10. Start spreading the news

IN a year of landmark anniversaries – none more significant than the NECC marking 200 years as an unwavering advocate of North-East business – Newcastle Airport celebrated its 80th birthday with one of the most significant deals in its history.

Securing a direct, non-stop link from the North-East to the Big Apple had long been prized by airport bosses who saw it as a key way to boost passenger numbers and make a similar statement of intent as the launch of daily services to Dubai eight years ago.

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In May, when the first United Airlines service took off from Newcastle for Newark, it was the culmination of years of negotiations. Indeed, United bosses revealed they had almost introduced the route in 2007, but that the global financial downturn had made it unviable. Securing the transatlantic link was a sign of the region’s recovery, and also of the growing international reputation of Newcastle Airport which has invested heavily to improve facilities.

A further boost came later in the year when it was confirmed that the Newark flights will continue in 2016. The region’s special relationship with the US looks like it is here to stay.

9 A logical move

IT’S a bit like moving from trains to strains,” said Dr Chris Dowle, as he watched an engine leave Darlington’s Bank Top station and pass his window.

Dr Dowle, director of biologics at the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), was speaking to The Northern Echo as he explained the impact of CPI’s £38m National Biologics Manufacturing Centre.

The site opened in late September and is now providing firms with technical backing to research and develop potentially life-saving cures and vaccines, including cancer treatments and therapies for rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

For Darlington, the building represents a huge coup. Raising the UK’s medical repute by supporting companies’ growth and helping take their concepts to market, it has also brought highly-skilled jobs to the region.

Echoing Dr Dowle, Nigel Perry, CPI chief executive, speaking at the centre’s opening, was unequivocal over its importance.

“This building is a real example of Darlington and the North-East leading the way”, he added.

8 Mighty Atom

HISTORY suggests that when the North-East gets involved in the banking industry momentous things can happen.

In the plus column you have pioneers such as Quaker financier Jonathan Backhouse who helped bankroll construction of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Backhouse and Co went on to become one of the lenders that joined forces to found Barclays.

In September 2007, however, the sight of customers queuing outside branches of debt-ridden Northern Rock was visible proof of a financial crisis that was about to change the world.

Durham City-based Atom may not have such a momentous impact on global banking but its ambitions are to shake-up an industry which has been mired in scandal.

The lender made huge strides this year as it secured heavyweight investors, approval to build new offices in Durham and a licence to start trading.

Atom will operate no high street branches but offer current and business accounts via an app.

A revolution is taking place in the banking industry and once more the North-East is playing a leading role.

7 Half a century

IN the 50 years since US engineer Cummins decided to open a plant in Darlington scores of other overseas firms have set up shop in our region to great fanfare only to pull out when the going got tough.

Engine and exhaust-maker Cummins has experienced its own ups and downs over the past five decades. But its two plants on Yarm Road have become a mainstay of the North-East manufacturing scene.

Cummins threw a huge summer party for staff past and present to mark its half century.

The Northern Echo joined in the celebrations by publishing a special edition which included messages of congratulations from the great and good, recollections from long-serving staff, and a letter from Hilda Constantine, 99, who was the first woman to work on the Cummins factory floor.

“They were the happiest days of my life,” she said in a

touching message that summed up the depth of feeling that the Indiana firm is now firmly rooted in County Durham.

6. Infiniti and beyond

IT was more a matter of where rather than if Nissan would appear on this list.

Since it opened three decades ago the Sunderland car plant has been a headline-grabber and 2015 was no exception.

It now employs almost 6,800 people – more than at any time in its history – after a £250m investment to start making the Infiniti Q30 added another 300 people to the Wearside manufacturer’s workforce.

Some industry experts hailed the start of Infiniti production as one of the most significant new arrivals in British car making this century. It showed that Nissan bosses continue to have faith in the plant that makes about one third of Britain’s entire car output.

The Infiniti launch followed a major plant expansion, including investment in a £37m 5,200 tonne press to support production of the best-selling Qashqai and Juke models, as well as the Nissan Note and the Leaf hatchback.

Would anyone bet against Nissan appearing on the list of 2016 business highlights too?

5. Are you watching Germany?

TEN years ago plastic car parts maker Nifco was on the verge of collapse.

This year it hosted a visit from a German television company eager to pick up tips on how to run a successful plant.

The transformation of Nifco, led by managing director Mike Matthews, means that it is now used by the Government as an exemplar of all that is great about British manufacturing.

In February, The Northern Echo revealed the Eaglescliffe firm had won the biggest deal in its history – beating rivals from Japan, China and Germany – to a 10-year Ford contract, worth £50m.

It will support Nifco’s plan to build a new factory, as well as almost double staff numbers, turnover and continue to support apprenticeships over the coming decade.

Mr Matthews, who was appointed NECC president this year, said: “I am a Darlington lad, I came from a working class background and I want to see more people with that kind of background get a better start in life.”

Nifco’s success, and the launch of the North-East Automotive Alliance, which includes other star performers such as Redcar’s ElringKlinger (GB), Komatsu and Sevcon, reinforced the message that our region has become a global centre for car making.

4 Mining jobs cut

ICL UK, in Boulby, east Cleveland, ends 2015 with a shadow hanging over its operations.

Bosses announced job cuts in November after finding reserves will be exhausted much sooner than anticipated.

About 350 staff, made up of 220 ICL workers and 140 contractors are expected to have gone by March next year, with another 350 due to be released in 2018 when the company’s potash stock runs out.

To counter the loss, the business, known locally as Cleveland Potash, is expanding its focus on the fertiliser polyhalite, which it markets as polysulphate, and it is already building a factory to crush and process the mineral.

Officials say the move will give it a viable future and ensure it remains east Cleveland’s largest employer with about 400 staff from 2018 onwards.

3 Let’s get Sirius

2015 was the year Sirius Minerals’ £2bn York Potash project shifted from plans on paper to a tangible business endeavour.

Company claims of tapping into the world’s largest and highest grade of the fertiliser polyhalite were met by heated responses from campaigners keen to protect the mine’s proposed site, based just outside Whitby.

Opinions were divided but unification came from the North York Moors National Park Planning Committee, which backed the development.

The Northern Echo business team covered the firm’s proposals in great detail and was given access to Sirius’ site to gauge the location for what will be UK’s first potash mine in 40 years.

The newspaper also reported exclusive pictures of its Teesside-based harbour and distribution bases.

Sirius hopes to extract up to 13 million tonnes of polyhalite every year and deliver more than 1,000 direct jobs.

If 2015 was its breakthrough year, 2016 is all about building on its foundations.

2 Hitachi has arrived

DURING the General Election campaign senior Conservatives were seldom seen in the North-East but the return of train-building to these parts on September 3 secured a rare joint visit by David Cameron and George Osborne.

Such was the pulling power of Hitachi’s new factory – or Rail Vehicle Manufacturing Facility as the company calls it – that people were falling over themselves to be associated with a building that sits a few hundreds yards from where Robert Stephenson and Co had assembled the world’s first passenger steam engine 190 years ago. “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” said the Prime Minister. Train building was coming home.

The Northern Echo had campaigned to bring the Inter City Express trains programme to County Durham which led to Hitachi converting land on the edge of Aycliffe Business Park into an £82m factory, test track and research centre, and we have followed the story every step of the way since.

On the day that Mr Cameron performed the officially opening at a weird and wonderful ceremony which included a string quarter playing Oasis and Coldplay hits and a lycra-clad acrobat dangling from a hot air balloon (you really should have been there), The Northern Echo produced a souvenir supplement and special wrap around that day’s newspaper, to mark an unforgettable occasion. “It looks terrific,” Mr Cameron told the Echo as he flicked through the pages and talked about a revival in British manufacturing.

Train building at Aycliffe started a few weeks ago and the first complete carriages will roll out in the new year.

In a year where the shuddering impact of job losses threatened to halt the region’s economic recovery the Hitachi story showed that the North-East also has an awful lot to feel optimistic about.

So what was 2015’s most important story

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