Before Nissan’s UK outpost was an economic powerhouse for the region, it was a patch of earth with little obvious sign of future potential.
But then a handful of forward-thinkers – among them Ian Gibson – endeavoured to transform the brownfield Wearside site into something that would in turn influence the fortunes of the regional economy.
“It started as a very small group of people with very small aspirations for Nissan,” said the now-knighted Sir Ian Gibson.
The current chairman of supermarket giant Morrison’s was speaking at a Princes Trust event at his old stomping ground – a realm that is now considerably bigger than the business he helped to start.
“It was at a time when the previous four start-ups in the UK automotive industry had failed – and if you drive past their sites today you can see retail precincts and cinemas. The original plan was to have a 24,000 cars per year plant and it is now 20 times that.”
Gibson left Ford to join Nissan in 1982, two years before the Sunderland factory opened, and his stint at the Japanese firm culminated in the role of president of Nissan Europe.
“We were primarily a bunch of Brits aged between 22 and 35 and if you’d said to us at the time that we’d be building Britain’s biggest car business in less than 20 years, we’d have thought that was far too ambitious.
“But it was about the ambition of a group of people rather than a giant corporation. If they’d followed the corporate plan they’d be building 24,000 cars a year until sometime later to see whether it was worthwhile to replace the first model. But by the 1990s we were already on the second car and once we’d done that right then the rest of the path became clearer.”
The economic benefits of Nissan to the North East are unmatched in the private sector, with the group’s North East workforce expected to stand at 6,225 by 2014 and demand for supply chain partners and logistical infrastructure from the plant continuing to grow as new production lines are launched.
The Nissan way of doing things in business has also had a considerable impact, to businesses in the region and the wider UK as well as to Gibson in his own career.
Much of its success, he said, is in its focus on instilling a sense of ownership among its staff.
“When a group of people says ‘this is what we’re going to do’, and then they actually do it, you start to look at the next thing and do that.
“This is where that sense of ownership starts. And when ‘I’ becomes three people, or 7000 people, that’s when everybody feels some degree of ownership of what that set of goals and aims is.
“I guess there are still a lot of people here from 1985 and those guys are absolutely as committed as those first 20 odd people that were sitting here at the start – that’s the ethos of the place you’ve got here.”