David Grey MBE has come a long way since his time lugging mobile discos around the nightspots of Sheffield. He still works in South Yorkshire, but the club he frequents today is among the most prestigious across the industrial north.
And there are no bouncers here. Instead, a white-gloved fellow opens the door and shows us to our table in the grand old room where we’ll have lunch. “It’s been absolutely non-stop,” says Grey of his reign as Master Cutler which began last October.
“It truly is a great honour. There are only 100 Master Cutlers every century so how could anyone turn down the chance to do it?”
Our interview takes place in the epicentre of Yorkshire manufacturing; The Cutler’s Hall, Sheffield. Seemingly on every wall there is a glass cabinet filled with silver relics of a proud manufactured past.
As Master Cutler, this is Grey’s seat of power. Elected into his role by members of the near 400-year-old Cutlers’ Company, he is an ambassador for Sheffield City Region’s manufacturers and wider industries. And for all the top hats, decorative ribbons and ceremonial duties, he insists the influence of the role is very real.
“It gives you access to government to discuss issues about manufacturing. We are a region in which manufacturing makes up 19.5% of our economy, compared to 11% nationally. “We’ve got the Advanced Manufacturing Park in Rotherham, for example, and a lot of supply manufacturing. So it’s a very important part of our region. Being Master Cutler to represent that and get access to government is very important.”
Grey is well qualified to represent factory bosses in the company of politicians, having built up his own vast manufacturing empire. OSL Group, which turns over around £20m annually and employs over 250 staff, was founded in 1981 with a £1,000 bank loan when Grey was 23.
It has grown partly through acquisition, with Grey selling on 20 firms for a profit over the years and leaving four remaining today including Rotabroach hole cutting systems in Sheffield and steering, suspension and braking maker Owens in Rotherham.
Also part of OSL is intruder security products firm CQR, based on Merseyside, and Scandura, the oldest gasket cutter in the UK, with origins dating back to the 1880s. Prior to launching OSL, Grey’s career path had seen him “screw-up” his A-Levels, set up a mobile disco business in his late teens and later train to be an accountant.
While working at a bearings company, he spotted a gap in the market to sell oil seals. He sourced some, quickly flogged them and before long he was also handling his first hydraulic cylinders repairs contract. “I hiked them round Sheffield until I found an engineering company that could repair them and I basically made £400 for driving from A to B and B to A.”
That was in 1980. Four years later his business was rocked by the miners’ strike, which shaped Grey’s attitude to diversification that has served him so well in business since.
“Things were building quite nicely and we had about 35 staff. We told them that the miners wouldn’t be out for long and it won’t affect us because mining was only a small part of our turnover. But they were out for a year and the problem was that we did a lot of business with British Coal customers.
“At the end of it I decided we were never going to have a one-market company. So I started acquiring businesses. I didn’t have any money at the time, just a supportive bank.”
The result of that acquisitive attitude can be seen in how varied Grey’s business is today. While one division makes burglar alarms, another has produced springs for use on the Hogwarts Express (the real steam engine featured in the Harry Potter movies), the Orient Express and the flying movie car Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which is currently being restored. In addition, there are numerous other sectors served by OSL’s various divisions.
Grey has been granted a year off from the day job, save for the occasional board meeting,
to concentrate on being Master Cutler. He has also resigned from his post as a member of the Local Enterprise Partnership board with responsibility for inward investment after three years.
“The perennial problems for manufacturers are the lack of skills, the need for an equitable and competitive tax system and energy pricing and capacity,” he says.
The state of the UK’s energy mix is of particular concern to Grey, who would welcome the adoption of fracking on these shores. “We have to ask ourselves where is the energy we need going to come from. There is a strong lobby against nuclear, people don’t want gas or coal-fired and they don’t want fracking. You’re not going to meet demand with wind, sea and solar; it’s just not practical.
“If you’re in business you need a commercial rate for energy and I’m not convinced I can see the day that wind would give us enough capacity to do that.”
Currently, due to UK supply challenges, big power users such as manufacturers can receive a phone call giving them notice that they must go offline as the grid reaches its maximum capacity. Grey says: “That’s nonsense when you think about it. This isn’t Cambodia or the Sahara Desert, this is Sheffield. We’ve got more expensive fuel than our competitors globally, including America and Europe, and this is a failure of government decision making over the last 25 years.”
The solution, says Grey, is to bring an end to the short-term approach which he believes dominates politics. “We need to set out policies that transcend the three-year thinking cycle of government. Energy needs should be part of a bigger industrial strategy.
If we want to be a manufacturing nation, what are the things that we need to be successful? Skills, competitive energy pricing and capacity, and a taxation system that takes into account that very large expenditure you have on plant and equipment. You can’t just switch these things on and off from year to year. The trick is to take these key decisions out of politics.
“Infrastructure is another big thing that we need longer term thinking on. If you take Heathrow and where to put the next runway. Here we are in 2015 in exactly the same place we were in 2008. Why does it take as long to make a decision as to build the thing? It’s all about cross-party agreement.”
Grey points to Germany, where its thriving manufacturing sector is supported by a consistent government approach, regardless of which party is in power. “Germany has ploughed the same path for 60 or 70 years and keeps consistently setting its stall out as the manufacturing heart of Europe.”
Speculation about the negative impact of pre-election uncertainty on businesses, meanwhile, is unfounded and overblown, according to Grey. “We’ve been through the worst recession in living memory and there is more confidence coming back to markets in Sheffield City Region. I think business people look at general market conditions first, rather than politics.”
As well as fighting the corner of manufacturers, Grey is an active supporter of young people in business. He is chairman of the Big Challenge – a competition in which teams of pupils aged 11-19 are given £25 to create their own enterprises.
“I think young people do now see entrepreneurialism as a career option. The fact is, when is the best time to set up a business? When you’ve got a mortgage and kids, or when the fall if you fail isn’t too great?
“We’re not expecting young people on the Big Challenge to suddenly burst out of school and set up Apple but I just want to make sure that young people know that setting up a business is something that they can do.
“I’m really passionate about young people having a go at things. I also believe if someone gives the ball a big enough kick and then goes bust, it’s not a bad thing. Richard Branson’s first business went bust and no-one thinks any less of him. You’re better off having a go at something than not because of fear of failure.”
Grey has certainly done that in his own career – and out of work too. He only recently gave up the perilous sport of single seater motor racing. He also has a pilot’s licence and owns a Piper Saratoga aeroplane, which he regularly flies around Europe.
But being Master Cutler is his proudest achievement, describing it as the best thing he’s ever done except for marrying his partner Ruth last year.