Tag Archives: Contistretch

Did I Make a Difference ? (Part 2)

Coming down from the high of my work at Iscor wasn’t as bad as it sounds, although in hindsight it turned out to be a step back on my career path (see 1989-1999: The Lost Decade). While my work at Allied Steel & Wire may have been worthwhile in the here and now, the company clearly earned its reputation of “being run by accountants who wouldn’t know what to do with a metallurgist if their life depended on it”. As metallurgists we were not part of the overall strategic decisions, merely filling in where our specialist knowledge needed to be added to existing processes, mostly as trouble shooters.

My impact as QA manager for the Contistretch department was at least somewhat more substantial than being a metallurgist at the Tremorfa Bar Mill, being in charge of the testhouse as well as having put in place the QA manual to run it. Who knows whether this could have been a lasting legacy if AS&W had survived, but seeing as it didn’t (and since I don’t even know whether the Contistretch process is still being used), chances are that the QA manual was binned together the company.

This was then followed by my move to Tinplate R&D, and since this was also part of my lost decade, I can’t claim to have shone in my capacity as Team Leader for can performance. It took me a long time to even find some direction in my activities, and even if the PACS Centre had survived the merger with Hoogovens (which it didn’t) there wasn’t much for me to be proud of. Victories were small in number and often overshadowed by the feeling of relief that we got out of a tight spot rather a sense of achievement.

That’s why the move to Ebbw Vale was such a relief – finally I felt that I was doing something that fitted in with what the production process needed, the imprimatur coming when the Process Development Team survived the first cuts intact. It didn’t for the last year, but I managed to then become involved with the whole traffic light set-up, even though it was doomed to be a short-lived victory. This was the second time in my career that I clearly made a difference to the proper working of the plant.

After this high, the move to Llanwern was again a bit of a climbdown, although not of the same magnitude as after Iscor. After all, here was an environment that wanted to take the traffic light concept and bring it into the world of web-based information systems. But somehow it did not reach the same level of impact as it had done in Ebbw Vale.

Still, it got me into a role where I could bring information that had previously languished on mainframe screens and Excel spreadsheets into databases and the intranet, and gradually it changed some people’s minds of what could be achieved if some type of information is at the tip of your fingers rather than having to be delved out of the archives in a laborious fashion. The success was never complete, since there were always pockets of resistance amongst those who favoured “sophisticated” spreadsheets, or felt that the dissemination of IT-based information should be left to the “professionals”.

Over time my reputation grew locally and spread from there throughout most parts of Strip Products UK (and sometimes beyond), so here I could safely say that for the third (or maybe fourth) time in my career I made a difference, even though the difference I made was at the local level rather than through all echelons of the organisation.

Will it stand the test of time ? In the long run that’s rather doubtful, but how long the long run will represent is harder to gauge. During my last months prior to retirement I still had to deal occasionally with systems that I had developed nearly 15 years earlier, so inertia could well mean that some things survive as long as new requirements can be accommodated. On the other hand, if a break-up happens and Strip Products UK is sold off, or if a merger with Thyssen-Krupp shakes up how we do IT at the local level, then existing systems could well disappear.

But I suppose that’s just the name of the game. Nothing lasts forever.


1989-1999: The Lost Decade

When I left Iscor and South Africa in 1989, I left on a high, professionally speaking. I had been part of the Mossgas team, aimed at building an offshore platform off the coast of Mosselbay, and the steel delivery for that project was complete in my final months with Iscor. But more satisfying was my contribution to the Mossref project, where I had helped concoct the recipe which landed us the contract for the pressure vessel steels to be used in the on-shore refinery bit to the Mossgas project.

Then, back in Britain I soon found a job with Allied Steel & Wire, and even had the luxury to choose them over lesser paid offers with Inco Alloys in Hereford and British Steel in Scunthorpe. But over the next 5 years I never had the satisfaction to feel that I had substantially contributed to the welfare of the company. I did some work towards creating a high-strength Tempcore steel, but never was part of the team when it came to implementing the resulting product in tie bars.

By that time I had already moved to the Contistretch department, where the job was more of a QA nature, writing the QA manual, and trying to keep the various auditors happy. In some way of interest, but not exactly the type of job where there’s any call for your metallurgical skills. I remember a recruiter once stating that he had never managed to place anyone with AS&W, and called them “a company run by accountants, who wouldn’t know what to do with a metallurgist if their life depended on it”. And so it proved in the end. Their ambition to be the cheapest rebar producer in the UK became laughable in the face of cheap Spanish imports, and would have been absolutely nonsensical today when faced with even cheaper Chinese imports.

As mentioned elsewhere I managed to find a job with British Steel Tinplate R&D based in but not part of Welsh Labs. There the job was unsatisfactory for a number of reasons, one of which was that it called more on mechanical rather than metallurgical engineering skills. It also showed that my man management skills where I tried to use my experience in South Africa as a template did not match the work force and their expectations, and this put me off in subsequent jobs from being in charge of and responsible for the performance of other people.

But the main reason for this whole episode being unsatisfactory was that the manager in charge of Tinplate R&D was a bully and a control freak, who made many people leave when they no longer could put up with his antics. This was in the days before emails were widely available, and the fact that we were on a different site from the tinplate works in Trostre and Ebbw Vale made it easy for him to control the information going in and out of the department. And woe befell anyone who dared to go behind his back and talk to people in authority without his permission.

It was only after I had left for Ebbw Vale that I realised how unhappy and stressed I had been, when you never had a feeling of achievement and the best you could hope for was a “phew! we got out of that tight spot intact”. It’s sad that some of the people who work for you have to tell you that “it doesn’t matter what you think, because if it doesn’t match what Dave thinks, then he’ll go over your head and push his opinion through anyway”.

All I can say is: a good thing that the temporary secondment became permanent, because as soon as I was out of the pressure cooker I thought: I should have left ages ago. But how the move to Ebbw Vale became permanent is the subject of a different story.