A meeting with: Andrew Upton, managing director of Seaward Group · 5 months ago by Other Author
Andrew Upton’s career took him around the world before he ended up back in his native North East. Tom Keighley meets the Seaward Group boss.
As managing director of Peterlee’s Seaward Group, Andrew Upton runs a £14.5m turnover company and is responsible for a workforce of more than 150.
But he says that “I really didn’t know what I wanted from my career” and admits that he “floundered” for three or four years after leaving school.
The 47-year-old grew up on Teesside, tried and ditched A-levels and then went on to do electrical engineering in the merchant navy before deciding he wasn’t keen on a career offshore.
He packed it in to find a job on terra firma with health and safety equipment supplier, Arco, a company whose culture and values pointed him towards eventual career success.
“Arco really set me on a course to where I am today,” he said. “It was a company about its employees – and it invested in me. Fast forward more than 25 years and those principles are guiding me.”
Within four years Mr Upton had climbed the ladder from telephone administrator to sales representative, and within another three he was sales manager of the branch he’d joined.
By his late twenties, Mr Upton had a hunger for progression and a chance phone call from a recruiter led to him taking a job with electrical distributor Hagemeyer to set up a health and safety division in the UK.
“I quickly realised that I’d learned all the values from Arco, but that I wasn’t commercially aware enough for the reality of the business world. The shift into the corporate plc exposed a frailty – my understanding of how companies work. Now I was dealing with P&L sheets, stakeholders and shareholders,” he explained.
It was a steep learning curve in understanding the financial cut and thrust of the business.
At the time Hagemeyer was undergoing structural changes but suffering commercial problems. A knack for interpreting company politics allowed Andrew to navigate the uncertainty this caused and he found himself segued into a new area of the business.
He said: “They spotted my skills from sales roles, and the commercial acumen I’d built up and gave me a chance as a commercial manager. I worked with some of the top blue chips – including Ford and Cummins – and ultimately in a joint venture on the build of Heathrow Terminal 5.
“I still land there now and find myself thinking I had an integral part in this.”
The job meant increasing time away from home – either at Heathrow, in London or at Hagemeyer’s Birmingham headquarters.
In 2005 Mr Upton was on the way home from a business trip to the States and his wife picked him up from the airport.
“I got home and my wife turned around to tell me she was pregnant. I was very much a career person and was suddenly faced with the prospect of being a dad. This nomadic way of life – away from home five days a week – wasn’t going to work with a child and I had to reassess where my career was going to take me,” he explained.
Not much more than a year later he’d been approached to join Seaward Group in his native North East. The name was familiar, somehow.
He said: “I knew nothing of Seaward other than one encounter I’d had as a young salesman with Arco. I’d tried to do business with them but got the door shut in my face!”
Despite the first impression, the company’s work – safety solutions – was at least common to Mr Upton’s previous experience.
At the time Seaward’s owner was looking to sell the firm within three years. The prospect of working to drive revenue and profit appealed, and Andrew put all his energy behind it.
“The firm had already established a small service and distribution operation out of Tampa in Florida, and I made a proposal to the UK board. My pitch was that if we were going to scale up and trigger this desired sale, we had to do something with the US operation,” he said.
Sure enough, by the end of 2011 he’d moved his family out to the sunshine state – and set about increasing the division’s revenue sixfold.
He was proven right, and a sale was triggered. In 2015 the Group was snapped up by German umbrella firm Metrawatt. As part of the deal, Andrew succeeded Seaward founder and then managing director Rod Taylor.
“It was my first venture into manufacturing. But as Seaward was a company that sold through distribution channels, I understood the way a distributor thinks. That’s been an advantage that I’ve enjoyed in my 11-year career with the firm.”
Seaward’s specialism is testing equipment for the solar, biomedical and commercial electrical markets. And with offices in the North East, Florida and Malaysia, Andrew finds himself clocking up the air miles – an estimated 100,000 of them last year alone.
“Our customers buy Seaward equipment because they need to solve a problem,” he said. “That might be complying with health and safety standards or improving outputs. Our job is to provide a solution to those problems.”
Mr Upton believes that the technology in Seaward’s equipment – whether that is a solar panel tester or a patient simulator used by hospitals – will soon have got as good as it is ever likely to be and the future for the firm will lie in helping people understand the data and insights to be learned from these pieces of kit.
“The sheer pace of technological advancement, and people’s exposure to it, is a major challenge for us,” said Mr Upton. “In the North East we’re acutely aware of the fact big corporations don’t exist in the same way they once did. That’s been driven by innovation.
“For instance, Phillips used to make TVs with cathode ray tubes in Durham. Now TVs are all flat screen and Wi-Fi enabled.”
He knows the major changes in consumer electronics have raised customers’ expectations. For a medium-sized company like Seaward to affect constant change is challenging. And that’s true even for the world’s biggest consumer players.
“If you look at Apple, there’s a classic example of a very steep innovation curve. Now it seems to be struggling to maintain that pace. It shows the size of the task in hand.”
But getting left behind is simply not in Mr Upton’s plan. Though he’s very respectful of Seaward’s 30-year heritage of innovation, he knows change must happen to build a future for the brand.
Harking back to the values learned from his first job, he wants to give culture and people a starring role in the future company.
“We need to maintain skills and knowledge for our existing product portfolios but we also need the completely new breed of skills and knowledge that will yield future products. Making those generations work in harmony is critical to our success,” he said assuredly.
All sorts of details need to be considered. The newer generation, Mr Upton notes, wants flexible working and Seaward’s traditional office hours don’t necessarily fit. Aligning the knowledge of a middle-aged engineer who has worked in Seaward’s Peterlee labs for 15 years and that of a young graduate is the primary mission.
“I want that graduate to be able to join the company and have a voice at the same level as someone of 15 years – and balancing that need is my mission. Hierarchies are disappearing fast,” he explained.
Some, if not many, of those minds will come from the North East. The stock attributes of North Easterners are apparent to Andrew: flexibility, strong work ethic and a willingness to pipe up with ideas.
“It’s been said before but the culture of hard work is strong here,” he said. “It’s a very traditional work ethic, and that means I get a group of people who put the effort in and are vocal when they need to be.
“Where I think the North East does struggle is having been somewhat removed from multiculturalism. My job has afforded me the chance to travel the world and that’s shown me the value of different cultures, perspectives and knowledge bases.
“I think it’s worrying that some of the big political shifts of the last 18 months are towards a more insular world. I’m sure that reaching out to talent is the way forward.”
And with aspirations to grow its global reach, Seaward is well placed to attract some of the brightest and best. The beating heart of the firm will remain in the North East, but Andrew says bases in the US and Malaysia are just the tip of the iceberg. New horizons beckon.
What car do you drive? BMW 520
What’s your favourite restaurant? Da Vinci’s Yarm
Who or what makes you laugh? My son, or if Man Utd get beaten
What was the last album you bought? Don’t usually buy albums, I normally stream music
What’s your ideal job other than the one you’ve got? A pilot, as I’ve always enjoyed travelling
What’s your poison? Lager
What’s your greatest fear? Snakes
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received? Care about your staff and they will take care of your business
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal? I usually catch up with news online
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for? £105 per week as a Sales Administrator at Arco
How do you keep fit? I go to the gym two/three times a week
What’s your most irritating habit? Looking at my phone on an evening
What’s your biggest extravagance? I’m pretty controlled, so tend not to be extravagant. I look forward to a nice holiday every year
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire? Captain James Cook - a true pioneer and explorer for the region
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with? I’d be over the moon to dine with Neil Armstrong, as well as Peter Kay, Pep Guardiola and Marylyn Monroe
How would you like to be remembered? As someone who simply tried his best!
6.30am – Alarm goes off, time for a shower and quick breakfast before leaving the office at 7.20am
8.00am – Quick check of e-mails from our Far East customers / distributors and check overnight sales
9.00am – First meeting of the day with departmental heads across the business
11.30am – Commercial team buzz meeting
1.30pm – Quick lunch
2.00pm – Telephone catch-up with the USA office
4.30pm – Production and engineering planning for the next day
5.30pm – Catch-up on emails
6.00pm – Usually head home or to the gym
7.00pm – Dinner with my wife and son