FORMER apprentice Mike Matthews rose through the ranks to become boss at car parts maker Nifco UK. Here, he takes a trip down memory lane with Business Echo Editor Steven Hugill to reflect on his path to the top

MIKE Matthews pauses on the pavement, his gaze caught by the lush green open space on the opposite side of the road.

“We used to play football over there,” he says, “and at this time of year we had conkers too.”

The 53-year-old may now be managing director at Eaglescliffe-based car parts maker Nifco UK, but he still cherishes his boyhood days on Darlington’s Branksome estate.

Mr Matthews is a good example of the virtue of practical learning, having begun his professional career as a mould toolmaker.

After initially taking an apprenticeship at Phoenix Tubemans, which occupied the site of Robert Stephenson’s works, he studied at Newton Aycliffe’s South West Durham Training, which lists Gatwick Airport boss Stewart Wingate and comedian Vic Reeves among its alumni.

He then had spells at Aycliffe’s Elite Engineering and Mitre Plastics in the 1980s, which sandwiched time at Elta Plastics, which, ultimately, shaped his career into what it has become today.

  • This article first appeared in Business Echo, our FREE interactive digital magazine. Packed with features and information you can find more about it here.

Leaning on a fencepost outside 35 Whitby Way, the house where he spent his formative years with his parents, sister Diane and brother Peter, Mr Matthews recalls with fondness the innocence of his youth, remembering the halcyon days of Mount Pleasant Primary School and how, when a little older, he would leave Branksome Comprehensive at lunchtime for some beans on toast at home.

He also thinks of the time, upon joining secondary school, when he was placed into one of the lower forms and how he vowed to use that as motivation to climb the educational ladder.

With a proud smile, he points over his shoulder to the school, revealing his hard work led to prizes for being the hardest working student over four consecutive years, with his fifth year delivering an accolade for his metalwork skills.

“I came here as a baby,” he says, gazing towards his former home and the neighbouring horse chestnut trees that once represented easy fodder for conker competitions.

“I can still remember the names of the people in the houses on this road, there were some characters but above all, some really lovely people.

“We all knew each other. It was one good, little community and this part of Branksome was what we called the old part. People from the other end went to Jack Horners pub, people from here went to The Archdeacon.

“A lot of the people here used to work on Faverdale, for companies like Amdega, which are no longer there. Over the road was a Co-op, where we used to go food shopping, we could walk to school easily and a bit further down there was a row of shops, which had a newsagents, a Lipton supermarket and a fish and chip shop.”

Standing on the corner of Whitby Way and Bylands Way, it isn’t long before Mr Matthews’ attention turns to the towering trees, recalling his rich pickings and the memories of his childhood.

“In those days, there were no video games and we only had two BBC channels and ITV on the television,” he says, as the noise of a passing house removal wagon’s engine briefly replaces the faraway rumble of a petrol lawnmower.

“There was a field behind a garage block, which we used to play in, we also had conkering and things like clackers, and we used to go out on our bikes for miles too.

“One of the best things about school was breaktime, when we would play British Bulldog; everyone wanted to play.

“We had some fantastic school meals, with things like Lancashire hotpot, and the old dinner lady, Mrs Jones, used to live around the corner.

“We would also go past the school on a morning, get a quarter of sherbet lemons and eat them with our pals before we went in because we weren’t allowed them in class.”

It was around the time of switching from primary to secondary school that Mr Matthews began his working life.

He got himself a paper round at the age of 11. Strictly speaking, he needed to be 13 to carry out the role, but he didn’t let the small matter of a couple of years stop him.

It also proved to be a catalyst for further endeavours, which he said were a reflection of the work ethic instilled into him by his mother and father. “We used to walk up to Newton Lane and get the bus into town to go to the ABC Cinema; it was my paper round money that used to fund those trips,” he remembers. “This was my patch, Mr Cooper had the shop and I lied about my age.”

“Every time he asked me for my documentation, I told him I’d forgotten it and that I’d bring it the next time.

“I also did the pools coupons. My dad was down as the one doing it officially, but I was the one doing the work, going around delivering the coupons and collecting the money. He then took it down to the office in the town.”

However, there was to be another entry on his CV, this time at the Dog Inn, near Heighington. “I used to have to get all the empties and put them back into the crates,” he says.

“But, at that time, one of the conditions was that the person who had the pub also had to be a blacksmith, so I would also help with things like cleaning up the hoof clippings from the smith’s shop.

“I used to go on my bike or hitchhike there and I quickly found that the same people who dropped me off were picking me up, because not so many people had cars back then.”

Perhaps it was obvious a lad with a desire for practical work would end up in the manufacturing trade, and Mr Matthews admits his upbringing probably did go a long way to shaping his destiny.

Laughing as he recalls his father’s catalogue of cars, he tells the story of getting his hands dirty to help out.

“I remember when my mam and dad bought a second-hand Ford Anglia.,” he says. “A friend and I were bouncing on the front bumper when the whole front of the car fell off. I got into trouble but my dad soon realised he’d been sold a bit of a pup. He also used to have a Morris Traveller, which had mushrooms growing in the wooden windows!

“My dad used to have the old Haynes manuals and he used to ask me to help him. So from about 12 I would be changing brake pads and things like that, doing what I could. There was that side of practical work in me and I think what this showed me was that if you wanted to get on life, you needed to get educated and work hard.”

“My mam and dad were really good role models. They were grafters basically and they went from Branksome to the west end of Darlington. They worked hard and if they weren’t working, they were doing things on the house.”

His family left their Branksome home in the late 1970s, switching to nearby Berrybank Crest, and Mr Matthews was soon embarking on a new journey of his own. He took an apprenticeship at Phoenix Tubemans, studying at South West Durham Training. However, when Phoenix’s base closed, Mr Matthews was forced to look elsewhere.

“College was never an option; I wanted to go out and earn money,” he says. “I’d had enough of school. I went to South West Durham Training and was named most improved apprentice of the year. I’d only been back a year at Phoenix when they announced the closure of the factory.

“I was made redundant at quite an early age.This was the time that Norman Tebbit said people should to get on their bikes and find a job, so that’s what I did.

“I went around Newton Aycliffe knocking on doors. I managed to get in front of the boss at Elite Engineering and finished my apprenticeship as a mould toolmaker. I left there and went to Elta, which was where a lot of toolmakers had worked; it was a good name to have on your CV.However, after a while I realised I wanted to do something else and made my mind up that I was going to leave the tools.”

“It had become unrewarding; you got plans and the metal and made the tool and then watched it go, with more plans arriving for you to start. I became a technical sales rep at Elta and when I started the business was doing about £300,000 a year.

“We got it to about £3m very quickly and when Nifco bought it in 1990, I just began setting myself more and more targets. When we got to £3m, I wanted to get to £6m, and then to £12m and £24m and so on.”

“Nifco has now enjoyed nine consecutive years of sales growth and we now employ hundreds of staff and we’ve spent £35m on the business, in terms of plant and equipment.” The firm, which has two factories in Eaglescliffe, near Stockton, is known for producing plastic components, such as engine parts and cup holders, for customers including Ford, Honda, Jaguar Land Rover and Sunderland-based Nissan.

It also previously beat rivals from Germany, Japan and China to a Ford £50m contract to make parts for new low-emission vehicle engines. As we chat, Mr Matthews reveals he’s in the process of entertaining a number of delegates from the company’s Japanese heartland, who are visiting the UK to check on the business’ progress.

Things are going well. Mr Matthews reveals Nifco’s UK operation is now the fourth largest in the group.

However, the former North-East England Chamber of Commerce president, who is also vice-president of the North-East Automotive Alliance and associate member of the Tees Valley Combined Authority, is not resting on his laurels. The business’ bottom line has benefited from the sale of a former factory on Stockton’s Yarm Road to discount supermarket Lidl.

However, that aside, Mr Matthews says there are many reasons to be optimistic.

“The last year was a very healthy one, and we are pleased to have been able to deliver focused growth,” he says.

“Fundamentally, Nifco’s success is down to the support of our clients and the hard work of the entire team, so it’s thanks to them. There have been a great many positives for us in recent years, and we are thrilled to build on that.”

As our conversation comes to a close, it’s perhaps fitting that it ends with a focus on skills. For a man whose pride in his trade background is obvious, Mr Matthews’ message for the next generation is, as you would expect, unequivocal.

“My advice to young people would be do an apprenticeship, get a trade and show the right attitude,” he says.

“You will never be out of work.”

  • This article first appeared in Business Echo, our FREE interactive digital magazine. Packed with features and information you can find more about it here.