Happy in a hole

Happy in a hole

Now that John Dickson has both feet back on the ground, new ways of moving an industry forward have suddenly emerged, as he tells Brian Nicholls.

Once a high flyer in both senses, genial John Dickson works now with feet firmly on the ground – and often below nature’s contour. He’s hands-on chairman of Owen Pugh Group, owner among other things of Marsden Quarry, a remarkable man-made landscape between Whitburn and South Shields. And although relatively new to contracting, Dickson is winning admiration for infusing high technology into one of our oldest industries, enabling the group also to break into the North East’s 50 fastest growing companies with average turnover growth of 14.6%.

A long-term challenge will be to advocate a reincarnation for this quarry when, like others lying nearby, it finally closes. Holes in the ground fascinate. This one’s awe-inspiring – nearly 190ft deep, its 12 million cubic metres of space evidence of more than 100 years’ work there. It’s gouged from the northern most tip of a seam of magnesian dolomitic limestone that comes up from South-West England and ends here.

Thirty years hence you could imagine it a permanent location for Mad Max-type films. Or, if the climate keeps warming, it could be sculpted into an amphitheatre bigger than the 2,000-seat, 2BC one that Cyprus restored on the coast at Kourion. Dickson considers suggestions attentively as he escorts visitors into the vast bowl.

“We’ve still a 10 or 15-year life ahead to extract here, and five or 10 years beyond to import material for the quarry’s restoration,” he points out.

“Into what? Who knows? The plan for now involves about a third, creating an interesting landscape with slopes, grassland, and exposed limestone escarpments. This would recreate primary limestone grassland, but that’s as far as it goes. In the end, we’ll have 75 to 80 acres of estate in an interesting position. We may try something more enterprising than just leave it standing.”

A nature reserve? Foxes, voles, butterflies and moths already frequent the quarry despite the excavators, dumpers, crushing and screening machines, and the heavy trucks trundling past piled with aggregate for overseas. Three varieties of orchid – bee, pyramid and fly – also flourish, but the original Marsden Quarry nearby already provides a reserve. Trow, another quarry nearby, has disappeared under the coastal erosion rampant here. How intensely productive this area once was, with a colliery reaching seven or eight miles under the sea. Lime was made at nearby kilns for around 100 years; a paper mill stood nearby.

Besides Souter lighthouse (now a museum beside the coast road from which there’s no glimpse of Owen Pugh’s pit) an entire village with streets and a shop thrived between Smugglers’ Cave and Lizard Point. It was largely demolished in the 1960s – after 86 years or so – captive to the North Sea.

“All that’s gone except for this quarry,” Dickson says with empathy. “And here we are, tucked away in a green belt. We’ve half-adozen ideas of our own about what might become of the quarry site. I consider this my retirement project.” Indeed it will be important space in a conurbation.

“Lots of people might want to come and use it,” he suggests. But there’s already a golf course nearby. So there’s more to Owen Pugh Group than eponymous yellow and maroon liveried trucks on the region’s roads suggest. Only a fraction of the firm’s 296 employees work at the quarry. Otherwise they’re into demolition, landfill, earthmoving, civil engineering of all kinds, also plant and vehicle hire, and training for the industry.

Not many know, though, that the quarry makes Owen Pugh Sunderland port’s biggest exporter in tonnage. Germany, Holland, Denmark and Poland all want Marsden rock, once crushed to a constituency of a good apple crumble, as Dickson describes – “very soft and high quality, for spreading on fields to add minerals to the soil”.

The 130,000 tonnes a year exported is big business for the company actually based at Dudley, East Northumberland, representing 30% of turnover.

The quarry also yields dolimitic limestone for aggregate in construction, a full range from crusher run through to granular sub-base and stones of 10mm upwards. But quarrying offers a relatively low value product and, amid fierce competition, transport costs are critical. County Durham’s quarryfields at Coxhoe and Thrislington are in there pitching.

Northwards and westwards, the competition looms at Longhoughton, near Alnwick, and Barrasford. So Owen Pugh’score market (no pun intended) is Tyneside and South-East Northumberland. “Many quarries in the region are mothballed and some you couldn’t open again,” Dickson says. “Ours is spectacularly well positioned. Fortunately, we can take advantage.” Buying it 10 years ago was one of the smartest moves made by the firm founded in 1946. It became available when Tilcon bought out Tarmac, changing the group’s name back to Tarmac since it was considered more familiar. The competition authority then said the buyer had to divest quarries.

Marsden was one. Owen Pugh, then the quarry’s biggest customer, was approached. Dickson explains: “Graham White, my business partner, had the foresight to say yes. It was picked up for a reasonable price because they didn’t want to sell it to any major competitors.” It was suggested then the quarry might have only four or five years’ life left.

Tarmac had wanted to extend quarrying and had stressed a limited life for what existed to bolster its application.

“We were sceptical,” says Dickson. “And 10 years later here we still are working away at it. It’s our biggest, most dramatic piece of landscape, yet many drive past, not realising its existence. It has a low impact on the surrounding population – we get some complaints when the wind whips up the dust because quarrying is inherently dusty, but we work hard to minimise that.” Owen Pugh – there was such a man – was working in 1946 for Lynwick Estates, a firm verging on bankruptcy.

Pugh said at the creditors’ meeting that if they backed him he’d take over and run the business, pay off debts and provide a bright future. That’s what happened. He reformed the company as Owen Pugh Ltd, took all the equipment, paid the debts and away it went, a family firm hiring plant and working on the fringes of opencast business throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In 1952 the firm relocated to its present headquarters on part of Dudley’s colliery yard near Cramlington. In the late 1960s and early 1970s it diversified into contracting.

Graham White joined in 1972, and has driven the contracting side steadily upwards. By 1997 when Owen Pugh died, his two sons were running the business and did so till 2005, when they sought an exit. Dickson recalls: “Graham and I jointly put together a management buyout deal. We took the company over and have continued to grow since. We’ve acquired other companies and are well positioned in North East civil engineering.” Though steeped in industry, Dickson had previously been outside civil engineering.

He had worked for big names though: BICC cable company (1983) for example, then NEI (Reyrolle) at Hebburn. He worked abroad for nearly four years, took a career break in Venezuela, then returned to be part of the Rolls Royce Industrial Power Group. After a takeover by ABB (then the French multinational group Alstom) Dickson found himself a global engineering director in Alstom Power’s boiler division.

“I spent a lot of time in aeroplanes,” he recalls. “It’s not a terribly satisfactory way to earn a living. I covered offices in North America, three in Europe and one in Delhi – back and forward between those places all the time, it was about as close to purgatory as you can get. By good fortune I had got to a global position. But personal life was less fun; we had three children by then and I wasn’t seeing any of them, or my wife. We decided to make a change.” Looking for options, he was lucky. An old school friend arranged an introduction to the Pughs and their business.

“I got on very well with them and they with me,” he says. “The rest is history. It was a wonderful opportunity.” It was indeed a homecoming. Although John Dickson was born in Sussex and he and his wife Anne had been living near Buxton in the Peak District, his family were originally from North Shields and Cullercoats, and he at 11 had returned with them to Tyneside and the Royal Grammar School.

“There’s no better place than the North East,” he declares. Anne, though from Kent, feels settled too at home now between Hartburn and Scots Gap, even during the testing winters. And of course, John sees much more now of Thomas, 12, Carolyn, nine, and Hannah, six.

”I had no experience of civil engineering, quarrying or suchlike,” Dickson muses. “But I’ve never believed you need experience for anything you want to do in life.” He joined the firm in May 2005 with an “ubiquitous” title of general manager.

“To be fair,” he says, “I joined to do the management buyout. We did that in October 2005, so we’re on to our fifth anniversary. We’ve had lots of fun. It’s tough, yes, but we’ve done quite well.” Turnover to March 31 rose £0.1m to £20.4m, and while post-tax profit fell to below half 2009’s figure, Dickson points out that staff retention got priority over profit. Despite civils and construction being one of the sectors worst hit in recession, the firm bought HCS Drain Services, put workers on short time during June only, and even increased the workforce a tad to 248.

The aim now: a £25m turnover this year and 300 employees eventually. Recently Owen Pugh has worked on Nissan’s new battery plant and BEA Systems’ new factory at Washington. It has supported Durham Wildlife Trust on its wetlands project at Low Barns Nature Reserve, and restored the River Till floodplain in Northumberland. Dickson’s one of an increasingly rare breed, a relatively young pipe smoker.

He says it gives “a little solace in an ever changing world”, but it’s he who at 48 is ringing many of the changes in contracting. Its £15m fleet of trucks, bulldozers and excavators are enhanced by vehicle-mounted space satellite guidance and computer-relayed instruction. Laser equipment, coupled with the digital design and mapping technology, saves time, removes need of manual pegging on site, and gives accuracy to 15mm. No quarry blasting, no backbreaking labour, but breaking tools like dentists’ giant drills drive through rock in seconds. Dickson explains: “Our advances aren’t our inventions but our combination of technologies to get full value from them. We’re trying to push boundaries.“