“I didn’t want to be the scorer. I wanted to be out there, helping build an innings.” Johnathan Dudley may be talking about the latter days of his cricketing career, but the sporting analogy fits well with his approach to business, in particular the business of manufacturing.
‘Passion’ is a much overused word by marketers these days: ‘We have a passion for customer service’, et al. But thankfully there are still those for whom the word is apposite.
In Johnathan’s case, his passion for manufacturing has its roots in his father’s work. His father was an electrochemist who trained at ICI, later becoming technical director at a Walsall business called Anochrome. He then joined a partnership called Reliance Plating which he developed until he sold the business in 1982.
Meanwhile, Johnathan was learning the business at the weekends and in holidays during his school and college days. He cut his teeth in the plating business the hard way. Learning the skills required was one thing, what he hadn’t appreciated was the back breaking nature of the job.
“When you are vat-dipping, you need to be strong enough to hold the component, whatever size, on hooks, and dip in the acid, water and alkali vats,” he explains. “Some of the guys in the works had arms like Popeye and it was work that soon sorted the men from the boys.”
Now a leading accountant for Crowe Clark Whitehill, Johnathan says: “We plated pieces for many well known Black Country names, and I now act for several companies we used to plate components for in those days. Being on that side of the production process gave me an insight into the production cycle as we never knew from one day to another what we might be plating, and in what quantities.
“Dad would look at the orders the day before and decide how many he needed on a shift and whether overtime or even a night shift was required. This was ‘just in time’ plating before the concept was ever invented.”
“I still look at products with a different eye to most people,” says Johnathan. “I see components and note the finishes while others are admiring the design or the functionality.
R&D was something you worked out yourself by trial and error or by asking one of the older guys who had been around a bit longer than you.”
His father had brought him up on stories of the development of the first prototypes of the Advanced Passenger Train, and how the plating experts had been given the challenge of coming up with a finish for the metal central stanchion down the centre of the coach roof that matched the rest of the décor. There was no tapping the requirement into a computer and waiting nano-seconds for an answer in those days. Trial and error was the rule of thumb – albeit you had better keep the said digit well out of the way!
While it might seem as though a career in industry was beckoning, his uncle was a chartered accountant who eventually owned Dismantling & Engineering Services Ltd, a renowned business then based on Mucklows Hill. And so Johnathan had found himself using his college trained accountancy skills to pull together his father’s books into some kind of order before they went off to the accountants.
When he eventually joined a Black Country accountancy firm, he always found himself drawn to the manufacturing clients.“What fascinated me was not just the numbers, but what was going on in the business and in the surround. Margins, operating profit, working capital – all parts of your studies, but this was real.
But it’s important at this point to put his growing passion for manufacturing into its historic and economic context. “Nobody was turned on by engineering and manufacturing at that time. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the prevailing ‘wisdom’ was that this side of industry was old hat. I was not prepared to accept what the politicians were saying – that the manufacturing train had left the station.”
He conducted a study and found that, generally speaking, its manufacturing clients were among the most dynamic and vibrant. “They were far from dead. They had battled through recessions, they had cut costs, they had invested in automation and improved productivity and above all, many were producing some seriously sexy products,” he says with the glint in his eye of a real enthusiast.
“The pinnacle is Formula 1 which is all based within a few square miles in this country, but every day in the Black Country and Birmingham, our manufacturers are knocking out world class products driven by innovation and passion. They are all around you, but we so often don’t see them and take products for granted.”
He was fortunate that within Crowe Clark Whitehill he found a willing audience: “While it sometimes felt that nobody outside manufacturing was interested, I was able to persuade our then senior partner that this could become a central plank of our work, and I was appointed national head of manufacturing in 2010.
“This enabled me to talk to our manufacturing clients and show them where they risked throwing good money after bad, and where in other areas the time was ripe for investment. We were able to demonstrate that we could focus our skills on really helping clients and adding value to their business.”
But during his missionary work around clients in the Black Country and wider West Midlands, he noticed that manufacturers, by and large, were not talking to each other. It was a natural progression to set up the Manufacturing Business Network and since 2010 the regional event has met quarterly in our offices at Black Country House in Oldbury.”
Now he notes that a number of what he describes as ‘Johnny come lately’ types have wakened to the importance of manufacturing in the UK economy. “For many of those early years it was a really unfashionable,” he says. “A bit like being a die-hard Albion fan in their Third Division days when Bobby Gould was manager.” But he notes both healthy and worrying trends on the horizon: “I’m encouraged by JLR saying that their suppliers should look to supply other OEMs [original equipment manufacturers]. This is both healthy and sensible. Years ago, you supplied either Ford or Rover, and woe betide you if you were caught supplying anyone else. No business should be over reliant on one sector, one service or product line for its future stability.”
However, he worries about world currencies: “There are other issues to worry about than just the euro and whether we stay in the EU for manufacturing. Metal, for example, is always valued in dollars, and if we work in a global marketplace as we do now, we should very much have our eye on the yen and increasingly the rupee too.
“The skills shortage, too, is something that we must act on. Successive governments and business organisations have talked about it, but done precious little. We can’t rely on 70-year-olds keeping the wheels turning. We need to bring the youngsters through. We need to make manufacturing the new rock ’n’ roll.” And in timely fashion, his mobile erupts with the opening bars of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’.
A career of giving back
Johnathan Dudley was born at home in Egerton Road, Streetly. He only ever attended one school, Hydesville Tower in Walsall, from the age of four to 16. He moved on to Sutton College to take accountancy-related A-levels, before enrolling at Wolverhampton Polytechnic for a Foundation Course in Accountancy. He turned down a degree course at Aston University because he wanted to get to work, instead joining Walter J Edwards, now known simply as Edwards, the accountancy firm in Aldridge where he qualified in 1986.
He joined what was then Clark Whitehill in 1988, becoming a partner in 1994. He clearly remembers when he was invited to become an equity partner: it was the day of his father’s funeral in 1996, and the senior partner asked him to call in for ten minutes. He recalls: “He apologised that he hadn’t been able to tell me the previous day, as it would have meant I could have shared the news with Dad.”
He ran the firm’s Walsall office for four years before overseeing the merger of the Kidderminster and Walsall offices into their current home in Black Country House, Oldbury. He was appointed regional managing partner in 2011, which includes the Midlands, Manchester and Cheltenham offices, as well as being the Crowe Clark Whitehill’s national head of manufacturing.
Outside work, Johnathan’s just celebrated 30 years of marriage to Tracey. They have three children, a new grandchild, two dogs Stan and Bert and a cockatiel. His other passions for many years have been the Scout movement and Round Table, succeeded by membership of Rotary. In fact, he says he owes his existence to parental “exuberance” following the 1962 Walsall Round Table Christmas party.
He was a Cub in his early years and was drawn to the activities offered by Scouts. When his own son was three he was asked to help out his local troop, which led to 25 years involvement, ten years as Scout Leader. Johnathan followed his father into Round Table and values his membership and time there as it reflects the Dudley family’s ethos of “giving back”.