February 3, 2020
Mike Matthews rubs a cloth across the lenses of his dark-rimmed spectacles. With offending flecks of dust removed, he settles the designer eyewear back into place, fixing his gaze on a childhood that helped shape his career.
“I remember old Mr Todd with his handlebar moustache and haughty presence,” smiles Mike, recalling the time at Darlington’s Branksome Comprehensive School, when the realities of the working world began moving into sharper focus.
“Mr Todd was our careers advisor, but he was also a woodwork teacher.
“I was 12-years-old, and I told him I wanted to be a pilot. “His response was to ask me if I’d thought about becoming a joiner – it completely knocked me sideways.”
School to that point had, by Mike’s own admission, not perhaps attracted his full attention. Comfortable as a self-titled class clown, he enjoyed the larks of the playground more than he did learning from teachers. But Mr Todd’s counsel had an effect, as did Mike’s position among his peers in the class hierarchy. The two events helped trigger an epiphany that would take Mike from apprentice toolmaker to Nifco UK managing director and the firm’s European boss, an MBE and a tenure as president of the North East England Chamber of Commerce.
“When I joined secondary school, I was very popular because I’d always been the one who went bird-nesting, played conkers and was good at British Bulldog,” recalls Mike. “But I remember them reading out which class you had been allocated to for your transition. They had A at the top and H at the bottom, and I was in G.
“I needed to work harder.
“An old phrase my mother used was, ‘shoot for the moon – even if you don’t get there, you’ll still go a long way.’
“That is what I did then, and have done ever since,” adds Mike, who, having left Nifco last year is now working in consultancy alongside a separate focus to move into business ownership.
He collected form prizes for effort at the end of every academic year – at one point he was regarded as the fastest riser in the school – and moved through the sets, improving his maths and English grades on the way.
He was also awarded a metalwork prize, evidencing his future career as a toolmaker.
Upon leaving school on May 23, 1980, Mike picked up wages as a bar hand at The Dog Inn, in Heighington, near Darlington, and worked in painting and decorating with his father before starting an engineering apprenticeship.
But for a 16-year-old, who’s practical learning was supplemented by helping fix the family cars, the road was still not without its bumps.
“I started my apprenticeship at Phoenix Tubemans, in Darlington, as a fitter turner, and did my first year at South West Durham Training, in Newton Aycliffe,” says Mike, who was awarded an MBE for services to business in the North East in 2014.
“However, I had quite a slow start. The centre manager asked me whether I’d chosen the right career – that was difficult to take.
“But I dug in and my grades improved,” continues Mike, who was previously named as one of 200 Apprentice Greats by the Chamber.
Mike’s diligence saw him secure the most improved apprentice of the year award and returned to his employer in confident mood, only for another twist to skew the landscape.
Phoenix Tubemans was struggling – and Mike would soon need to look elsewhere for work.
Reaching again for the spirit that transformed his fortunes in the classroom, Mike took former Employment Secretary Norman Tebbit to his word and jumped on his bicycle to seek out a job.
“I spoke to Brian Bean of the Engineering Industry Training Board (EITB), who is an unsung hero in terms of finding young people careers.
“He encouraged me to keep going and told me EITB would pay an employer to help me finish my apprenticeship.
“So I cycled to all of the tool rooms I knew, eventually knocking on the door of Elite Engineering, in Newton Aycliffe.”
With his apprenticeship completed, Mike’s career was set away, but his drive for progression meant he didn’t rest easy.
Leaving Elite in 1985, he moved to Stockton’s Elta Plastics – the company that would eventually become Nifco – before switching to Darlington’s Mitre Plastics at the beginning of 1988.
This latter change would prove to be a pivotal moment, signifying as it did the beginnings of Mike’s transition from the factory floor to the boardroom.
“I was a skilled toolmaker and had a good reputation,” says 55-year-old Mike, who served as North East England Chamber of Commerce president between 2015 and 2017.
“But you would make a tool for a component – it would be your life for 16 weeks – and then you’d never see it again; it was like being a surrogate parent.”
Keen to adapt his career, Mike applied for a gaduate-level technical sales representative role with Elta.
“I started on Independence Day 1988,” he recalls.”I hung up my overalls, washed my greasy hands and bought myself a new suit, tie, briefcase and brogues.
“It was so strange though; it took me months to call where I worked a desk, rather than a bench, and I still brought ‘bait’ in whereas others went out and bought their lunch.”
With his wardrobe suitably updated, Mike was soon out on appointments with clients, striking a particularly strong bond with Ford Motor Company.
It was here, and in subsequent meetings over the coming months and years, where his engineering knowledge began to set him apart.
“I used to sit in front of engineers and talk about their requirements,” says Mike, “and I could create 3D isometric drawings about what they were talking about, work out costs and the material that would best suit the product.”
Mike’s experiences of the shopfloor, and its often-siloed environment, also helped spark a drive for greater efficiency within Elta.
“I talked to the tooling, moulding, packaging and quality guys and brought them all together,” he says.
“There used to be a list of documents that clients wanted from each department, so I started making matrices and realised I was managing the timing.
“I suggested we needed project engineers and we were probably one of the first companies in the North East to introduce that sort of role,” continues Mike, revealing he also put forward the idea of product designers to help with customer liaison.
“By doing this, our offer became stronger,” he says.
“When I joined Elta in 1988, I think it was about a £300,000 business – by 1990 when Nifco bought the business that figure had gone to £3 million.”
As Nifco’s market position grew, so too did Mike’s standing as he moved to sales manager, general manager of business development and general manager.
At 38, he became Nifco UK managing director in 2008, following a short stint as deputy, and set in motion a watershed period of growth that would see Mike given responsibility for Nifco’s entire European footprint four years later.
The business opened new factories in Eaglescliffe, near Stockton, and secured several lucrative contracts, including a £50 million Ford deal to make parts for low-emission engines.
Further afield, it expanded by acquiring two German operators, which complemented existing sites in Poland and Spain and meant Mike oversaw a business worth nearly €400 million in sales and almost 3000 staff.
To achieve such progress, Mike, who was a cofounder – and remains vice-chair – of the North East Automotive Alliance, recognised he needed to strengthen his leadership abilities.
“I realised experiential learning would be really important and did a pilot CBI Future Leaders course, which included Helen Milligan, who appeared on television show The Apprentice,” says Mike.
“We were split into groups and had to come up with a theme for an employability bootcamp before pitching it to a panel that included then CBI director-general Peter Lambert.
“We came up with a Skills Olympics – to help young people develop employability skills – and we won.
“I also set Nifco away on Investors in People (IIP), which worked really well.
“Personally, I was also shortlisted for the IIP leader of the year award in 2014, with the final at the Tower of London. I was the only private sector individual on the list.”
Mike further developed his learning when he appeared on BBC Two’s Britain’s Hardest Worker programme, which sought to shed light on the jobs – and people – of the minimum wage world.
“I was cast as the factory manager, a bit like a working-class Sir Alan Sugar,” he laughs.
“We had people who’d had white-collar jobs, some who’d retired early but couldn’t get employment, fishermen, immigrants and a farmer among others.
“They were ranked on challenges, such as working in a hotel or factory, and the overall winner received a year’s Living Wage.
“As a leader, it was a great experience.” Such exposure to different environments and people is helping Mike write the next chapter in his career.
“I had, and still have, a Plan A and Plan B,” says Mike.
“Plan A was to get involved with a business. I want to have some equity or share ownership and get the benefits of business owners, and I have several prospects in the pipeline.
“With Plan B, I wanted to offer individuals, businesses and organisations the benefit of my skills, advice, knowledge and experience on a consultancy basis, and that is working well.
“I’ve been working on some interesting projects – I have been to Norway, met Michael Gove at a dinner and am now an ambassador with Hitachi Consulting.
“They are the largest finance organisation in the world and I’m connecting them with blue-chip businesses.
“I’m also considering some chairman and nonexecutive roles,” adds Mike, who is further passing on his experiences as a member of the Tees Valley Local Enterprise Partnership board.
“My career up to being 55 was my education and now I’m looking to apply my education and all of my life skills, policies, theories and beliefs over the next ten years,” continues Mike. “I might never retire,” he adds with a smile.
Mike may not be sure of calling it a day, but he is unequivocal in his view that hard work and ambition will always take you far.
“Success is 90 per cent attitude and ten per cent aptitude,” he says.
“If you look at the Chamber’s 200 Greats publication, which includes people like Nissan’s Kevin Fitzpatrick and Husqvarna’s Caraline Robinson, the common theme for every single person featured is hard work.
“None have had a paradigm shift in careers; they’ve all put their time in, taken relevant steps to success and are known as good, hardworking people.
“Just because you don’t go to university doesn’t mean you cannot make anything of yourself.”