THE story of Scottish manufacturing has featured more lows than highs in the last three decades.
But John Reid, who has observed the ups and downs first hand during that period, is convinced it can play a leading role in efforts to rebuild the Scottish economy following the damage arising from the pandemic.
Mr Reid is the chief executive of National Manufacturing Institute Scotland, a publicly and privately funded organisation that aims to “transform the future of manufacturing in Scotland”.
It aims to achieve this, in broad terms, by helping Scottish companies adopt new technologies, provide their employees with the skills to utilise them, and be on hand to provide advice on what can be the “disruptive” process of innovation.
Mr Reid joined the Institute around year ago, having spent 32 years in high-volume manufacturing at the Michelin tyre plant in Dundee. It was a big change following a tumultuous end to his career with the French industrial giant, which saw him given the unwelcome task of shutting down the factory in 2018, sparking widespread redundancies, before spearheading the site’s regeneration as the Michelin Scotland Innovation Parc.
Reflecting on his decision to seek a new challenge at NMIS, he said he was looking for a role “that would mean something, that would add value”.
He said: “Clearly, I’m passionate about manufacturing and manufacturing in Scotland. This job helps me do lots of things related to supporting manufacturing in Scotland.
“It’s a great team [and] we have got some fantastic technology and capability here. So it’s really exciting to be part of a group of people who are supporting Scottish manufacturers through technology. It has been an ideal job change for me.”
And there is no shortage of demands on his time. Mr Reid explained the Institute’s response to the pandemic can be split into two parts. One the one hand, it is helping firms in Scotland weather the Covid storm by working with the Scottish Government and Scottish Enterprise on the manufacturing recovery plan. On the other, it is positioning them to take advantage of opportunities on the horizon, including the adoption of digital technology.
Within that, the skills agenda is a major focus. Mr Reid said the Institute has stepped in to provide opportunities for 50 young engineers who had found it difficult to secure graduate programmes with manufacturing companies because of the fall-out from the pandemic. It is hoped the grounding the Institute provides will better equip these young people to find work in a year’s time.
Other major issues informing the work of NMIS are climate change and the drive towards net zero, Brexit, and how to help firms optimise their processes.
“Manufacturing is going through a real transformation at the moment,” Mr Reid said. “Our job is to get out front and understand where these technologies are going, and make sure Scottish manufacturers have access to the kind of support that will allow them to get the best out of it.
“So, we are focused on hydrogen technologies, electrification, energy generation and other resource-efficient manufacturing, which is about re-manufacturing and re-make, rather than scrapping things and starting again.”
He added: “The foundation underneath all of that is digital transformation and skills development. There is a very significant agenda for us going forward.”
Mr Reid was speaking shortly before NMIS reached a milestone in the construction of its new headquarters in Renfrewshire, near Glasgow Airport, last week. Some 1,500 tonnes of structural steel have been installed as work proceeds on the construction of the new building, which is located in the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District in Renfrewshire. It is scheduled to open in autumn 2022.
“The building is about 12,000 square metres, so it’s a big site,” Mr Reid said. “About a third of that will be open access, so members of the public, companies, organisations can come together. The idea is to create a space for people to collaborate and share ideas.
“There will be a number of capabilities in the rest of the building. There’s going to be a digital factory, a light-weight manufacturing centre and there’s going to be a skills academy.”
At present, the Institute has 250 staff and that number could go up to 400, depending on how activity proceeds.
With Mr Reid having spent so much of his career with Michelin, it would have been remiss to not have asked him about his time in Dundee. He admits that having to close the site and assist with efforts to find new opportunities for around 900 employees was not how he would have preferred his career with Michelin to end, but it was not all negative.
While the initial plan was to demolish the plant and sell the land, “we quickly realised there was an appetite to do something different.”
Mr Reid, who became chief executive of the Michelin Scotland Innovation Parc after working on plans for the project with Michelin and the Scottish Government, said it was a “hugely challenging time for everyone”, but was gratified that everyone had found a job by the end of last year.
“We did a huge amount of work to support people to find their next positive destination, as we called it,” he added. “The first priority was to look after the team. The second bit was then how could we take what was a fantastic asset – a 32-hectare site that we had just spent £90m on – [and make it] a real going concern for any other manufacturing company.
“To be looking back on that, and I understand the guys have now got 13 companies to come on to the site, and they have got some really big propositions in the pipeline, is fantastic. It really is amazing to think that out of that disaster as it was, the guys have managed to take something really important and really positive for Dundee, and also for the people that we had in our factory.
“Dundee is a place that has got some challenges, obviously. I am proud of what we achieved together. I would have preferred not to have gone through it, obviously, but I think a great job has been done.”
What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?
My favourite trip was a couple of years ago to Laos visiting my son who was working there for the HALO Trust, managing demining activities. It’s a beautiful country, very gentle and welcoming people and a completely different experience to any I had had before.
When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?
I had two ambitions. One was to be an engineer like my dad and grandad and the other was to join the army. Obviously, I stuck with engineering and have enjoyed every minute of it.
What was your biggest break in business?
Getting my dream job as factory manager for the Michelin plant in Dundee. Two particular high points. Challenging and overturning Michelin’s decision to close the factory, then developing and securing a £90 million investment to transform it.
What was your worst moment in business?
8:30am on November 6, 2018 when I stepped up on to a podium in front of my 900 Michelin team and announced the closure of our factory after 48 years. It was heartbreaking.
Who do you most admire and why?
My mother. Like most Scottish mothers she was the unsung hero of our family and she battled cancer for many years without complaint, always greeting you with a smile and a cheeky comment. I admired her ability to support everyone around her and keep going when all the while she was dealing with her own painful battle. I’ll always remember her passion for life
What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?
I’m reading Scotland 2070, Healthy, Wealthy, Wise, and listening to Robert Vincent.