AT the launch of Nissan's new Qashqai model, Andy Richardson, business editor, talked to Colin Lawther, who was recently appointed senior vice president for manufacturing, purchasing and supply chain management for Europe

AS the 120th person employed at Nissan, Sunderland, Colin Lawther has seen at first hand the remarkable rise of the factory which now employs more than 7,000 people.

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He joined the company on the same day as Nissan chief performance officer Trevor Mann, another North-Easterner who worked his way through the ranks to become an influential figure in the Japanese firm.

“Trevor and I have grown up together at Nissan,” said Mr Lawther.

“Most of the management from the manufacturing division have come from the shop floor.

"I think that is important in sending a message to our colleagues about what you can achieve.

“It is amazing to think there are now more than 7,000 people at the Sunderland plant, an incredible success story.

“I've spent the last eight months in Africa, the Middle-East and India. “Now I am back home.”

Mr Lawther grew up in Beamish, near Stanley, County Durham.

After a brief foray to London he was lured back to the North-East when the Nissan plant opened in 1986.

“It turned out to be a great decision,” he said, at the launch of the new Nissan Qashqai, the vehicle which has been the cornerstone of the Sunderland's plant recent success, helping it to become the most productive in UK car making history.

The manufacturer has great hopes that the latest iteration will help it set new output records in 2014.

The new vehicle, which follows the launch last year of the electric Leaf, and will be followed by the Luxury Infiniti model, also offers opportunities for local suppliers.

“In a world-class manufacturing operation you want your supply chain as close to the plant as possible,” explained Mr Lawther.

“About two thirds of parts for the new Qashqai are sourced from domestic suppliers, and we'd like ultimately to have 80 per cent of the vehicle sourced from the UK.

“That means there are even more opportunities for suppliers in the North-East.

“We have just over 7,000 people employed at the plant and about another 21,000 in the North-East alone directly supplying it.

“In addition, there are another 7,000 in the rest of the UK supply chain and another 1,000 at our research and development centre in Cranfield.

“When you add in the car dealers, mechanics and sales people, there are about 40,000 people directly employed by Nissan in the UK.

“It is a fantastic asset for the North-East.

“Not only does it support a huge portion of the economy, we also support the development of manufacturing skills in the region.

“In partnership with Gateshead College we train people from all over the North-East.

“This isn't just a plant, it is a manufacturing centre of excellence,” said Mr Lawther, who admitted that he shares concerns expressed across the industry that manufacturers are struggling to recruit specialist staff.

“There is definitely a skills gap in engineering,” he said.

“There haven't had enough young people taking STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, but there is now a big push to on apprenticeships and training to make sure we don't suffer a shortage of staff which would potentially hold back our growth plans.”

Next on the agenda for Sunderland is to begin shipping lithium ion electric batteries from to its sister plant in Barcelona where they will be fitted in ENV200 electric vans.

The North-East plant now has three shift production, 24 hours a day on line 1 which builds Qashqai and Leaf, in addition to 24-hour production on line 2, which builds the new Note and Juke models.

Asked if the Nissan Sunderland workforce will one day top 10,000. Mr Lawther replied: “I'm not sure that's in the plans right now, but never say never.”