Engineering a way through the ranks

February 3, 2021

Bill Scott had once contemplated a career in the Royal Navy, but after an on-court encounter with his basketball coach, instead became an apprentice plater. The experience began a journey that would eventually see Bill co-found offshore energy, subsea and marine sector operator Wilton Universal Group. Today, the firm is a titan of Teesside’s business landscape, with chief executive Bill continuing to use the lessons learned from his apprenticeship to shape its future growth.

As far as interview techniques go, it was somewhat left field.

Bill Scott didn’t secure his first job in an office, wearing a suit and nervously drinking coffee as his future superiors interrogated his skillset and career ambitions.

He did so by tumbling – unceremoniously – to the floor of a basketball court.

Bill’s coach was an engineering boss during the working week and used his time nurturing Thornaby’s youngsters to cast an eye on their employment potential – and he liked what he saw with Bill.

“I didn’t think I was clever enough to go to college or university, so I thought about joining the Royal Navy,” says Bill, explaining his early career aspirations.

“In those days, the behemothic ICI or British Steel were the main employers.

“I actually went for an interview with the former but was basically told to try with the latter because my dad worked there.

“I’d also half thought about being a chef and had been offered a job with a hotel before I’d left school, but my dad blocked that as he wanted me to finish my studies.

“In the end, my break came from basketball,” continues Bill.

“We were training one day, and I went around the back of my coach – a guy named Dick Thorpe, who owned TF Group – to do a lay-up shot backwards.

“As I put my arm up, he chopped my neck.

“I dropped to the floor like a bag of potatoes but got up, ran back to defence and after the game we shook hands.”

Little did Bill know, but he’d just passed an initiation process – Dick liked his attitude and wanted to make the teenager an apprentice plater.

“The next day, he phoned my dad to ask how he felt about me potentially working for him,” remembers Bill.

“My dad said, ‘I’ll send him down for an interview’, but Dick told him not to bother because he’d already done that the day before.

“He said the fact I just got up and got on with it meant I was the sort of person he wanted working for him,” adds Bill.

Such level-headedness was, it quickly turned out, to prove crucial for Bill.

He may have secured an apprenticeship, but his initial foray wasn’t without some early problems.

“I had no idea what a plater was,” laughs Bill.

“I remember my first day as clear as a bell – I turned up with my bag and a flask of coffee and asked to see the foreman.

“One of the lads told me to wait outside his office; I was there for an hour.

“When he finally came to see me, he just said, ‘follow me’ – there was no induction or anything like that.

“He also told me in no uncertain terms that I was there to make him money.”

A rather inauspicious start it may have been, but it nevertheless served to provide Bill with a solid grounding that pushed him ahead of his peers.

He says: “It was a small company and a case of me learning quickly.

“I began to second-guess what tools the lads I was working with needed, and it was a great learning experience.

“While other lads were still in training school, learning how to bend pipes, I was welding and machining parts.”

With his skills progressing and knowledge growing on a daily basis, Bill was then given a window into the world of business ownership – an opportunity that would prove crucial in his future founding of Teesside’s Wilton Universal Group.

He says: “I must have been 17 or 18 and the boss said, ‘get your tape measure and a pad and pen, you’re coming with me to a job on site’.

“He wanted me to assess how much materials I’d need, and then come back and work with a team to install it.

“We went in his big Range Rover and on the way there, he stopped at a shop for a can of Coke and a Mars Bar and pulled out a massive roll of notes held together with an elastic band.

“I asked him about it, and he told me, ‘if you knuckle down and get yourself in a position to start your own company, you can do the same’.

“He also told me he had no doubt I would be managing director of the company one day.”

With his project complete, Bill became increasingly integral to operations despite his young age and was handed responsibility for schemes in Northumberland and a blast furnace shutdown, which he says provided essential insight into people management.

By this time, however, his progress was garnering much attention.

“I was about 21 and got headhunted,” he recalls.

“I didn’t know what a headhunter was back then though – I thought the guy on the line wanted my dad!

“I went for an interview and it morphed into my first project, which entailed building 120 modular units for an oil rig.”

The company courting Bill’s services was Middlesbrough-based Hayden Moore and it received a little more than it had perhaps bargained for.

“I asked if I could see the plans for the units, and where they planned to build them,” says Bill.

“And then I told them it was impossible because they needed somewhere ten times the size of what they had.

“Before I’d got home, the phone had rang to say I’d got the job and I was asked to come back and meet the managing director to explain the logistics needed for the project.

“The company moved to larger premises in Middlesbrough’s Snowdon Road, the project was completed, and I became production manager.”

Such was the strength of Bill’s knowledge and reliability now, that he was promoted to the role of quality manager soon after, becoming responsible for compliance matters and writing the procedure for offshore unit installation.

He was even dispatched to the now decommissioned Hutton TLP rig, based in the North Sea half-way between Scotland and Norway.

But when his bosses told him about an office job, focused on dealing with issues arising from offshore projects, he moved on.

“Within a week another headhunter rang me,” reveals Bill, who is patron of Middlesbrough & Teesside Philanthropic Foundation.

This time, his suitor was Hartlepool- based TS Engineering and Bill helped the business move from fabricating products, such as brackets, to high pressure vessels in a matter of months.

However, it was during this time that Bill’s thoughts returned to the conversation in his first boss’ Range Rover.

He wanted to go it alone.

Today, his Wilton venture, which sits in 54 acres of land next to the River Tees and in the shadows of Middlesbrough’s Transporter Bridge, is known for designing, manufacturing, coating and loading out huge structures for the offshore oil and gas, wind, subsea, marine and decommissioning industries.

Back on July 4, 1994, however, the situation was an altogether different one. Supported by co-founder Steve Glenn, Bill launched Wilton into the market with grand plans for growth.

The process to get to that stage, though, was not without its travails.

Bill says: “I knew a lot about the manufacturing and procedural side of things and Steve – who I’d worked with in the past – was hard working, honest and knew a lot about production.

“But it was a struggle at first.

“We went to three banks with our business plan and they all said the same thing, ‘it’s too big – cut it in half and come back’. We then went to Yorkshire Bank and sat with the manager who read our plans while looking at us over the top of his glasses,” continues Bill.

“When he’d finished, he just said, ‘you really want this, don’t you?’ When we said yes, he asked, ‘enough to give me your houses?’

“We had to give our houses up for a £25,000 overdraft facility.

“Our wives were asked to go to the bank to sign the forms and the manager basically said to them, ‘this isn’t like something off Coronation Street, if your husbands cock this up, you will lose your homes’.”

That Bill is able to recount the events, with a smile on his face, speaks volumes for the business plan.

Wilton – which now includes Wilton Engineering Services and Universal Coatings – began on Middlesbrough’s Tees Commerce Business Park, using space leased from LV Shipping that itself was renting from another operator.

“They allowed us to create a factory with 2000sq ft of space, which we could open up to 10,000sq ft,” says Bill.

“They would come in on a monthly basis to see what space we were using, which really helped us keep costs down.”

However, when Wilton took on the lease from LV Shipping, and the price soon after increased, Bill moved the business to Hartlepool, a switch that provided larger premises for a reduced outlay.

It also allowed the company to work with firms such as the now departed heavy engineer Heerema Fabrication Group.

Wilton spent eight years in Hartlepool, before a “very fortuitous call” between Bill and his accountant paved the way for a move to its current Port Clarence base.

Swan Hunter, a name synonymous with North East shipbuilding, was looking to offload its Teesside site and Bill’s financial advisor secured him a meeting with its then owner Jaap Kroese.

“He asked me why I wanted to buy the site and I told him I wanted to build oil rigs and subsea templates, and create an apprenticeship school,” says Bill, who is now using his experiences to mentor a number of SMEs in the region.

“At that point, he reached out and told me to shake his hand.

“He told me the site was mine, and that it would be the best deal I’d ever complete.

“It was only when I was driving back down from Newcastle that it dawned on me that I’d agreed a deal without knowing the price or telling my fellow directors – Steve Glenn, Paul Johnson and Steven Pearson – I was meeting Jaap in the first place.

“So I showed them the site and then took them to a little café for a cup of tea and bacon sandwich.

“I sat each of them down and said, ‘I’m going to ask you a question, and the answer is a simple yes or no – should we go for it?’

“They all said yes.”

Since then, the base has been home to countless projects and a nursery ground for talent, the latter a point of which Bill is particularly proud.

After beginning his career as an apprentice, Wilton has allowed Bill to close the circle and provide the same opportunities to the next generation that he was once afforded.

The business has great experience of hosting school visits, wherein children – both boys and girls, emphasises Bill – receive boardroom presentations and site tours – and has a strong alumnus of former apprentices who have gone on to achieve much in their careers.

They include construction manager Graham Brynn, who, having become the firm’s very first apprentice as a 16-year-old, is now into his 28th year with the company.

“My message to apprentices is always that you can go down that route and be successful,” says Bill.

“Apprenticeships are a fantastic opportunity; what youngsters learn in those four years carries through their entire lives, and we’ve had many come here and go on to become big managers in companies around the world.

“Apprentices are the life blood of any company – they are, in the main, young and energetic, with very little preconceived ideas, which works really well when you get a chance to work with someone to maximise their raw talent and create something really special.

“Graham is a great example,” continues Bill.

“He has overseen a project with well over 500 men on it, including subcontractors, fronted a number of projects overseas and been praised by clients for his experience and attitude.

“He was also chosen by the company to give the Duke of Gloucester a prism paper weight – which depicted a subsea plough he’d also managed – during a visit to mark our 25th anniversary in 2019.

“He has shown exactly what can be achieved with the correct attitude, hard work and leadership qualities – and all from starting as a 16-year-old straight from school.

“Apprenticeships really are a great base from which to begin a career,” adds Bill.

“I’ve never had a day where I’ve been out of a job, and that is because of my apprenticeship.”

Bill Scott