Out of the furnace and into politics Mike Hughes meets Chris McDonald, CEO of the Materials Processing Institute in Middlesbrough, and now Labour's parliamentary candidate for Stockton North

Back in March, at the moment Chris McDonald was applauded on to the floor as a Labour candidate, he had the opportunity to say a few words to his supporters.

He chose them carefully at such a big moment and for someone like him, they needed to be about industry and skills. He told his audience that education and working in industry had ‘transformed my life’.

“I came to work for British Steel who sponsored me to go to Cambridge University to study chemical engineering. It’s not an opportunity I would have otherwise had… but I worry that those opportunities aren’t available to young people now.

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“This whole region has been built on and prospered as a result of industry and manufacturing, and our industry needs to transition to green industry.”

That transition is well underway with investments at Teesworks and other key sites just a few minutes down the road from the Materials Processing Institute at South Bank which he leads. But Chris believes his level of insight and experience from more than 20 years working in the Teesside steel industry is a vital missing ingredient.

“I’m proud of Teesside and I want to take our battle to Westminster. where we need more working-class MPs, like me, with real-world experience,” he had said at his announcement.

His bond with the area and his passion for industry and innovation are beyond question, and it is thanks to all of those things that the MPI even exists let alone has a global reputation for R&D.

The Northern Echo: Chris McDonald of MPIChris McDonald of MPI (Image: Newsquest)

We are sitting in the well-stocked library at MPI as he tells me: “For the first part of the 2000s, I'd worked for British Steel and its predecessor organisations and then in 2008 there was a vacancy here for the laboratory manager and I got it. I've always been more on the technology and innovation side – it’s always been the bit I've been more interested in.

“But I've always had a very strong emotional attachment to what happened here as well, to the people who were here, to the difference it has made as technologies for the steel sector have been developed here that are just standard across the world now.

“But a few years later, Tata decided that it was surplus to requirements and they wanted to close it, so I had a choice. They would have offered me a job somewhere else in the company but I said to them, well, actually, I'd rather not do that. I think we've got an opportunity for this organisation to survive as an independent business on its own terms.”

Recklessness and passion are often not too far apart, and this was a moment Chris had to keep his head and make sure he was driven by one and not the other. He was the young CEO and they were the global superpower.

They didn’t stand a chance….

“They were great about it all,” says Chris.

“They didn't just dismiss me - they said, okay, that's interesting. But we won't let you do this unless we think it will be a successful business. If it doesn't look like it'll be successful, we'll say no and will close it, because we’d rather deal with that problem than somebody else.

“Ultimately it's about their commitment to the people, so what they were saying was if there's bad news to deliver, they'll deliver the bad news rather than give people false hope and then in a year's time they all lose their jobs.

“What that meant was that me and my management team here had to do a very serious job of pulling together a business plan - and the biggest challenge we had was that this is a not for profit organisation with no shares.

“So when Tata asked me how much I was going to pay for the business, I had to say, well, I'm not going to pay anything. You'll have to give me the business because there's no equity in it.”

In Chris’s hands, this is a fundamental principle underpinning how the business works. He doesn’t own it, he’s an employee like everybody else. There is a board of directors and one of the members of staff sits on that board and is elected every three years by the staff.

There are no dividends because there are no shareholders, but a profit share scheme operates to reward the lowest paid employees.

The staff are very much front and centre.

“We're not here to produce commercial value just for ourselves,” he says.

“It's for the industry that we support and the community that we sit in as well. We take that very seriously as we head for our 10th anniversary as an independent organisation.

“In that time, we've expanded our remit as well. So we're the UK's national centre for innovation in metals, but actually our biggest projects are for the cement sector because our mission is all about decarbonisation and getting industry ready for a zero carbon future.

The Northern Echo: Mike Hughes talks to Chris McDonald of MPIMike Hughes talks to Chris McDonald of MPI (Image: Newsquest)

“The hardest industries to decarbonise are those that we're familiar with in Teesside, like chemicals, steel, and heavy engineering. These are the hardest to do, but they're also the ones that are essential for everyday life.

“I'm concerned that we get a grip on this, because the alternative is that those industries in the UK would close and that is something I care quite a lot about. Those businesses would close, we'd lose them in the UK, and we'd be relying on industries from overseas instead.

“It's a really critical point, but we can get it right by developing the technologies and preparing industry to go green.”

One part of his work that gives him particular pride is that MPI is a steel producer, with an Electric Arc Furnace in a foundry on the site which can be used in combination with the Institute’s other assets to process cast product compositions.

Having been in the blast furnace building when it was relit by SSI in 2012, the facilities at MPI took me right back there. The furnace is operational most days, making very specialised steel for customers, but it all starts the same way, with huge bags of scrap metal ready to be transformed into something of much higher value and longer lifespan.

The metaphor for the reshaping of the region is clear.

“It was always something that we'd done a little bit of in the past, but now what we do is make incredibly high value niche products in the steel sector for very demanding applications,” Chris explains.

“So if somebody needs a very small amount - and we’re talking about a few tons here of a very difficult to make, high value steel - then we are the people they would come to. This isn’t about big beams for big brick buildings.

“The steel companies in the UK are our customers from an innovation point of view, and we don't compete with them in terms of making steel, because we make these very small volumes - a market that nobody else in the UK is in.

“If we didn't do it, nobody else would and that's important because if there was a commercial producer out there then it wouldn't be our job to compete with them.

“For us, the thread that runs through all of the projects we do is about decarbonisation – going green. We drive for reducing carbon emissions and at the same time, we're making industry more competitive, and the most efficient producers, the most competitive producers, the ones that can pay the higher wages, are the companies that are investing in green technology.

“The companies that are hanging back from that are becoming gradually less efficient and less competitive.”

So what about the future – a post-McDonald era.

The MPI is already looking for the right person to take over as Chris seeks election to Parliament, someone to redraw the blueprint again as demand and urgency grows for new innovations.

Back from our tour of the arc furnace, his passion burns just as brightly for the next phase of MPI.

“In 2020 we won a five year settlement of investment from government and we've just completed that round of investment now. That means for the period 2025 to 2030, we can see the innovation challenges that we'll be tackling and they are recycling of car batteries and nuclear fusion.

The Northern Echo: Chris McDonald of MPIChris McDonald of MPI (Image: Newsquest)

“The UK is already building a gigafactory in Somerset. The car industry is going to go electric and we're all going to buy electric cars.

“These cars last so many years and then there's a battery left. So if we're making millions of cars a year, we're going to be scrapping millions of cars a year and we're going to have millions of car batteries. What are we going to do with them - full of really valuable materials like lithium, nickel, cobalt and graphite.

“Currently there is no technology to extract that and recycle it. So one of the things that we are working on is the recycling of car batteries to be ready for that point.

“At the moment, some of them are given alternative uses, some of them are landfilled and some of them are shredded to some extent, but a lot of the valuable materials are just lost because there's a mass that's left at the end that can't really be utilised for anything.

“We've heard a lot recently about how the supply chain for all these materials is controlled by China, so the US is very anxious about this from a defence point of view. There are some of these materials where in the processing of them, China has 90% of the supply chain globally.

“As a country, I think we should be concerned about that because it limits the options that we have to do things.

“But there's also a human cost as well, if you take the cobalt, for instance. Everyone's got an iPhone, or similar Android phone. These have got cobalt in them, and that cobalt in your phone will almost certainly have been mined by a child in the Democratic Republic of Congo – a massive human cost.

“At the moment we're using it, and then we'll chuck it away. Which seems unreasonable and unacceptable, frankly. So, finding a technological solution for that is an environmental imperative, a human imperative and it's for our national security as well.

“Energy is the other area we will be working on, with nuclear fusion. There is a big UK initiative that's been developing a pilot reactor based in Oxfordshire. We're a partner in that project, doing work here like developing new steels that we will make here that will feed into that facility.

“Energy sources of the future and energy storage are going to be really important, as is the move to hydrogen and carbon capture and storage. There's a lot of technology in that area so we've put new facilities in to help with that.

“Our job is to be an innovation business and tackle the challenges of tomorrow, and that means that we have to be just one step ahead of everybody else. At the point that something becomes standard - that's the point where we lose interest.

“It's always got to be about breaking new ground. Looking to the future. Figuring out what the new challenges are going to be.”

For the industries they work in, the Materials Processing Institute is a really strong brand nationally and internationally too, but there is also another value in the name. Permission is needed from the Secretary State for Business to be called an institute in the UK and there are very strict requirements, so this is a mark of quality.

The Northern Echo: Chris McDonald of MPIChris McDonald of MPI (Image: Newsquest)

That level of quality also means quality of the skills that are cast here or that are developed somewhere else and attracted here. MPI already has a doctoral academy – effectively a network of students brought together at an annual conference which is now of international significance.

“We've got about a hundred PhD students at any one time, but they're all over the UK, so we bring them together to share that expertise for the benefit of the industry,” said Chris.

“I also set up the Millman Scholarship, named after one of our employees, for a student to study something materials related at whatever university they want in the UK.

“We’re not a huge employer, we've got nearly 80 members of staff, but we have a very well-managed talent pipeline, which we start in primary schools to interact with local school kids all the way through to school leaving age. We then offer opportunities for young people to leave school and come and work here straight away, just as I did, to sponsor them through university up to PhD level and beyond.

“But the big challenge we have here is about skills for that new green economy. So the words that are always on my lips, and I just wish they were on more people's lips as well, is this little phrase ‘a just transition’.

“You hear it talked about a lot in Europe, but not a lot in the UK, and what it’s about is that we know that as we go green, jobs will be lost in some sectors. So there won't be as many jobs in fossil fuels, or maybe in oil and gas, or steel in fact, because as steel goes green, fewer people are employed.

“We also know that there are new green sectors appearing where we need people. So there's going to be a whole new hydrogen economy that didn't exist before as well as nuclear fusion, standard nuclear power, small modular reactors, offshore wind, electric vehicle batteries, battery recycling - all of these are brand new industrial sectors where we need really high-quality skilled workers.

“Meanwhile, we have a set of sectors where we have skilled workers and we'll have fewer jobs. We won't achieve success in building our green economy unless we support people to move from the older industries into the newer ones.

“It really concerns me that there is talk about what we're moving away from and not enough talk about where we're moving to and how we take people with us.

“That’s the ‘just transition’ that is incredibly important. It can't happen on its own because it's too big for individual industries to manage, so it needs to be part of a national skills plan that helps people move into these new industries and creates opportunities for young people to get the right training to be successful in those industries.”

The Northern Echo: Chris McDonald of MPIChris McDonald of MPI (Image: Newsquest)

The immensity if what he has achieved here means he is in great demand, but while that is a good thing, he clearly knows where his priorities lie.

He tells me: “About 15% of the work we do is export of service, so doing research projects for companies overseas. We don't market our services internationally particularly and we're a small business so it's completely responsive, but we've got a good reputation globally.

“But I don't really see it as the reason why we're here. Our job, the reason why we were set up, was to support British industry. So if we do some work for an overseas company and teach them how to be more competitive globally, well, I don't see how that helps British industry particularly.

“So whilst I'm happy that we'll do some international research because it helps us to learn as well and we get good connections and can use the money to invest in the business, it's not the reason why we're here. The reason why we're here is to back British industry and to support Teesside in particular.

“Our ambition for Teesside as a whole is for it to be a globally significant green industrial cluster and to achieve that we need to recognise the value of what we've got.

“There are huge acreages of land, access to high voltage electricity and transport and all of that and more importantly really highly skilled workforce that know how to handle these processes safely and effectively.

“That’s what investors really look for, But in the sectors I work in I’m seeing billions of pounds of investment going into new green industrial sites. I am not seeing that coming into the UK in the same way.

“In the steel sector for instance, we've seen billions of pounds of investment going in in Germany and Spain in the Netherlands, we're not seeing that in the UK. So what we have to be conscious of is there is an opportunity and we have a choice to make.

“Are we going to be an industrial nation in the future, in which case it has to be rebuilt and Teesside has to be at the heart of it. Or are we going to turn ourselves into a deindustrialised economy, which doesn't mean having a seat at the top table, or an independent foreign policy or defence policy, or any of those things, because you need industry to do that.

“It’s a massive opportunity, not just Teesworks, and I think it's of critical national importance that we deliver it.

“The problem is I'm concerned that we are falling behind, particularly with our European competitors, in winning the investment that we need.”

He will be a great loss to the institute, but he has great confidence in those that will follow him and he is looking at a different battleground. Or maybe the same battle, but with different weapons at his disposal.

Innovation runs through the place he will leave behind, and that is what is feeding the next era of its work. Always thinking ahead, and if not inventing, then reinventing both itself and its products and processes.

Like its CEO, the Materials Processing Institute is always up for a new challenge.