Category Archives: British Steel

Saying Your Goodbyes


Whenever I left one job to go to another, there usually wasn’t much of a goodbye involved, and even less so as time wore on.

When I left the laboratory of professor Dilewijns, there was an informal get together with the technicians, but as far as I can remember no speeches and no presents. Maybe followed by a few pints in the pub, that’s about it.

The farewell was a little bit more official in Iscor, with a conference room booked and full of people that I’d known and worked with in the technology department. Can’t remember too much about the speech, apart from flattering my audience by saying that South Africa would always have a friend in me. I received a watch as a present, although it can’t have been a very good one, since it fell apart within half a year of me receiving it.

The farewell from Allied Steel & Wire was a bit more awkward given the circumstances, but there was a skittles evening as the Christmas do, which doubled up as a farewell do for me. I must still have the pewter cup its the AS&W logo, but it’s packed away somewhere – I still don’t see the point in putting it on display. In my reply to Tony Franks’ speech I stated that, while I would miss them as colleagues, I wouldn’t miss Allied Steel & Wire as a company.

And that was really the last of the official farewells. When I left Tinplate R&D for Ebbw Vale, it was initially only as a secondment, and by the time the secondment became permanent due to the reorganisation of R&D set-up, there was no-one left to say goodbye to. Likewise when I left Ebbw Vale for Llanwern: by the time I was making the move there were very few people left to say goodbye to.

The move from Llanwern to Port Talbot turned out to be so gradual that there hardly seemed to be any point having a farewell do, because by the time my move to Port Talbot became official, I had already spent quite a bit of time there.

When I finally decided on my retirement, I was so busy until the very last day that all the farewell consisted of going to see a few the closest colleagues and shaking their hand, receiving two £25 vouchers as a thank you for services rendered, and a final email containing the message “So long, and thanks for all the fish” – I didn’t want to come across as too sentimental, and I thought the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy reference couldn’t hurt my geek credentials.

Canteens


Canteens have been around in most places from my student days to my final days in Port Talbot, although I must admit that most of the time I didn’t make use of their services.

During my days as a student, it was only in my first year, when I was still commuting between Bruges and Ghent, that I made use of the student canteen in the St. Pietersnieuwstraat. In subsequent years I just returned to my rented student room or stayed in the “Plateau” cafeteria as the whim took me. Afterwards, during my time as a researcher, I totally failed to make use of the canteen facilities, even though it was only next door to professor Dilewijns’s laboratory – instead we tended to consume our sandwiches in the technicians room whilst having a lunchtime chat.

The first few years as engineers-in-training at Iscor we often made use of the canteen facilities, although this was more an excuse to gel as a social group of people in a similar situation of immigrants in a foreign country. Later on, I either had my own sandwiches, or had a snack in one of the smaller facilities near the Technology building.

Allied Steel & Wire didn’t really have a proper canteen, just a place where you could buy sandwiches and assorted snacks. That’s why most people brought their own lunch, or went outside to the nearby shops, rather than buy something similar at inflated prices.

At Tinplate R&D the Port Talbot canteen was only across the bridge from Welsh Labs, but even then it was a rare occasion that we gave it a look-in. The option of a canteen did not exist in Ebbw Vale as far as I can remember, so by the time I moved to Llanwern I had got out of the habit of using a canteen and relied on my own sandwiches instead. There used to be a canteen near the far side office blocks, but this one disappeared soon after I joined once the heavy end had been demolished. I heard that there must have been some sort of canteen in the mill end of the shrunken site, but I never found out where it was.

Anyhow, once I returned to Port Talbot I had got so much in the habit of bringing my own sandwiches, that I did not make use of the canteen, either the main one near the site entrance, or the one next to the Hot Mill offices. That changed once I joined the Operational Research team in the AGO, where we got in the habit to either visit the Welsh Labs canteen, the nearby Tollgate park on a nice day, or the main canteen if all else failed. Some team members bought the food on the menu, especially on curry days, but I stuck with the habit of having my own sandwiches.

Which meant that when I moved to the Coke & Iron Admin block, and the distance to the canteen became too large for an easy lunchtime transfer, I continued with the tried and tested routine of sandwiches, apple and can of coke at my desk.

All in all, I can’t really comment on the quality of the good on offer, since most of the time I brought my own. All I noticed was that once Port Talbot stopped subsidising the canteen food, and the prices started to reflect the real cost, many people stopped buying the meals on offer, and either brought their own grub, or stopped coming to the canteen altogether.

Protecting Your Patch


Over the years I’ve seen many examples of people protecting their patch for a variety of reasons, more often than not to make themselves look good, and in the process enhance their career prospects. This was especially the case in British Steel, and its culture has continued in some shape or form in its descendants Corus and Tata Steel UK.

The most pronounced exponent of protecting your patch is done by senior managers in what can best be described as silo management, whereby you try to enhance the glory of your part of the business without any reference to whether these efforts enhance the business as a whole. This shows itself especially in “improving” your through-yield and rejection figures. Those who took part in this type of “improvement” were often quite proud of how they managed to frig the system in order to make themselves come out of it smelling of roses.

In one example the crews at the pickle lines were asked not to reject coils as they came off the line, but instead place a hold on them, even when they were positive the material was not fit for purpose. This left the task of rejecting the offending coils to the planners, with the consequence that the rejected material was added to a different account. In short, the overall rejection rate was the same, it’s just that it didn’t show against the pickle lines.

This type of behaviour often filtered down to crew level, where rejections for reasons such as skin laminations or shape defects were given a code that implied the defect originated in earlier stages of the production process, thereby diverting the blame from the production unit where the material had been rejected.

A different aspect of protecting your patch is when people with a specific type of knowledge fail to share their knowledge with other people, in the belief that this somehow makes their position more secure. After all, if people always have to refer to you for certain aspects of the job, and there’s no-one to take over from you, you’re safe in the knowledge that you can’t be replaced. This was especially the case for a small number of people who were the guardians of “sophisticated” spreadsheets, who were loath to explain how it all fits together, and therefore are assured of the fact that as long as the spreadsheet is needed for reporting purposes, your job is safe.

I must admit at this stage that there have been times when I regretted having been too successful at making myself indispensable, but at least that was merely a side effect of circumstances, and not something I intended to happen. Still, since there appears to have been no need for me to return during the past 12 months, I seemed to have overcome this indispensability just in time to take an undisturbed retirement.

Hotels


Hotels are strange places if you’re there on business. In the end it turns out to be just a place to get yourself some food and a night’s sleep. Also strange is that, as time wore on, the use of hotels shrank, until in the last ten years of my career I hardly stayed in one at all. Possibly this had something to do with austerity measures and restricting travel to a minimum, in preference of having meetings via video link.

Most of the time, hotel stays were paid in advance, either because you were part of an organised group, or because the company had an arrangement of prepaying on booking a hotel room. That happened to be the case in Allied Steel & Wire, so once I moved to British Steel it was a bit of a shock to have to foot the complete hotel bill yourself. So much so that on my first stay for a visit to Heinz I had to be rescued by a colleague who paid my hotel bill for me.

At the time I didn’t have a credit card, so I applied for one, but the application hadn’t been completed yet when I stayed in the Post House near Newcastle-under-Lyme, and was quite shocked to be treated as a potential petty thief when I said I was going to pay cash and I was asked to pay in advance, and again the next morning before having breakfast. After all, I was working for a reputable British company, did they really expect me to do a runner ?

I can see how this arrangement could be financially beneficial to the company. You spend the money from your own pocket first, and that’s all cash that remains in their coffers until you claim it back on expenses. That’s why the use of a credit card was imperative, since you were likely to have your expenses repaid before you had to settle your credit card bill.

On the one hand, staying in hotels with other people can help establish relationships beyond the workplace; on the other hand staying in a hotel all by yourself can be pretty bleak. As an example of the former, I once stayed in a hotel with Norman Leah for a visit to Impress Deventer, and I’m sure the wining and dining together gave him a better view of me as a person rather than merely bring his boss.

However, being on your own just a few days prior to Christmas for trials at CMB Braunstone was pretty lonely, and a good thing too that most of the day was taken up by witnessing trial runs by CMB. Or the time I took part in an introductory Matlab course and stayed in a Travelodge near a dual carriageway leading out of Cambridge, where there was absolutely nothing to do apart from be in your room and watch television.

Hence that in later years, when I no longer was flitting about going to customers, and when the stays in hotels first reduced to a trickle and later dried up completely, I didn’t miss hotel rooms at all. It may be nice for a change, but I wouldn’t want to do it on a regular basis as part of my day-to-day job.

Steel on the Net – British Steel, Hoogovens and Corus


I just happened to stumble on this site called Steel on the Net, part of which showed a time line for the combined history of British Steel, Hoogovens and Corus. So here it is :

In 1979, state-owned British Steel Corporation had 135,000 employees. By 1993 it had transformed into the privately-owned British Steel, with ~41,000 employees.

The timeline below covers the history of the firm.

  • 1949: Iron & Steel Act nationalises some 96 steel firms in the UK.
  • 1951: Iron & Steel Corp of Great Britian established as a holding.
  • 1953: Industry returned to private ownership by Conservative Gov.
  • 1967: Iron and Steel Act creates the British Steel Corporation (BSC).
  • 1970: BSC has 21 integrated steelmaking sites.
  • 1972: Hoogovens and Germany’s Hoesch merge to form Estel.
  • 1980: The year commences with a 13 week national UK steel strike.
  • 1980: Steelmaking operations stopped at Shotton, UK.
  • 1980: BSC closes down the Consett Iron and Steel Works.
  • 1980: Investment in DRI at Hunterston [facility never used].
  • 1980: BSC now has just five major steelmaking sites.
  • 1981: Demolition undertaken of iron & steelmaking at Ebbw Vale.
  • 1981: BSC & GKN form jointly-owned Allied Steel & Wire (Phoenix 1).
  • 1982: Hoogovens / Hoesch partnership in Estel is dissolved.
  • 1984: BSC & GKN form United Engineering Steels group (Phoenix 2).
  • 1984: BSC & JFB forgings jv: Sheffied Forgemasters (Phoenix 3).
  • 1984: Tuscaloosa Steel jv started in the USA.
  • 1988: BSC privatised in December 1988.
  • 1990: British Steel purchase of 45 percent of Aristrain in Spain.
  • 1991: Ravenscraig hot strip mill closed in April.
  • 1991: Formation of electrical steel jv with the Swedish SSAB.
  • 1992: Closure of remaining Ravenscraig steelmaking complex.
  • 1992: Avesta Sheffield jv established with Avesta of Sweden.
  • 1993: Closure of Templeborough Steel Works, Rotherham.
  • 1993: Closure of Shotton steel processing plant in North Wales.
  • 1994: Formation of Trico jv with Sumitomo Metal Industries and LTV.
  • Jan.1996: I joined British Steel Tinplate R&D
  • Sept.1999: Move to Ebbw Vale
  • Oct.1999: Merger of British Steel & Koninklijke Hoogovens as Corus.
  • 2001: Closure of front-end steel-making plant in Llanwern, Wales.
  • June 2002: Move to Llanwern
  • July 2002: Closure of Ebbw Vale.
  • 2002: Sale by Corus of stake in AvestaPolarit to Outokumpu.
  • 2005: Steelmaking stopped at Stocksbridge, UK.
  • 2005: Teesside slab offtake deal signed with foreign consortium.
  • Jan.2006: Move to Port Talbot
  • 2006: Sale to Aleris of aluminium products businesses.
  • 2007: Tata Steel acquires Corus for ~$13 billion.

Notes

  • 1949: Iron and Steel Act was implemented by a post war Labour government.
  • 1967 Iron & Steel Act the created the BSC – this was formed by privatising the 14 largest steel companies that accounted for ~90% of steel output.
  • Ebbw Vale converter shop and blast furnaces were closed in 1975; hot strip mill was closed in 1977.
  • British Steel direct reduction plant was installed in Hunterston, Scotland in 1980 – but never commenced operation because low cost price assumptions concerning future North Sea natural gas proved unfounded. The facility was later dismantled and relocated in 1997 to Mobile, Alabama, USA.
  • 1980: Corby Steel works [producing iron and steel as well tube – originally named the Stewarts & Lloyds Works, with origins in the 1930s] closed its iron and steelmaking in 1980 and 1981, although tube making (as at mid-2011) continues.
  • 1980: Five major remaining BSC steelmaking sites are Port Talbot, Llanwern, Ravenscraig, Scunthorpe and Teesside.
  • 1984: United Engineering Steels brought together four BSC Sheffield plants with GKN’s Brymbo Works as a 69:31 BSC:GKN owned venture.
  • 1984: Tuscaloosa Steel was a joint venture of British Steel, Tippins, O’Neal Steel and American Cast Iron Pipe Company. The Steckel mill facility originally purchased slab from British Steel. Following investment in new EAF furnaces Tuscaloosa sourced significant DRI from Mobile DRI, a Tuscaloosa Steel subsidiary located 200 miles to the south.
  • 1984: Phoenix 3 involved net asset contributions of ~71% from JFB (Johnson and Firth Brown) and ~29% from BSC.
  • 1991: Electrical steel jv with SAAB was called European Electrical Steel. British Steel had a 75% equity stake.
  • 1992: Avesta Sheffield was also the second largest stainless steel producer in the world at this time, behind Usinor Sacilor of France. British Steel had a 40% stake in the newly formed venture.
  • 1994: Trico was a flat rolled steel mini-mill completed in 1997. LTV had a 50% interest, Sumitomo Metal Industries Ltd. and British Steel plc owned 25% each.
  • 2001: Hot rolling mills and cold-reversing and continuous hot dip galvanising lines were maintained at Llanwern after closure of steelmaking, and remain in placed as at mid-2011.
  • 2005: The Teesside Cast Products (TCP) Consortium partners included Marcegaglia, Dongkuk, Duferco and Ternium.