Sheffield steel boss leads £8m recovery plan with heart

Sir Andrew Cook with a casting at William Cook Cast Products, Parkway Avenue, Sheffield. All pictures Scott Merrylees.
Sir Andrew Cook with a casting at William Cook Cast Products, Parkway Avenue, Sheffield. All pictures Scott Merrylees.

A new foundry which safeguarded 300 Sheffield steelworkers’ jobs is profitable, justifying an £8m investment, according to boss Sir Andrew Cook.

The success of the Precision Foundry marks the end of a four-year plan to save the Sheffield operations of William Cook Cast Products after the catastrophic oil price crash of 2013.

A 'pour' of molten steel at William Cook

A 'pour' of molten steel at William Cook

But the experience has been bittersweet. It cost £8m of family money and many sleepless nights.  And, he believes, if it were almost any other company, he would have been sacked.

Sir Andrew said: “It was only heart that kept it going. There was no compelling business case. There was serious doubt in my mind for six months. Then for two years building this new factory, worrying it was the right decision.

“But this is my life’s work. I couldn’t have lived with myself if I’d closed it.” 

William Cook traces its roots back to 1840 and is one of the oldest family controlled-businesses in Sheffield.

Sir Andrew Cook reflects on the success of his recovery plan.

Sir Andrew Cook reflects on the success of his recovery plan.

Sir Andrew is sixth generation, inspiring a long term view and much pride. Certainly the alternative - being the Cook who sold up - had no appeal.

In March 2017, the firm opened a £6m facility at its Parkway Avenue site. Premises at Halfway were closed and workers brought over, with no compulsory redundancies, Sir Andrew said.

“It’s taken time to bed down. It was quite a shock for workers, there was a lot of change and new processes. It took out some of the order book. But it’s now at a point of stability and rhythm, it’s profitable enough to justify the huge amount spent on it.”

It wasn’t the first time William Cook had faced a crisis, he added.

Moulds in the Precision Foundry.

Moulds in the Precision Foundry.

“The firm moved to Sheffield in 1902 and it’s had a rocky life since then. It’s been quoted, unquoted, bid for and near bankruptcy. But I have always held on. Once you give it away you don’t get it back.”

But don’t expect to see his portrait in the Cutlers’ Hall, the historic home of manufacturers in Sheffield.

A paid up member of the “awkward squad”, he describes himself as a maverick and an outsider who was “sacked” by the Cutlers’ Company for demanding a three-year term as Master Cutler in 1990.

He lives in Switzerland, has donated money to the Tories and despite being born in Sheffield doesn’t feel like a Sheffielder.

Grinding at william Cook.

Grinding at william Cook.

He detests parochialism seeing it as a response to the city’s industrial decline, believes the decision to sell off Sheffield City Airport was “insane” (he offered £1m to buy it and hired lawyers to examine Sheffield City Council’s decision to sell it for £1) and believes he has no peers in the city.

“The only seriously competent operation which I respect is in Italy.”

He added: “The industry represented by Sheffield has been fragmented into a quasi-cottage industry. There’s only one stage further - oblivion. These firms provide a living but no more and have no long term future.

“Britain has no substantial manufacturing base any longer. One has to seek orders from Europe, the US the Americas and the Far East.”

Now technically retired, he still travels the world as a roaming envoy meeting companies and visiting the firm’s two other factories in Leeds and County Durham. There is a new management team put together with group MD Chris Seymour and a succession plan locked in a safe.

“I have worked hard to detach myself from running the company. Chris Seymour has a refreshing and hard-nosed view of this group that is blended with my maverick, off the cuff and unpredictable behaviour borne of vast experience, tempered with a certain common sense.

Apprentice methods engineer Jack Mezulis.

Apprentice methods engineer Jack Mezulis.

“A recovery process is drawing to a close. I’m chief firefighter and bit by bit the fires are going out.”

A COAT OF ARMS, A PAINTED PORTRAIT AND A SET OF GUIDING PRINCIPLES

When Sir Andrew Cook was awarded a CBE in 1996 he was entitled to his own coat of arms.

So he devised an escutcheon featuring a steel ladle, a knight’s armoured helmet and a condor, a bird impressive for its resilience and ability to survive in very adverse weather, which he identifies with.

It also has the words ‘persistence’ and ‘determination’ in Latin, the Cook guiding principles.

The firm’s lobby also features a life size painting of him and son William. But that’s not unusual in this family. Every generation of Cook boss has had one done.

Sir Andrew Cook.

Sir Andrew Cook.