I have always been passionate about manufacturing. Part of my motivation to become an engineer was getting involved in making things and I’m proud that for most of my life I’ve been involved in creating wealth that ultimately benefits my community. When I saw that Mary Portas, the saviour of the high street, was going to ‘resurrect’ manufacturing in the UK I was intrigued. Would she ‘get it’, I wondered?
I started my career as an apprentice in a large organisation. We worked hard, but the training was excellent and the camaraderie and banter made it fun. There was always plenty of chatter and jokes. When I first got a job in the design office, I was struck by the noise level. Earnest discussions, generally regarding work, were only punctuated by silence at lunchtime when people turned to their sandwiches, newspapers and books. I found this very strange and as a result I was very close to giving up my aspirations to ‘progress’.
Many years later, I think I still prefer being on the shop floor.
So what about Mary Portas and her factory? Initially I wondered why a retail expert should be the one to lead a manufacturing crusade. However, if she wants to raise the profile of manufacturing then surely that can’t be a bad thing? So I was just left with my worry that she might not ‘get it’. Would someone with a retail background understand the passion, the challenge, the wasted legacy of businesses lost through apathy and above all the fantastic sense of community that comes from being part of a manufacturing organisation? Would she be able to share how building a team and leading with vision can propel an organisation and provide a workplace where people enjoy themselves?
I’m glad to say that I was generally impressed with what she did. She showed northern towns devastated by the loss of manufacturing jobs. She stopped people in the street and made them question the wisdom of shipping items half way around the world to save a few pounds. She found an army of people desperate to work and ultimately she succeeded in building a business and a brand, but above all she built a proper manufacturing workplace with a sense of worth, purpose and, of course, good old-fashioned banter.
So what will be the legacy of Mary’s endeavours? Well, in terms of her contribution to the economy and reduction of the unemployment total, her achievement has been fairly modest. However, my hope is that her contribution will be more subtle. I hope that the programme improves the image of manufacturing and that more people ‘get it’. If the programme inspires people to work in, or set up, new manufacturing businesses, or even if it just makes people think about their purchasing decisions a bit more rationally, then I think it has been successful.
I’ll leave you with one final question: I wonder if Mary Portas is still driving the Audi that we saw her in when she filmed Queen of Shops?