From manufacturing trains as part of a global operation, to launching a small business out of a passion for rearing hens, people have been placed at the heart of the regeneration of County Durham. PETER BARRON explains why

WHEN Hitachi was looking to establish a new train-building plant in the UK in 2015, it had a choice of around 40 locations, but County Durham rose to the top because of several key factors.

The county’s heritage, as the birthplace of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, was a major attraction, along with first-class transport links including Teesport, the East Coast Main Line, and the A1 motorway. And, underpinning all of that was the area’s reputation for friendly, proud, hard-working and adaptable people.

“When the company set up the factory in Newton Aycliffe, it knew there wouldn’t be a ready-made workforce of train-builders, but it was well aware that the region came with a passionate workforce with diverse skills and experience from a variety of industries,” says the company’s Communications Manager Nina Harding.

In those first few years, with County Durham basking in the glory of winning the race for such an lucrative prize, more than 70,000 job applications flooded in from people eager to be part of something so exciting.

“We recruited on the basis of values and behaviours,” adds Nina. “People could be trained to make trains, but we focused on getting people with the right attitude. Quality and high standards are key in the rail industry, and to Hitachi, so we wanted to build the factory around people who shared that ethos.”

The plant now has a 700-strong workforce comprising employees from a range of backgrounds, including the steel industry, engineering, ex-forces, and even the Red Arrows.

Hitachi, which is halfway through the delivery of a fleet of Azuma trains to LNER and shortlisted for a £500m contract to design, build and maintain replacement trains for the Tyne and Wear Metro, is also investing in developing future employees. As a sponsor and trustee of UTC South Durham, a University Technical College catering for 14-19-year-olds on Aycliffe Business Park, the aim is to grow its own talent.

That commitment is consistent with Hitachi’s position as one of the original supporters of the Powered by People initiative, putting people at the heart of County Durham’s inward investment campaign. The company features prominently in the Powered by People launch video and has adopted the branding.

“We support Powered by People completely because, in building a workforce from scratch, it was vital that we concentrated recruiting quality people,” says Nina. “Those of us in this region knows it’s a great place to work, with good living standards, beautiful countryside and fantastic people. We just need to spread the word to the rest of the country.”

As another relative newcomer to the County Durham business scene, customer contact company ResQ was also quick to associate itself with Powered by People.

The business, which was already well-established in Hull, opened a second centre in Seaham in 2016 and now employs 350 people with promises of more to come.

Access to a positive workforce with the right attitude was again the priority in choosing a business location and that’s exactly what ResQ found in the rejuvenated County Durham coastal town.

“We whole-heartedly support Powered by People because it’s in step with our own ethos and strategy. It embodies what we do,” says ResQ’s chief executive Nic Marshall.

“It is absolutely on message and the timing is fantastic. We believe in motivating people so that they feel loved and part of a family. For a council to share those values is rare and heart-warming because it shows that it’s truly entrepreneurial.

“There are a lot of similarities in the people of Hull and County Durham – their pride and ambition is very evident and we’ve been able to harness that.”

With ResQ building a reputation as a people-friendly employer, the company receives 600-800 speculative CVs every month.

“What we’re seeing is the creation of a brand in County Durham that people recognise and that’s helped us attract talent.

“We have a great working relationship with Durham County Council from top to bottom. They’ve made people the priority and that works for us because we are a people business. All our investment is in people and making them the best they can be,” adds Nic.

In contrast to Hitachi and ResQ, Thorn Lighting has a long track record in County Durham, having moved into Spennymoor in the early 1950s.

In 2009, a £28m investment saw the company – established by the visionary Sir Jules Thorn and now part of the Zumtobel Group – consolidate its production on a new highly-efficient site on Green Lane after more than 40 years based in former munitions buildings in Merrington Lane.

Employing around 850 people, it is another flagship County Durham company that passionately believes in investing in people, and Martin Thompson is a shining example of that philosophy. Martin joined the company 38 years ago as an apprentice electrician and is now Thorn’s ambassador for the UK and Ireland.

“When Sir Jules Thorn came to Spennymoor, looking for a piece of industrial land, he was well aware of the power of County Durham people,” says Martin. “He knew that because of the changes they’d had to cope with, they had the resilience and adaptability he needed.

Martin is full of praise for the way Durham has been marketed in recent years, with brands such as “Place of Light” and “Powered by People” used to good effect.

“They are doing a really good job in pushing the county up and up and Powered by People is completely in line with our own branding and beliefs. We are 100 per cent behind the initiative because, no matter how efficient your processes are, it’s people who make the difference.”