The Construction Equipment Association thinks the Government does not realise the importance of the plant industry. Its president, Paul Ross, tells Andrew Gaved how he wants to change that as a matter of urgency
TONY BLAIR must have many people seeking a personal meeting with him. He probably gets hundreds, if not thousands of letters a week from people wanting to bang a drum or convey something of real impor tance to him.
And there are the people frustrated with the responses they have got from the lower orders of Government or who feel they have been overlooked.
But when Paul Ross explains why he is determined to be one of those advocates, it is hard not to agree he deserves his 60, 45, even 30 minutes of quality time.
As president of the Construction Equipment Association Mr Ross represents a significant slice of what used to be known as Britain's tradit ional indust ry ? manufacturing ? and he is on a mission to explain to the highest levels of Government just what construction equipment manufacturing means to the UK in economic, workforce and cultural terms.
Despite the sector turning out an estimated £8.5 billion and employing around 57,000 people around the country, plant manufacturing gets barely a look-in in political terms and no more than the equivalent of a handful of change in grant funding.
To make matters worse, construction equipment is treated as part of the automotive sector by the Department of Trade and Industry ? lumped in with the cars and motorsport industries.
As Mr Ross notes, everyone can relate to cars, since they nearly all have one, while the motorsport industry has no problem making the headlines because of events such as Grands Prix.
Such inequalities are enough to rile anyone, but Mr Ross is particularly exercised at the moment because the once-great construction equipment industry is in danger of losing some of its smaller firms to the competition from low-cost competitors in eastern Europe and the Far East.
He believes the first thing he needs to do is to get recognition for the depth and breadth of the industry.
'Most of the world's infrastructure was built by British kit, in the Middle East certainly ? take the Suez canal and the Aswan dam, for examples. But when have you heard Mr Blair talk about construction equipment? I bet if we presented the figures it would be a surprise to him.' Mr Ross wants the Government to hear him at a high level so that it can filter policy down to the DTI officials that work day-to-day with the sector.
'I am asking for a limited audience meeting, not a room full of civil servants, ' says Mr Ross. 'The DTI does a good job for us with what they have but we need to get to the people above so they can drive the strategy. But what has the Government done to support plant?
'We have had a few specific programmes, but nothing across the board. Yet when MG Rover was failing, the place was filled with civil servants.' He is keen to stress that he is not just coming with a begging bowl. He wants to see a level playing field, so that the UK can compete with the rest of the world, and he wants to address what he sees as a deep-rooted lack of understanding about the plant sector.
'It is not about 'buying British'; that is not our brief, ' he says. 'It is about ensuring industry, whether the company is British-owned or has a base in Britain, is competitive globally. It is a global business in its own right and not many sectors can boast that ? the UK automotive industry is only successful in cer tain defined territories abroad. We are always on the shirt-tails of automotive; everyone knows what a car is but they should know what a motor grader or a telehandler is.
'Ours is often seen as a dirty industry but we are at the cutting edge in terms of high technology ? you just have to look at the computer-controlled engines or GPS systems ? and in environmental stewardship we are certainly one of the leaders.' The lack of appreciation of the role that manufacturing plays in the fabric of the economy is par t of the problem, Mr Ross says.
'I switched on the TV in Germany the other day and there was a student being interviewed on the street. She talked knowledgeably about how the manufacturing industry needed to be preserved and developed. You would never get a 24-year-old talking like that here.' The CEA is adamant that financial support is not the primary goal of this campaign but funding is a subject that clearly rankles for Mr Ross.
Not only has the Government steadily cut back funding for British companies wanting to showcase their products in overseas exhibitions but it axed the backing for the CEA Manufacturing Excellence business improvement programme.
Manufacturing Excellence was specifically designed to help smaller firms become more competitive via a combination of masterclasses, workshops and mentoring sessions.
The lean manufacturing techniques established helped to ident ify savings of £20 million among small manufacturers ? a scale that surprised everyone involved ? but still the DTI elected to pull the plug on the pilot funding.
'In all the time we had Manufacturing Excellence, I never heard a bad thing about it, but the funding was not renewed, ' says Mr Ross. 'And this is while we face the th reat of Far Eastern components undercut t ing ou r own. It has to be an ongoing process, not a one-off. The rest of the world isn't standing still.' Up to this point we have skirted round the other major reason for the urgency with which Mr Ross wants to get to talk to Mr Blair.
British-based companies, particularly those involved with components and the lower-tech sectors of metal fabrication and casting, are failing.
In the space of a month in February 2006, two manufacturers of components ? diverse fabricator Eliza Tinsley and bolt-maker TW Lench ? and specialist truck-maker Multidrive went into administration, all blaming the potent combination of high material and labour costs.
No one wants to start a panic but there is a clear link between the fortunes of such small firms and the ability to compete with imports where both the key cost factors, materials and labour, are lower.
Mr Ross recognises that this is the key point for the manufacturing industry at present.
'In the high-technology and R&D areas we are competitive with the rest of the world, ' he says. 'But the big threat is in components, where there is a high labour content.
'In components you tend to have two tiers ? national suppliers and the regional suppliers which support them. If the first tier goes out of business then the regional guy has no hope. That is why when MG Rover went down they had a DTI team in trying to support the supplier base. But that hasn't happened in construction equipment.' This feeling of a lack of support f rom on high is felt personally by Mr Ross. Now a director of Caterpillar UK, he was at crane firm R-B when it tumbled into receivership in 2000. His passion for saving the remnant of the plant industry was formed by watching his firm, which had over 100 years of manufacturing heritage behind it, being broken up and sold cheaply.
'There was no polit ical pressu re at either a nat ional or a local level to save R-B, ' he notes bitterly. 'It may have had something to do with the fact it was sitting on 18 hectares of land but, if there is no immediate recognition for people of the significance or heritage of such a business, there is no outcry. Contrast that with Rover, where there was an open cheque book from the Government.' One of Mr Ross's most telling statistics is that the cost of keeping Rover afloat for a week with the Government's infamous £6.5 million 'bridging loan', was a third of what the entire plant manufacturing industry got in the same year.
The CEA's hope is that, through a mixture of lobbying and publicity, it can get the Government to change its view of construction equipment once and for all and thus enable British manufacturing to compete on a level playing field with the rest of the world.
But in the background there is a nagging feeling that we are approaching a crunch time for the industry, the last chance to stop the erosion of an important part of the UK's industrial heritage.
'We have lost a lot of the industry already, ' Mr Ross says. 'I am only 43 but I can reel off a list of the big British companies that have gone in my career: Coles Cranes, Hymac, Ruston Bucyrus, the bulk of Aveling Barford. They nearly all had big workforces and big premises when they went. At its peak, Aveling Barford had 3,500 people and outlets in every territory.
'How much more can we take before the critical mass goes? Currently the infrastructure is still in place, but once you lose the skills base, you are doomed. We have to support those we are left with.
'We need buy-in from Government, not just lip service.
'If this was Germany, it would be front page news.'
Salvaging the skills base ONE VITAL factor in ensuring the construction equipment industry's future health is to maintain a steady stream of new skilled workers, but Paul Ross is concerned that this basic element is being overlooked.
'How many time-served apprentices are still working in the industry.
I have heard that some companies are bringing over Polish welders for four weeks at a time, then sending them home for a fortnight, ' he says.
'We are not bringing enough home-grown workers through the colleges.' He contends that a plant-dedicated pool of skilled mechanics and design engineers needs to be created for the industry to draw on.
'We need a national college for advanced engineering because I don't think such a thing exists, ' he says. 'Where do you find your MBA or graduate manager specifically allied to construction equipment? We need institutions with the capability to offer tailored courses for plant.' The flip side of th is is that the construction equipment industry needs to start educating early to get the students into the colleges in the first place. This is where the rest of the plant industry comes in, he says. 'It goes down to the user level, to hire companies and dealers.
We need to encourage young people to take it up as a career and that goes back to appreciat ing what the indust ry means to the country.'