Category Archives: Tata Steel

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish!


This was the last email I sent from my work email address. I didn’t want anything too wordy or sentimental as a farewell, so I chose the title of the fourth book in the Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy trilogy by Douglas Adams which seemed rather appropriate to the circumstances.

Here it is :

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Coda


This is the last regular post I intend to make on this blog – from time to time there may be the occasional addition, but from now on they will be the exception rather than the rule.

The reason ? I think I’ve more or less exhausted the major stories from my career in steel between the days I started my studies in 1973 and the day I retired in march 2016. No point in mulling over stale topics, and I thought that the first anniversary of my retirement might be a good point in time to stop.

In a way, retirement has been as expected, although the possibility of coming back on a part-time basis to help out did not materialise. As far as the business and the pension scheme is concerned, things are still up in the air. Even though the financial situation of both has improved, neither can claim to be futureproofed to any major extent.

Granted that Tata had their wish in getting the defined benefits scheme shut (I haven’t heard of any date when this closure will happen), and that as a result Port Talbot’s blast furnaces were given a five year lifeline, but to be honest that’s not exactly a secure long-term future. As for the pension scheme, Tata’s ultimate goal to completely divorce itself from the British Steel Pension Scheme is only partially achieved with the closure of the defined benefits scheme, and the possibility of the Pension Protection Scheme still hangs over the proceedings.

The potential merger with Thyssen-Krupp appears to have faded away. One of the possible reasons being, ironically enough, the fact that Thyssen-Krupp’s pension is only kept afloat by the good financial results of its parent company. Would Tata really want to ditch one pension scheme only to lumber itself with another one with equal potential for economic damage ?

Whatever the case, the year since my retirement must have been filled with insecurity for all parties involved. To be honest, even I feel that I would want things to be put to bed as far as the pension arrangements are concerned. The British Steel Pension Scheme has not given any further updates since last January, probably meaning that there’s no clear way forward yet.

Until that happens, I won’t have properly retired.

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.