“We win cars on a competitive basis. We have done for the last 30 years and the next 30 years will be the same.”
That’s Nissan boss Kevin Fitspatrick’s view on the future after the UK’s vote to quit the EU cast doubt over the country’s access to the single market.
For Kevin, the essential situation has not changed - whatever happens post-Brexit, Sunderland will still have to bid against rival factories within Nissan and prove it can build cars profitably.
As the plant celebrates the 30th anniversary of its official opening by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the man who worked his way up from the shopfloor to the boardroom said: “If we are competitive, we will continue the way we have done.
“If you are competitive, you win cars - if you are not, you don’t get them.”
For Kevin, clocking up 30 years is less important than what has been accomplished in that time.
It was a big factory then by North East standards, but I could never had envisaged how big it would be and how many suppliers would be around it.Kevin Fitzpatrick
“It’s gone pretty fast, I think. I used to be one of the youngest here and now I’m one of the oldest.”
“As an individual, I’m not really into looking back,” he said.
“I think its a huge achievement to get to the 30 years but for me the achievement is not the amount of time we’ve been around but what we’ve achieved in it.
“We’ve had some tough times, we’ve had a couple of big challenges. Every day is a challenge actually, but the plant has had two. One when the alliance was formed in 1999, which is well documented, and the other was during the Lehman shock.
“I think we have done more than we set out to. We set out to have a future, to be the best we could, but I don’t think anybody in the early days would have ever have anticipated it getting to the size that it is and the amount of success we’ve had.”
Nissan and the North East of England were the perfect match in 1986, despite the region’s complete lack of a car industry, said Kevin.
“Of the original 22 supervisors, about half of us were local from local companies and about slightly less than half came from the car industry,” he said.
“So all the local lads didn’t have a clue about making cars. What we did have in the North East was a pool, quite a large pool actually, of people from manufacturing and engineering because of the big tradition industries we had.
“Nearly all of them were in decline, so it wasn’t difficult to find skilled people to come and work here. A lot of the people who came genuinely just wanted a change, to start with a blank sheet of paper and get away from all the traditional ways of running factories.
“I left school at 16, came here when I was 25. And I have worked in two other companies before then. Some elements of it was really good, some areas of it wasn’t so good. And we had the chance to start with a blank sheet of paper, cheery pick the best from everywhere, which we did - Japan and the UK - and build something special, which I think we have.”
It didn’t take long for the plant to prove itself and persuade Nissan’s global bosses top invest in expansion: “When we first started in ‘86, it was quite small, we had a small bodyshop, small paintshop, small trim and chassis, we were building from kits,” recalled Kevin.
“We did not have any of the other processes, like stamping or injection moulding, or axles or engines, but quite quickly - by about 1991, 1992 - we had extended line one and we had put a second production line in to build Micra, so within about seven years, we had actually taken the plant from about 50,000 a year to capacity of nearly what it is now.
“We never actually made those number of cars because the products that we had weren’t in such demand but by 1992 we had a big factory, we had two production lines, we could probably have done jointly about 90 an hour.
“We’ve still got two production lines but we’ve got a run rate of a maximum of about 117 an hour.”
As the workforce has increased, the role each worker plays on individual cars has gone down: “In the early days, it was more difficult because people had to remember more,” said Kevin.
“We were doing 12 cars an hour, so each member of manufacturing staff had five minutes worth of work they had to remember.
“These days they have got one minute they have to remember, so in some respects, in those days the job was more complex.”
He credits one model, in particular, for the plant’s success in recent years.
“I think the fortunes of the plant turned round dramatically when we introduced Qashai, because Qashqai has been a huge success in the market and it actually gave the plant a chance to show how good it was. Previously we were on models that weren’t really innovative, we weren’t selling them in big numbers. When we came to Qashqai, we created a market segment - it was a very innovative product.
“Sales were massive, nearly three times higher than plan, then that was followed closely by Juke, which was another massive success and that got us up to the half million a year stage.”
Success, however, brings its own challenges: “Everybody says its great to make half a million cars but making half a million cars a year is not easy.
“We’re running the plant basically flat out and it’s quite challenging running anything as complex as this at its limits, so I think I am more proud of being able to make half a million cars a year.
“I know it’s difficult but I would rather have that problem than the problems we had before 2007, where we were changing line speeds up and down, hiring people, letting them go. The situation we’re in now is what we should be proud of.”
These days Kevin is responsible for a plant which employs 6,800 people direcly and supports the jobs of another 28,000 people in its supply chain.
“My ambitions when I started were probably to try to get to manager level, I never ever thought I’d move to actually being the guy who was responsible for the plant,” he said.
“It’s a big job and there’s a lot of responsibilty running a place as complicated as this - but I don’t manage 6,800 people. I manage a small management team who then manage a slightly bigger management team and it just cascades out.
“For me, there are two issues - one of managing the plant properly, the other one is there’s a responsibilty for us to be successful because of our success and the prominence of the plant within the North East, because I’m from the North East and I do want to see the North East be a nice place to live. It’s always been a nice place to live but jobs are important.”
As Kevin has learned more about the plant, he has come to appreciate the importance of its supply chain.
“For the local people, because were weren’t from the car industry, we didn’t realise how important suppliers were,” he said.
“For the first few years I worked here, I used to be in the paintshop. The paintshop had three paint suppliers and that was it. I was not part of trim and chassis, where you get maybe a couple of hundreds companies supplying parts, so I didn’t have any understanding of the supply base that supported the car industry.
“When I moved into the vehicle side, when I was trim and chassis manager, you get you eyes opened to how big the auto industry is and how integrated you are with your supply base.
“It was a big factory then by North East standards, but I could never had envisaged how big it would be and how many suppliers would be around it.”
Kevin is especially proud of the role the plant has played in developing the North East skills base.
“We are a big company but we don’t do a lot of headhunting and hiring from outside,” he said.
“We have entry grades into the company, manufacturing staff and graduates, but we have always tried to bring as many people through the company as we could, so we have always had good apprenticeship schemes for maintenance area, we have always brought a lot of graduates in and recently, the last three or four years, we’ve stated doing a lot with schools.
“I am very keen on promoting STEM subjects in schools and talented people from school coming into manufacturing, engineering, technology. We’ve been working with schools at junior school level and at comprehensive level, going into schools and not just preaching to them, not giving them careers advice but just showing them practically what’s available.
“We’ve got Monozukuri Caravan, which does junior schools, we’ve got industrial cadets, we’ve got F1 which we’ve engaged with about 12,000 young people in the last four or five years, so we’re working with schools, trying to get them to be interested in STEM subjects, trying to influence them to take the right subjects, pick a career in manufacturing or engineering or technology.
“We’ve got about 300 apprentices on various schemes, between level two and level three. I guess we’ve got 50 or 60 graduates.
“And we’re doing a lot on internal development of staff as well because as we are approaching 30, the people, like me, who started in the early days, we have to make sure we’ve got enough talent coming through the company to replace the skilled and experienced people we’ve got who will be retiring in the next five or ten years.”