Tag Archives: Ebbw Vale

Counterfactual #3


So there I was in 1999, freshly rescued, if you want to call it that way, from the tyranny of an overbearing and unbearable boss in Tinplate R&D. So what could have happened if Chris Eliot hadn’t hatched the plan for my secondment to Ebbw Vale?

First of all, and something that happened within a few months of the merger with Hoogovens, Tinplate R&D became part of the new Corus-wide R&D division , with a re-organisation along lines that were inherited from Hoogoven’s R&D efforts. It’s hard to envisage where I would have fitted into the new structure, and whose decision it would have been who was posted where.

I think that for Corus Packaging Plus (the tinplate part of Corus) it became quite clear that since the head office was located in IJmuiden, that’s also where the PACS Centre was relocated. I know for sure that John Selwyn Williams and John Gamble both made that trip. Not sure whether the other positions were based there or had to do regular commutes.

Anyhow, all that became pretty immaterial once the decision was made that Welsh Labs was to close. Whatever physical presence there was across the bridge in Port Talbot, it became somewhat of a ghost town when the Welsh Development Agency bought up the site and rented some space back for some relic activities by Corus and subsequently Tata.

So either I would have moved to IJmuiden (a possibility, but far from certain), or I would have been on the lookout for a job elsewhere. Who knows whether I would have ended up in Ebbw Vale after all. Still, if the latter, it would have left me less time to try and find my feet and show that I was worth keeping for the last year when I really made my impact that secured my future in Corus / Tata Steel.

Whatever the case, the present situation where I made my move to Ebbw Vale in September 1999 was infinitely better. Not having to worry about all possible job permutations in the new R&D structure was a bonus, and by the time Ebbw Vale’s closure was announced I had at least built up some local goodwill that would stand me in good stead for the coming years.

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Office Banter


Office banter has been part of my working life on a number of occasions, but what I noticed what’s required for banter to work and take hold of the atmosphere in the office is that you need at least 3 and possibly 4 or more people to keep the banter going.

Meaning that the many times that I had an office to myself, or shared one with one other person was not the times that I remember much in the way of banter. The two periods that stand out was when there was four of us sharing the Process Development Team office in Ebbw Vale, and during my time with the Operational Research team office in the Abbey General Offices in Port Talbot.

Banter can take many shapes and form, but must stay light-hearted to work. So when Phil Owens announced that he was about to get married, and a few days later entered the office with the question “guess what?”, my blurted-out response “you’re pregnant” was both hilarious and not far off the truth, because the “guess what?” was obviously that his girlfriend was pregnant, and hence the decision to get married. Potentially this could come across as offensive, but if the atmosphere in the office is open and lighthearted, then it just gets laughed off.

Just like the time when I said “I’m getting old” to which the reply came “no, you ARE old”. It would be hurtful if you knew there was any malice in it, but given the right level of lightness this just becomes water off a duck’s back.

If any of the banter was ever filmed as part of a reality TV show, I’m sure that some people would find reason to find certain parts offensive. For instance, when Karl Koehler became the new CEO for Tata Steel in Europe, references to Fawlty Towers “don’t mention the war” could have been taken as offensive or racist by those who feel so inclined, but in reality most of this type of banter is more silly rather than intended to harm.

In fact, at one point John Madill poked his head around the corner and stated “I can’t believe intelligent people like you can talk such shit”, to which my reply was “it takes intelligence to make up this kind of shit”. Or the time in Ebbw Vale when we all got into giggles but making up sentences where we mixed up the use of metric and imperial units (e.g. a few millimetres short of 2 inches) – it may not sound all that funny, but once you’re on a roll, the insiders can collapse with laughter whereas an outsider would merely look bemused.

The funny thing about it is that most of the banter is fluff, here today and most of the time forgotten tomorrow. But then again, isn’t that the essence of banter ?

Ebbw Vale’s Last Shift


My attention was drawn to an exhibition in Swansea’s Waterfront Museum with photographs from people who were part of a Ebbw Vale’s last shift in July 2002 by a page on the BBC website called The last shift at Ebbw Vale.

I must admit to my shame that hardly any of the names or faces were familiar to me. Then again, my time in Ebbw Vale was short (starting in September 1999 and ending in a June 2002), and most of my activities centred on the temper mill, or in the last year on the traffic light system.

I visited the Waterfront museum a few days ago, and found the exhibition in question. There was also an info panel containing some background information (presumably compiled by the photographer) behind the closure of Ebbw Vale, which unfortunately contained a number of substantial errors. The fourth and fifth paragraphs in particular did not match what I thought I had unearthed during my compilation of my blog entry “A Marriage Made in Heaven ?“.

This was not to last. Currency fluctuations coupled with a price collapse in the international steel market saw British Steel fall into debt and it was taken over by the Dutch conglomerate Hoogoverns in 1999 and renamed Corus.

In the year 2000, Hoogoverns claimed that its subsidiaries in Wales were losing £1million per week and that a major restructuring programme was being considered. The following year this plan was acted upon, meaning that the plant at Ebbw Vale would completely close in July 2002.

Especially one of my sources, Corus: The merger that got things wrong, provides all the information needed to highlight the inaccuracies in the quoted paragraphs above.

First of all, British Steel had not fallen into debt, but instead had been criticised by the markets that they were sitting on a pot of cash and were not investing enough. Secondly, it was not a takeover but a merger, with British Steel providing 62% of the capital and Hoogovens 38% – hence Hoogovens was clearly the smaller partner at the time of the merger. And last but not least, the decision to bring the axe to parts of the UK operation was made by Brian Moffat who had shortly before sacked the joint CEOs Fokker Van Duyn and John Bryant.

Oh, and the name Hoogovens was misspelt Hoogoverns.

It would be a pity to see a falsified story of Ebbw Vale’s closure take hold because of a public exhibition in a prominent Welsh museum. So that’s why I’ve tried to put the record straight here (I’ve also sent an emails to one of the Exhibition and Programme Officers after having discussed the matter with her).

Clementine


This is a piece of software to perform data mining (currently owned by IBM and known as SPSS Modeler) for which we’ve a number of active licences since the British Steel days. I supposed it was an early version of the type of data analysis the likes of Facebook and Google now use to analyse customer habits and preferences.

I haven’t used Clementine for a long time, mostly because my job in the last 15 years in Corus / Tata didn’t really call for it, but also because I’ve seen it used as a data extraction tool where a bespoke .NET application could of the job far easier and fully automated as well.

The one time I used it properly in an attempt to find a pattern determining the flatness of temper rolled blackplate ended in failure. I thought my sample of about a 1000 records should have been plenty – it definitely took a long time and much blood, sweat and tears to collect the data prior to automated data gathering – but when you split your data set over various reel types, two types of annealing, various gauge ranges and mechanical properties you found that many of the conclusions for a possible correlation were based on ridiculously small sample sizes, and therefore any conclusions were not worth a sack of beans.

It definitely cooled my ardour for this type of investigation, and fortunately my subsequent job content no longer called for its use. Maybe that’s all for the better, since I’m not aware that all those years of using Clementine in Operational Research have really led to any new insights – at best they merely confirmed what a knowledgeable practitioner might have suspected prior to the analysis. Our investigation into the issue of PM10s (see Pollution) was a case in point, snce it merely onfirmed the prime importance of wind direction.

There was also some misuse of Clementine in trying to do some jobs that were better performed by a bespoke .NET application. One example was the extraction of screen sales records, which meant someone had to kick off the Clementine job once a week, capture the resulting records in an Excel spreadsheet and snd this spreadsheet to the interested parties. Exactly the type of labour intensive job that I was trying to get rid off – so that’s what I did : I used the logic for collecting the relevant screen sales records to build an extraction application, populated an SQL table, and built a web page to display the results. Meaning that from that moment onwards no further manual input was required to retrieve and analyse the data.

CompuTeach


When the closure of Ebbw Vale was announced, there was a lot of support to ensure that people were assisted in finding a different job. Some of this involved support for retraining in a field other than steel, and you could get a grant in support of this type of retraining from ELWa (Education and Learning Wales).

Seeing as I already had taught myself some basic HTML and Javascript, I decided to try my hand at a Java distance learning course with CompuTeach in Dudley. The full cost of the course (£3,000) was covered by the grant, so that part of the deal was fine.

The first part of the course was to try your hand at some Pascal coding, the reasoning behind it being that if you struggled at this stage, then Java would probably not for you. This was followed by three consecutive folders on various aspects of Java, each chapter with exercises attached. You were supposed to do those and some on-line ones as well and email them to your on-line tutor.

On two occasions we also had a week long in-house session of the course, presumably trying to highlight the important bits to pass the final exam. Not sure if this course was really all that successful, since out of a group of just over ten people, only two passed, including yours truly (although admittedly I only scraped through). So there I was with a certificate of “Sun Certified Java Programmer”.

Did it land me a job in IT ? The hell it did ! First of all, when I started looking for a job in IT was just at the time when the dot com bubble burst, so all of a sudden everyone was looking for Java programmers with five years experience (i.e. from the first years Java was developed) or people who could convert C++ to Java. Also, I must in hindsight admit that my portfolio of IT knowledge was rather meagre, and did not include essentials such as databases, query tools, and more than just one programming language.

So I picked up the thread in Ebbw Vale for the last year, managed to transfer to Llanwern, and learnt real programming and web design by doing it and learning from others in the process. I was even told “don’t you come here with your Java, we’re doing VB here”. Still, I could in a limited way apply my knowledge in Java applets, and when .NET came along , well, that was just Microsoft’s version of Java, wasn’t it ?