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napkin manufacturing nessco paper cup machine:How Tom Smith went from Aberdeen shipyard worker to business leader

2022-04-29 10:56:12
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napkin manufacturing nessco paper cup machine:How Tom Smith went from Aberdeen shipyard worker to business leader

  WHEN Tom Smith noticed that few of the workers at the Aberdeen shipyard where he started his first job still had 10 fingers he decided it wasn’t for him.

  The young lad – born in Torry, brought up in Mastrick and educated in Northfield – made up his mind after just one winter in the Hall Russell yard and went back to college to embark on a telecommunications course.

  That led to a career which ensured he not only retained all his digits but would go on to be one of Aberdeen’s most successful businessmen and at the forefront of laying the foundations for the future prosperity of the north-east.

  On reflection, he has no doubt he made the right decision giving up his apprenticeship at Hall Russell – the last of the great Aberdeen shipbuilders – but perhaps not for the right reasons.

  “It was a bit of an insight into the two ends of the spectrum, the high technology training school and what happens in reality at the nitty-gritty end of the industry,” he said.

  After completing his tele-communications engineering course he joined the merchant navy and travelled the world before returning to college courtesy of his employer Canadian Pacific, this time in Southampton.

  He excelled on the advanced marine electronics course and was asked to work on a ship in dry dock in Southampton which was being converted to load oil off the Montrose Alpha platform.

  In spite of the appeal of voyages to the Caribbean or Pacific he took the job and admits that, when he first saw the platform in the North Sea, he was surprised to discover such an industry on his doorstep. A year later he returned to Aberdeen to work offshore in the Shell Brent field before launching a solo career.

  “It would be good to say that I had a great vision for what I was going to try to achieve with Nessco but it wouldn’t be true,” he said. “I was really just one self-employed guy who became two, became four and so on.”

  Throughout his time at Nessco he applied two adages:

  ?Persistence and determination are all powerful – talent and genius alone are seldom rewarded.

  ?Common sense is more important than intelligence – the world is full of highly intelligent fools.

  In the early days his persistence and determination made him a success and his common sense told him he needed more knowledge.

  “I went through a period of making money and not knowing how I was making it and losing money and not knowing how I was losing it.

  “By now the business was probably 10 or 12 people and I did what I describe as my flat pack MBA. I studied for a diploma in company direction and lots of other development courses – finance, strategy and marketing – it was a pretty intensive three years of self-development because I realised I had to get more skills and do less engineering and more business.

  “I discovered I got a bigger buzz out of the strategy and business than I did out of the engineering.

  “It is so fast-moving there are always better people coming along behind you in the technical engineering aspects and part of the gift is to recognise that and employ them.”

  When the first major oil collapse arrived in the 80s Nessco had just started to dabble in exports . That helped keep them afloat and also highlighted the need to ensure that all their eggs were not in one basket.

  “The business was doing reasonably well and we decided to diversify – take the skill sets and technology and apply it to different sectors because you tend to find that if oil and gas is up the rest of the UK industry is down and vice versa.

  “We moved into the commercial and industrial marketplace in the UK and had clients like Baxters of Speyside and the Financial Times. We then made our first acquisition – a wee company in Bellshill – and it was just about that time we also opened our first overseas office in Baku, Azerbaijan. As part of our learning curve we discovered we had bigger cultural challenges in Bellshill than we did in Baku in trying to integrate the business.”

  The 2005 acquisition of Invsat Ltd from Inmarsat Ltd moved Nessco from a Division 3 to a Division 1 player and Tom began to think of his exit strategy.

  In 2008 Aberdeen Asset Managers Growth Capital, which had long courted the company, became an investor. The non-oil and gas parts of the business were sold off first. Then last year the core business – which was on target for a £40million turnover – was acquired by RigNet, a Houston-based company, in a £31million deal. Throughout his career Tom has been involved in organisations which are at the heart of both the oil and gas industry and life in the north-east.

  His first extracurricular activity was on the board of the Offshore Supplies Office. He said: “Stepping outside of your business to look at the broader macro issues and how other businesses are dealing with these challenges gives you a different perspective and helps you take something back into your own business.

  “In the late 90s when the oil price collapsed again, this time to $10 a barrel, I was asked to join the oil and gas industry task force and that was fascinating. Contractors, operators and government were in the same lifeboat and it’s amazing how you can get commonality of purpose when everyone is facing the same dire situation. Maybe, as I said years later, the problem was that $10 oil didn’t last long enough to get some real change.”

  His most high-profile post in recent years has been as chairman of ACSEF (Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future), the public-private partnership which drives economic development in the region. His appointment was for three years but he was persuaded to continue for two further one-year terms but has decided he will definitely stand down at the end of this year.

  “It has been a fascinating journey, is another example of collaboration between the public and private sectors and is held up to be an exemplar to the rest of Scotland. I don’t take that as a personal plaudit. It’s just the attitude and close working relationships we have up here.”

  “When the government used to talk about the oil and gas industry they meant operators. Now they understand it is a much wider game plan.

  “I think Westminster and Holyrood both recognise the economic value that the north-east has to the whole nation.

  “They maybe realise that the streets aren’t all paved with gold and if we actually give those that are a bit more, then the rest of the UK can benefit.”

napkin manufacturing nessco paper cup machine:How Tom Smith went from Aberdeen shipyard worker to business leader

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