In leading the Materials Processing Institute, Chris McDonald sees himself as the custodian of an important national asset. He explains why, and the joy that his varied job brings him.
What is it the company does?
The Materials Processing Institute develops and commercialises new technologies for industry, working in advanced materials, low carbon energy and the circular economy. The Institute is particularly strong in steel, where we have a global client base, and in supporting SMEs, which we do in partnership with other agencies in the Tees Valley. In addition to research, services in include specialist technology training and consultancy support for the technical aspects of due diligence, M&A and capital expenditure. In 2015 the Institute launched its own specialist steel manufacturing business.
Describe your role in no more than 100 words
As CEO, I am very much the custodian of an important national asset. The Institute has expertise and capabilities built up over many decades and its mission is to apply these to support industry to be more productive. As well as the day to day management of the business, I need to be an effective advocate for the Institute and industry, to understand and respond to the needs of our clients and to support our excellent and talented researchers and engineers, in finding and applying innovative solutions. I also need to stay at the cutting edge of new technology and to challenge our researchers to do the same. It is exciting, varied and fun!
Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?
My first proper paid job was in a battery factory in Peterlee when I was 14, during my school holidays. I was paid £10 per day and was delighted. The only proper job interview I have ever had was when I was 17 and joined what was then British Steel. After a stint at university I returned to the steel industry and worked in a variety of senior roles in R&D and manufacturing, leading teams in the UK and Netherlands, before spotting the opportunity to divest the Materials Processing Institute from its then parent company, Tata Steel. I led the divestment team and we returned the Institute to independent ownership in 2014.
What do you believe makes a great leader?
People often talk about leadership in terms of empowering the people that work in the organisation to achieve their full potential. This is true, but the much more challenging aspect of leadership is the time when you need to go out in front, set the direction and persuade everyone else to follow. These are the times when seeking consensus doesn’t work, because you can see where to go, almost everyone else disagrees and it is your job to take them with you. It is at these times that leaders need resilience, decisiveness, bravery and above all integrity. This isn’t a situation of the every day, it isn’t even every year, but it is what sets apart a leader from an otherwise excellent manager.
What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?
The greatest challenge has been a general pessimism in the UK, built up over many decades, about the future of our key manufacturing and foundation industries. I still meet people who think the UK somehow cannot compete globally in industries such as steel, or automotive and this is simply not true. With industry partners, we have carried out successful campaigns to raise the profile of our excellent materials and foundation industries and we have seen notable successes in the support, for instance, that is now available for this sector for innovation.
How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?
I have two small children and for me every minute when I’m not at work is best spent with them and my extended family.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Like most kids I didn’t know a great deal about the huge variety of jobs people do, but I remember at the age of 15 discovering what a Chemical Engineer was and instantly deciding to do that, which I did. I think this shows just how important good careers advice is, particularly in broadening the horizons of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, who will be naturally less aware of the huge number of trades, professions and career routes out there.
Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?
Pace for me is a constant frustration. I feel there is always so much to do and so many new ideas to implement, that I expect that, once we have agreed on a course of action, the implementation needs to be as rapid as possible. No matter how good we get at this, I doubt I will ever be satisfied!
Where do you see the company in five years’ time?
The Institute is already widely recognised both nationally and internationally for the excellent research undertaken, but in the last two years we have made a determined focus to have a positive impact on our local community. We now have a societal and ethical mission, written into
the strategy of the business, that demands this. Recently this activity has been focussed on the support and development of SMEs, but increasingly we are keen to help the region exploit the potential of the South Tees Site and apply our expertise to help attract and win inward investment to the region. In five years’ time, I would be delighted if we could point to some major new employers in Teesside and categorically state that we played a crucial role in their decision to locate to and employ people in our region. I am 100% confident that this will be the case.
What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?
I would say that once you know what you are trying to achieve, then persistence pays. I am an incredibly tenacious person and I see real value in diligently covering as many angles as possible and then if you are knocked back, looking for something new, or different that you can bring forward to try and achieve your ultimate goal.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?
When I first started, success was defined as giving everything to the company. You went where the company wanted you to go, when the company wanted and that was the route to the top. I realised fairly early on that for me my family and the place where I live was a higher priority. I had no less ambition to succeed, but I wanted to do it on my own terms. There were times when I was led to believe that this was accepting second best, but I knew I wanted the best of both worlds. By taking the opportunity to divest and develop the Institute at Teesside I have achieved what I wanted for me, my family, my colleagues and my industry. By working to attract new investors into the region, I am aiming to play a role in providing this opportunity for many more people in the future.
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