PD Ports CEO David Robinson sets sail with Paul Robertson to showcase the huge investment at Teesport and to explain how it rides the economic waves.
Only by taking a boat to the middle of the river can you really capture the scale of the Teesport operation. Huge warehouses and storage facilities, giant container ships and impressive cranes don’t tell half the story of this major piece of infrastructure with the River Tees at its heart.
Hundreds of millions of pounds is being invested and good news is again flowing from the port – whether it be the construction of a Biomass plant or the £35m redevelopment of the Number One Quay. Yet a year ago Teesport, along with the rest of the region, was dealing with the fallout of the closure of the SSI steelworks at Redcar – a major customer and an integral part of the operations.
David Robinson, group CEO of PD Ports which owns and operates Teesport, embarked on a diversification programme to ensure the facility could withstand such a blow 10 years ago and the company is now reaping the benefits.
“The three sectors we have been traditionally strong in are chemicals, oil exporting and steelmaking,” says Robinson. “SSI was our single largest customer - 30% of the volume, about 13m tonnes. It was a major blow and obviously very disappointing but we have invested significantly in the business over the last five years – more than £80m in new infrastructure – and that infrastructure is geared around not just steel but also handling commodities and cargo.”
As we make our way towards the iconic Transporter Bridge, Robinson points out some of the major developments undertaken at one of the UK’s largest ports in terms of tonnage, providing direct employment to 1,200 people (around 700 on Teesside) and moving 36m tonnes of cargo every year.
“Teesport is massively important not only to the regional and northern economy but also the national economy. This is a key bit of infrastructure for the UK,” he says.
“We have developed new customers in the past 12 months in energy and in the container/ logistics business. It is hugely important for this region and seen as a major contributor to the economic vibrancy of the Tees Valley. Some of the projects recently announced are symptomatic of that – we are seeing significant growth in the Tees Valley, significant growth in the value of commodities on the river and most importantly jobs. In the short to medium term we have been able to look at new projects for the river. We have attracted grain, container traffic has been growing but we also have some major inward investment. The power station is one of the biggest schemes for many years and there is the development of an LNG facility to go into the gas infrastructure of Seal Sands (a facility for regasifying the liquefied natural gas shipped in by tankers from the Middle East and Europe).”
Preparation work has already begun on the £650m Tees Renewable Energy Plant. Up to 600 people will be employed by developer MGT Teesside building the power station with a further 100 permanent jobs created when the biomass facility is completed in 2020, with hundreds more in the supply chain. Fueled by wood chips and pellets, it will generate enough power for about 600,000 homes.
“This is a new asset for Teesside and it will be here for many years to come,” says Robinson. “It will provide more spin offs in the longer term but biomass, gas and offshore wind puts us at the very heart of energy, helping to keep the lights on and costs down.”
As we make our away along the river we get a full view of activity down at Smith’s Dock, once home to shipbuilding. There are huge warehouses which act as the hub for retail giants such as Tesco and Asda, while everything required by Taylors of Harrogate to make their tea and coffee comes into the port, with much of the finished product making the return journey.
We also catch a glimpse of Middlesbrough’s Riverside stadium, so perhaps it is not surprising Stoke City supporter Robinson (his hometown club) should turn to a footballing analogy. “I have seen hundreds of millions of pounds going into warehousing operations that has a defined capacity and we need to generate more capacity for future growth to take Teesport out of the Europa League into the Champions League of UK ports for containers,” he says.
Pointing to Smith’s Dock he continues: “We have created a hub for ship repair and all four berths are occupied for the first time in many years. It is symptomatic of the investment that is going into the river. It is creating a relatively small number of jobs in a number of areas but put them all together and it adds up to the 15,000 to 20,000 people working in this river community – chemical processing plants, logistics, the oil sector, container businesses and all the support activity that goes on.”
Another huge opportunity lies in plans by Sirius Minerals, which wants to create a 1,000-job mine at Whitby with its process facility on Teesside. The final regulatory hurdle was cleared this summer with approval for a new berth, ship loading facilities and conveyor belt system to the company’s materials handling facility at the Wilton International site.
“It is another huge opportunity in terms of investment and job creation,” says Robinson. “The river could readily accommodate the necessary infrastructure and deliver a boost to UK exports as a result. It is another long-term, sustainable investment happening on our doorstep.”
Apart from its people, the biggest asset Teesport has is of course the river and its natural deep waters. The £35m investment in Number One Quay, allows bigger ships and bigger cargoes to come in and out of the facility.
“Our container business has grown at 12% per annum over the past seven years coming out of a recession, so we have done really well in generating volume, activity and long-term relationships,” says Robinson. “It is a challenge to keep going at such a rate but we believe it is achievable.
“We are now looking at bringing in ships of 8-10,000 TEU (Twenty Foot Equivalent Units) which opens up the North of England to a significant amount of new international trade, saving time and money, creating opportunities for import and export and demonstrates how this operation is so critical to the Northern Powerhouse.
“Where the steelworks were, hopefully over the next 5 to 10 years there will be the development of processing plants with the demand and need for both imports and exports.”
Robinson has joined forces with BQ to launch the PD Ports Northern Powerhouse Awards and International Trade Campaign – which he says is a perfect fit. “International Trade is fundamental and getting companies to trade more internationally is absolutely the right thing for us to support,” he says. “We are not just sponsors in the traditional sense, we want to work with the nominees and raise the awareness of our business platform which allows them to move goods to anywhere in the world and utilise the intellect which can help them with logistics solutions to generate port activity.”
Robinson lives in Stokesley with his wife of almost 30 years Linda, son George who has just graduated and black Labradors Barney and Fred. Having begun his career at Felixstowe, he became managing director at Teesport in 2002 then CEO 10 years ago. He understands the area, its resilience and passionately believes in the role Teesport plays.
“We are a fixed piece of infrastructure right at the heart of Teesside – we are not going anywhere. We can’t just pick the river up and take it somewhere overseas – we are going to be here forever and so it is important we have a great community, great people, great skills and great relationships – momentum in that community is really important to us as a business.
“We are looking to the long-term future, not the past. We have the momentum, we just have to keep delivering.”
Ports form powerhouse partnership
The North of England’s four main ports have agreed a new partnership to create jobs, boost exports and prosperity across the whole of the North of England.
A new Northern Ports Association will unite northern ports and aims to make importing and exporting much easier. For instance, at present, 60% of freight destined for the North is delivered to southern ports - leading to unnecessary motorway traffic, delays, pollution and inefficiency. Bringing the four ports - Liverpool (run by Peel Ports), Hull (ABP), Teesport (PD Ports) and Tyne (Port of Tyne) - together will mean the North can act as a genuine gateway to the world, connecting Atlantic shipping in Liverpool in the west to the east’s links with the continent.
Geoff Lippitt, PD Ports’ business development director, said: “The launch of the Northern Ports Association is incredibly positive, it will unite us in developing a stronger, more progressive and prosperous northern economy linked to international trade.
“The commitment of the major northern ports to collaborate and seek out ways to work together delivering solutions to challenges facing the industry such as trans-Pennine connectivity and the skills agenda will benefit us all.
“We are in changing and uncertain economic times therefore it’s important that the North and Northern ports are seen as a progressive body to drive through that change.”
Pride in tide
David Robinson is chairman and a founding member of High Tide Foundation, which connects industry and education to increase awareness of port-related industries and the available career options.
“There are many aspects to our business and High Tide aims to open young people’s minds to the industries on their doorstep and demystify what the sector is all about,” says Robinson.
“Our business has 80 plus job positions ranging from accountants, crane drivers, mechanical electricians through to marketing, commercial - a whole range of disciplines and High Tide showcases these opportunities.”
So far, more than 80 companies and 4,000 young people from 35 schools have taken part in High Tide, where pupils spend time with two different employers based in and around Teesport learning vital employability skills. One of the latest projects is an automotive cadetship, taking students through how a car is built, starting with the steel making process, visits to Stockton parts manufacturer NIFCO, AV Dawson, which handle the steel, then on to Nissan’s Washington plant and car dealers Evans Halshaw, so they get a flavour of the whole supply chain as to how a vehicle is made and its journey to the forecourt. The cadetship is also supported by the petrochemicals company SABIC. It is part of a wider Corporate Social Responsibility approach taken by Teesport. On the day of our visit some of the commercial team were doing work for Daisy Chain and there are regular charity fundraisers for the Butterwick Hospice, among others.
Robinson says: “It is not about just writing a cheque, it is about attitude, culture and involvement in the local community. I am proud to say we have around 20% of the workforce involved in projects but we can and will do more.
“Through the High Tide charity, I want to ensure even more young people are inspired into a career related to the companies around the port through unique work experience and industry-led skills programmes.”