A QUARTER of a century ago, Japanese automotive manufacturer, Nifco Inc established links to Teesside. And 25 years on, the only way is up for the £45million car parts manufacturer, as NAME at The Journal finds out.
THE North East’s credentials as a burgeoning European hub for the automotive sector have never been stronger, from Nissan’s production prowess to the powerhouse products of Komatsu.
These global industry giants support a supply chain that has become the backbone of North East manufacturing. The generally accepted equation is that for every job at Nissan, four are supported in the supply chain – boosting the economy and forming the bedrock of regional exporting prowess.
Chief among these supply chain companies is Nifco, which makes plastic parts used in the engines, interiors and exteriors of cars made by Ford, Honda, Jaguar Land Rover, Toyota and Vauxhall Opel. It’s a company on an upward trajectory that few businesses in the region could match.
The announcement earlier this year that it had secured a contract that could be worth as much as £50million from automotive giant Ford, was the latest in a long line of successes for the firm. The company has been on a growth fast-track over the last few years, but the journey to success started in 1990, according to managing director and European operations officer, Mike Matthews MBE.
“It’s 25 years since we became Nifco UK, and that, for me, was the turning point. Though there have been challenges since, the backing of Nifco Inc and the support they have offered has been essential,” says Matthews, who has been working for the company since 1988.
Nifco Inc bought the business – then known as Elta Plastics – in 1990. The company was turning over £3million, having diversified into the automotive market, a field that had seen significant growth in the eighties, and secured a deal with Japanese motor manufacturer Nissan.
“We had grown quickly having moved into the automotive field in the eighties, and Nifco Inc spotted the longer-term opportunities. Their backing was a real boost, and renewed the team’s confidence. We were very clear. We had to focus our efforts on the automotive industry.”
With a supportive Japanese parent company, and a deal with Nissan, the company was in a strong position to gain a foothold in the automotive market. And during the nineties, the business was able to make major in-roads with other car manufacturers and enhance its domestic business.
“We had the capabilities at Nifco. Even during the Elta days, we were a productive factory and one with the technical ability to diversify. With the added clout that Nifco Inc brought to the table, we were able to open doors that would have been closed to us before.
“The combination of the strength of the Nifco name, and the skills we had, presented us with major opportunities. But even with those, there were difficulties lying ahead – Nifco was a loss-making company in the early 2000’s and didn’t start to show signs of the growth we know today until 2009,” explains Matthews.
It was in 2004 that Matthews took on a senior management role, during a particularly tough time for the business, which afforded him greater opportunity to set the template for the future.
“Becoming deputy MD in 2004 was a chance to create a strategy for the business, to turn it around and to start achieving its potential. We had experienced growth and we had been through austerity, and all without a clear vision – to create continued success was always going to be a big job. But, I always say – how do you eat an elephant? You break it up into small pieces,” says Mr Matthews.
“We just hadn’t done that previously. We hadn’t taken a step back, and broken the business down into small pieces.
“Working as a team, we put together a business excellence model, in which we laid out exactly what we wanted to achieve and all the things we needed to do to achieve our goals. So, basically, we planned our way out of our troubled times.”
Planning is something Mr Matthews, undertakes with real precision. The factory walls are covered with reports that track the performance of each and every department of the business. “I like to be on top of every single aspect of the business. And I believe that coordination is the only way to achieve growth.
“Today you could go to the shop floor, and if we had a visit from a manufacturer, everyone will know about it. We put a real emphasis on communication here.
Everyone here knows their role and has an understanding of how that impacts on the business. We want to make it as simple as possible for the guys to achieve the best results possible.”
And under Mr Matthews’ guidance, they’re doing that. The business has invested heavily in people and training over the last ten years. It’s a programme that will be continuing over the coming years, with the business having been granted more than £142,222 from the department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS)’s Employer Ownership Fund (EOF) to undertake productivity training with its operational team in addition to the annually increasing training budget which is committed to the workforce as a whole.
“Training has been essential to the company. And it remains so. I honestly believe the people are the reason that we are doing so well. It is great having the two buildings, Nifco House and our newest addition an R&D and Powertrain facility. And it is great having the fantastic machines we have too. But without having the right people, you will never have a successful business.
“The only way to succeed is to ensure that our team is the best it can be. That our people are among the most skilled and motivated in the field. And of course, that we nurture the next generation of leaders, who can take over the reins from the existing management team.”
It is this succession planning that led to the company making commitment in 2011 to recruit apprentices for every year the company grows. This is something that the company has stuck to, with apprentices now in every department of the business.
He says: “Apprentices are vital to Nifco. And to industry generally. For more than 10 years, we had not made a firm commitment to apprenticeships, and that was something I wanted to address. Skills provide the fuel that fires up economic growth, and we have to make sure that we have enough of that to keep the light burning long into the future. It’s something I am absolute committed to. We back our team. We want to make sure that the staff we do have are better trained, better skilled, and better educated and we will reward them accordingly.”
The same level of investment has gone into Nifco’s premises. The company’s transformation over the last 25 years has seen it move from a dark, tired site in Yarm Road, to a state-of-the-art facility in Eaglescliffe.
“To stay in the old premises just wasn’t viable for us. It was holding us back, and since we moved, we have been able to realise our potential. We have been able to secure the future of the business on Teesside for the next 20 years.
“We have built the confidence among our shareholders and by doing that that, we have their backing to build another facility in the area, bringing with it more jobs and more opportunities for people in the area,” says Matthews.
“It has taken a lot of hard work. A lot of tears have been shed and there has been a lot of stress along the way to build the business we have. But we have a fantastic team of more than 530 now, and they are the people that make it happen. It is these people who have been fundamental to our growth and to us being recognised by our peers on local and national levels for business excellence, safety and people development – suffice to say, we’re looking forward to the next 25 years.”