantly invested in people,” says Richard.  “We started our apprenticeship programme in 1966 and since then we’ve trained more than 600 young people. And of all those we employ, over 75% are based in the North East. That’s because we believe in this region. It has a proud engineering past and a very positive future.”

Interest in engineering as a career has risen sharply in recent years, driven in part by the availability of first-class apprenticeship schemes such as British Engines’, which offers young people a real alternative to university.

“Clearly university tuition fees have had an impact and we’re now seeing more young people looking for vocational training,” said Richard.

British Engines four-year apprenticeship programme is run in conjunction with Team Valley-based training providers TDR, and competition for places is hot.

This year’s apprentice intake was selected from over 130 applicants.

“There has been a renewed focus among engineering companies to improve training courses and make them more targeted.

“It’s very important to be investing in the future of the people. Both in terms of what we need, and what the region and engineering and manufacturing needs. At the end of the day it’s about the people. If you don’t have the right people, you can’t develop the right products.’’

Richard is especially proud to be part of a family-owned business. He said: “My family has been involved in the business for many years, and British Engines is still a family business. The whole culture of the business has been about engineering products, investing in people, securing the business community in terms of training and education, and making the region more successful.”

After 91 years, the future of British Engines is still brighter than ever. This Autumn one of its companies Rotary Power begins its move from British Engines’ headquarters at St Peter’s Basin to a 150,000 sq ft factory in Simonside, South Shields. The move frees up space for another part of the group, BEL Valves, to expand and it has already secured a grant award of £850,000 from The Journal’s Let’s Grow Regional Growth Fund to assist its development.

Away from the office, Richard admits he’s a bit of a golf addict, but more importantly life very much revolves around his family. His wife Laura is a Religious Studies teacher and they have two daughters, Sophie, 12, and Emma, 9.

So what inspires Richard both in life and in business? “It’s never standing on your laurels. I’m always trying to better myself and my family and the business.

“I’m driven to work hard in order to be able to achieve whatever goals and objectives in my personal or business life,” he said.

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