Ian Dormer’s aspirations as he heads the Institute of Directors nationally are twofold. At the end of his term as chairman – be that three years on or six – he’d like business, when reported in the media and discussed on the high street, to be seen as “a really positive good thing, rather than the negative image often projected on front pages now.”
He’ll also work from his privileged London chair to realise the IoD goal of ensuring directors are fit for purpose.
“The two things are linked,” he points out, contemplating with BQ the new appointment from his spartan managing director’s office at Rosh Engineering in Birtley.
“If we directors do our job well, business will be regarded as a good thing.” Dormer loves media, in truth, especially the memories of working in it himself, and the journalists he knows and has known - even if he did have to act unilaterally to modernise print publishing.
Early in his career, during the battles over modernising British print and publishing technology, he worked at Flight International, a major title in a 100-strong publications group.
Many journalists on various newspapers and magazines for some time refused to use computers without a pay rise.
Dormer, who’d used them at university, couldn’t abide copy paper, “carbons” and rip-it-out- and-startagain rituals.
He quit a recalcitrant trade union to use a computer.
He kept his job, and within six months of seeing the user benefits, the entire editorial staff had followed suit.
He only gave up journalism when invited to inherit the business his parents Roy and Sheila – hence Rosh – ran. It was 1989.
“The business then was run from a front bedroom, and employed three people on a temporary ad hoc basis,” he recalls.
“I’m not an engineer. The best thing I could do was grow the business and employ qualified engineers. Over the next five years I drove the business very hard.” Wise thinking. The firm works with on-site electricity transformers – replacing, uprating, repairing, dismantling, cleaning, painting, testing, project managing and advising.
It has just helped resuscitate Redcar’s massive steelworks under SSI’s new ownership after near closure.
The work generally is critical, potentially dangerous and without scrupulous application of safeguards.
Dormer pushes our two mugs of tea closer together on the table between us. He explains: “You can have two pieces of equipment close together like this with only four or five metres between.
"You’re working on one with no power going through. But there may be four and a half thousand volts going through the other. Do something stupid like swinging a scaffolding pole the wrong way or toppling a ladder, and you’ll die. It’s very demanding work, but satisfying and rewarding also when all goes well.”
All’s going well. The firm has now grown into its fourth location. The workforce, up to 30 strong and mostly working away at power stations and big industrial sites, includes five fully qualified graduate engineers and two trainee engineers.
The client list includes EDF Energy, Scottish and Southern Energy, Western Power Distribution, United Utilities, Nexus, Lafarge, and Ford Motor Company.
Turnover is £3m-plus, with profit rather than turnover the goal. Under Dormer, the firm also covers the Benelux countries and Ireland, but focus presently is on the UK where a lot of the electricity supply’s network installed in the 1960s has a lifespan now requiring attention.
Outside the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the British Safety Council you’ll be pressed to find anyone more concerned than he about health and safety.
A plethora of framed certificates hanging in the reception area, and his chairing of an IoD-HSE group, confirms this. He lectures on the subject across Europe. He’s concerned that British firms often lose out because they follow EU rules conscientiously while others apparently don’t.
He cites insistence on scaffolding for work even only 12ft off the ground - the essence of a transformer painting contract he pitched for in The Netherlands.
He agrees the sense in scaffolding but was asked why he intended using it there.
He explained the height and safety factor but was told: “No Dutch company would use it.” Says Dormer: “How can I tell my site staff that it’s safe to work off a ladder at that height in Holland but unsafe in Britain? We bid to include scaffolding and lost the contract. We wanted to do it safely. The Dutch didn’t.”
He cited this instance also during a speech on essential leadership at an EC conference in Bilbao. A sympathetic member of the audience, from an Irish company, quoted a similar deadlock over building a power station there in Bilbao.
An EC commissioner present agreed this was all wrong; the same standards should be applied throughout Europe.
“We need more legislation,” he declared. Says Dormer: “My head hit the lectern. I told him he was missing the point. There’s already legislation. It’s just not being applied. UK business is damn good at complying with rules and laws. This is the world we’re in. We knock ourselves in Britain about how we run British business. Yet It has transformed itself over the years.”
Dormer, 48, has been active with the IoD nationally since the early 1990s serving also as chairman in the North East, a region whose way of life (he and his family live in Gosforth) he much prefers over London’s.
Having worked so extensively also with other bodies promoting the North East’s good, might he as national chairman now advocate a national economic push for weaker regions, to benefit the UK economy as a whole? “One of my bugbears,” he replies, “is that we knock ourselves in the North East far too much. We have some top drawer businesses that are extraordinarily successful. Instead of focussing on what works, and what we’re good at, we hanker after things now not successful, or which have even died. The more we start building ourselves up, the better.
“I’m a big advocate in London of how great the North East is. We’ve an extraordinarily skilled, dedicated, committed and passionate workforce.”
He cites how Nissan, as Europe’s most productive operation, has ended an embarrassment of Britain’s motor industry having once been the laughing stock.
He cites high tech achievements of a home-grown Sage now gaining global domination. And Greggs, started on Gosforth High Street and now having taken over the UK.
“These are what we should sing about,” he suggests, “not shipbuilding and coalmining.” But what if coalmining returns under a new clean process safer to human life than earlier methods were? “Fine,” he says.
“But we’ve got to start saying where the real positives are in business and industry. Success breeds success.”
He was much involved in the work of One North East. Now the regional development agency is no more, does he sense a loss of platform from which to progress strategic policies?
He replies: “The Local Enterprise Partnerships now in place obviously must try to find their feet and move forward. ONE shifted a great deal forward in terms of structural improvements. But there’s no point in saying it would be good to have that still. That’s it.
“We must move on and make the most of what we’ve got. Let’s hope LEPs can do things. Government doesn’t have the money it once had. We have to do things for less.
“Through innovation, we in the North East will make the most of what we do have. I believe government should only do what we can’t do for ourselves. Say we want to build a decent road north and a decent road west from Newcastle. I’d like also high speed trains to come to the North East too, not just Birmingham and the West. We also want the best airport and port facilities. Businesses can’t necessarily do these things. We need government to come in with us there.”
Would this prominent North East antidevolutionist take the same stand now that the Government has favoured Scotland with the new Green Investment Bank that the North East made a case for, and which some might feel is part of a bigger appeasement to weaken support for Scottish independence in any referendum held about that?
“I took my stand because the North East wasn’t offered devolution,” he answers. “The Bill in question gave us fundamentally no more power than we have now. It was almost a sop, merely committing us to another tier of political bodies likely to get even more in the way of business.
“All we need is for our political representatives here to get together. This region isn’t a diverse political grouping. We’ve Labour MPs and Labour councillors very largely. We need to have them fight for us politically if that’s what’s needed. But, first and foremost, we need a central government giving businesses an environment in which to prosper. Take our handcuffs off. We’ll do the rest.
“Politicians often think they’re helping when really they’re hindering. I’m often asked what piece of legislation would you like rid of? It’s not one piece; it’s a multitude. So much time in business is distracted by legislation. Employment laws are probably the biggest hindrance to moving forward. With so much new legislation coming out constantly you can easily make a mistake unintentionally.”
The IoD tries, even so, to promote among members and the general corporate community good leadership, good corporate governance, and responsible leadership.
Dormer explains: “You become a director suddenly and think you know what you’re doing. Rubbish. We expect our staff to learn continually. So should company directors.”
Thus it runs programmes leading to chartered director status, which carries Royal Assent.
“It’s now an important pillar of what we do – tough, but meant to be,” he says.
“The end game is that you understand about processes and standards a good company director should follow.”Participants undergo a certificate of diploma course, followed by a peer group interview. It’s based on academic knowledge, technical knowledge and personal experience and, he points out: “Even when you have it the only way you can maintain chartered status is by continuing professional development. I’ve sat in on interviews with extremely capable directors and when you shake their hand at the end it’s sweating. It’s not easy, not cheap but valuable. Directors coming through say it improves their own performance and, in so doing, benefits their organisations.”
Ian is himself doing the course. Meanwhile, back to the economy. His conviction is that a low tax economy will encourage firms, whether coming to the UK or in the UK already. He describes GlaxoSmithKline’s recently announced £500m investment into UK operations as “significant”.
The firm says recent tax cuts were an influence. Whatever, it brightens prospects for Barnard Castle whose plant was repeatedly rumoured to be nearing closure.
And Dormer maintains that low tax economies encourage businesses, and businesses employ people.
“The more people we have employed, the better life is for society,” he adds. “I come from a small business but we depend on big businesses for our livelihood. We must work together. Both have challenges and different ways. But we need businesses big and small.”
Within the IoD his commitment to the best interests of British business is praised, as is his championing of responsible commerce and the positive role it can play.
The organisation he now leads has 40,000 members, from corporation chief executives to start-up directors, and a 109-year history.
It calls itself a non-party political organisation, passing members’ views to ministers, MPs and senior civil servants.Ian Dormer may not be a sparkie in the day job at Birtley, but behind the majestic Regency facade of the IoD headquarters on Pall Mall his enthusiasm should get sparks flying – in a practical way – both for the North East and for businesses big and small.