STEEL bosses have quashed industry rumours that a famous North-East plant was being prepared for sale, insisting they expect to be in charge for decades to come. 

Heavy losses incurred by Redcar iron and steelworks since production restarted in April 2012 have cost its Thailand-based owners more than $1bn and attracted the attention of investors interested in snapping up a piece of North-East industrial history. 

But SSI UK is on target to return to profit this summer, and Win Viriyaprapaikit, SSI group chief executive and president, is already planning further investment to secure the long term future of the plant.

Loading article content

"In response to anyone who asks about our long term commitment I say look at what we have invested so far," Mr Viriyaprapaikit told The Northern Echo in the boardroom at Steel House, where he was joined by Cornelius Louwrens, recently promoted from operations director to UK business director and chief operating officer.

"We regard this as a long term project, lasting for at least another 20 to 30 years," said Mr Viriyaprapaikit, who revealed that the firm has been in talks with potential investors, although no deals are imminent and the Thais have no plans to relinquish control on a business they rescued from mothballing, saving 1,800 North-East jobs.     

"We fell in love with this business," he added.

"But it is worth remembering that, despite everyone's best efforts, there was little interest from potential investors before we came on board. 

"We have polished this up and now it is attracting interest globally. That is a positive thing, and a sign of the great progress that has been made."

Ahead of the business showing its first profit, Mr Viriyaprapaikit added: "If I am honest it has taken longer than we expected and with hindsight there are things that we would have done differently.

"Mistakes were made and I accept that some of those things we down to my incompetence. We have all learnt a great deal over the last three years."

He pointed to the five month delay to the blast furnace being fired back to life as one project which he would have tackled differently.  

But he and Mr Louwrens, who heads a restructured management team, are looking forward to new opportunities rather than dwelling on past problems.

Deals are being struck that will see Teesside steel being shipped across the globe.

In the past two months, almost half of the steel slabs made at the plant have been sent to North America, and the aim is to split exports threeways to clients in Europe, the Americas and SSI's processing plant in Thailand.

The Teesside operation is now producing 10 per cent more than before closure in 2010 and among the long-term plans are a multi-million pound investment in a third caster, to help the roll-out of steel to keep pace with output from the blast furnace.

There is even talk of a second blast furnace to boost output and give the site an even longer lifespan.

In the short term, smaller scale investments, such the purchase of a new crane grab, are helping to boost productivity.

Mr Louwrens said he is looking to drive efficiencies at the plant, but there are no plans to cut jobs and no recruitment drives are in the offing this year as the business maintains its focus on repaying the faith shown by investors, suppliers and the community.

Mr Viriyaprapaikit added: "We are merely guardians of this business, it belongs to the local people and to the region. We understand the heritage and our commitment is long term."

SOUTH African Cornelius Louwrens, 46, heads a revamped senior team at SSI UK, with four of the five directors reporting to him hailing from the North-East and North Yorkshire. 

They include: Steve France operations director, Peter Rowson finance director, Peter Leader procurement director, Jo Davies who heads human resources and John Baker the communications director.

Mr Louwrens, who was a top amateur cyclist back in his homeland, has spent his entire working life in the steel industry.

After working in all of South Africa's major steel plants for the business now owned by ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steel producer, the man from Kroonstad in the Free State, moved to the North-East six years ago following an approach from John Bolton, then director of Tata Steel.

He now lives in Hutton Rudby in North Yorkshire with his wife Estelle and their two daughters.