Finley Structures enjoyed a sturdy 2016 and this year promises to be even better. Nick Gullon visits the family-run firm to find out what the future holds.

STARING though the window of his car, John Finley admirers a large working factory in Newton Aycliffe.

Little did he know at the time, but three decades later, the former British Steel site would become the home of his multi-million pound fabrication firm.

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But when John stumbled across the factory in 2002, two years after Finley Structures was formed and 30 years after he’d first set eyes on it, it wasn’t quite what he remembered.

“I came across it on a routine Sunday jaunt” John recalls.

“The factory was abandoned – the windows were smashed, the electrics were all ruined and there were overgrown trees everywhere.”

But in just four months, the damage was repaired and the factory was turned around into a site not too dissimilar to how it appears today.

“I pulled into the car park and thought straight away I could just see Finley Structures here.”

John says he always wanted to go into business, particularly steel fabrication, but it wasn’t so clear cut for his daughter, Julie Raistrick.

“It didn’t interest me as a 16 year old – I wanted to do something for myself when I left school.”

Julie worked for a printing company in Sunderland, but did not want to commit to the vast amount of travelling that was beginning to form part of her job, so followed her father into the steel fabrication firm.

Finley processed 10,000 tonnes of steel last year, making around £13.5m, and Julie has forecasted that to rise to £15m this year.

Most of this has come down to the firm’s success in the Education sector.

“Education is really what has kept us going - people wanted to see different and unusual designs.

The uncertainty before and after the Brexit vote brought challenging times for businesses in the North-East last year. How does Finley Structures reflect on 2016?

“There has been peaks and troughs” says Julie.

“We had a slow period between May and August when we didn’t win any jobs, but after August, it went berserk.

However, John cites the 2008 recession as Finley’s toughest challenge over the last 16 years.

“There was about three months where nothing happened. All the jobs came to a standstill and we were scrapping around looking for work.

Julie added: “The factory had never been so clean – John didn’t want to let anyone go but in the end we had to make a few redundancies.”

“It was a scary time – we didn’t know what was around the corner. A lot of family run businesses went under.”

John admits nerves in relation to the outlook of Britain’s relationship with Europe, particularly surrounding the future of EU grants, but there was one post-Brexit announcement that affected thousands of North-East jobs he was pleased to hear.

“For all the people working at Nissan, it must have been very worrying. To lose that amount of jobs would have been devastating.

“As a fabricator, we love to do local work and support local businesses. It would have been sad to see Nissan disappear.

“We have already confirmed £6.1m worth of work for this year, and in the last eight weeks of 2016, we secured £4.4m worth.”

The company does not rule out expanding its workforce to cope with its growing number of orders, but admits finding the required skills set in the region has been tough.

“It has been a great problem for about 10 years” said John.

“It is about getting young people with the skills to come in, and they are getting fewer and fewer.”

When asked he felt this was the case, John had a straightforward response.

“In my opinion, apprenticeships should have been pushed years ago.”

“School leavers can achieve anything if they put their mind to it - I used to love climbing as a kid and always wanted to do steel erection.”

In a bid to address this skills shortage, John hopes Finley Structures can work with South Durham University Technical College in the future, which is located just a few hundred yards from their Aycliffe factory.

But he stops short of saying the business could be run by a future graduate of the college, or indeed anyone from outside the family.

“Not at the moment” says John.

The business is clearly in his bones- right from the moment it began with his wife at, according to Julie, the dining table.

“It is hard to switch off – when we go out for family meals, we have to remember there are other people there that don’t want to talk about business all night.”

And John’s career could have turned out very different if one particular family member had gone down a different path.

“My dad had played for a lot of local football teams and he got the chance to play for Newcastle, but he decided to go into manufacturing because it was paid more back then.

Times might have changed, but John did get to mix football and fabrication some years ago.

Before Finley Structures was born, he had the chance to work on the redevelopment of West Ham United’s Upton Park.

“A company was offered it, but for whatever reason they turned it down.

“As they were leaving, I pulled them to one side and said we’ll do it here.”

John may have been sad to see the club move to the London Stadium last year, but there are many more projects closer to home that are still thriving.

“We were really pleased to get Hitachi – it was great to bring train building back to the region.

“I met them at the site, we shook hands and I said I’d love to do the job, and the rest was history.

“I am most proud of our local projects – I am more passionate about them than anything else.

The steel industry has had its well-publicised problems over recent years, none more noticeably than the collapse of the SSI plant in Redcar.

John does not wish to comment on its demise, but his feelings about the industry is clear “It is dog eat dog in the steel industry” he says.

Historically, such a tough industry would only appeal to men, but Finley is leading the way in getting more females into steel fabrication.

Alex Berry is currently working as a welder at the Newton Aycliffe site.

“I started when I was 17. I was attracted to it because it was really good money – I wanted a man’s wage.

“Most of my friends wanted to work in shops or travel agents, but I wanted to do something practical rather than using pens and paper, and it is all I have done since.

Julie admits the industry is “male dominated”, but is hoping that will change.

“There is a small number of girls at the UTC which was quite surprising, and hopefully that will grow.

“It would be good to get them in if the right opportunities materialised.”

Finley Structures has certainly made the most of all their opportunities, and 2017 looks like being a sturdy year for the steel fabricators.