Star Interview: 'Everybody who works here knows exactly what our ambition is': Magna's new chief executive aims to double visitor numbers at steelworks turned science centre
Kevin Tomlinson was 14 when his father took him to see the Templeborough steel mill where he toiled to earn a living.
“When it really was in full flow it was a horrendous thing,” says Kevin, who was dumbstruck by the elemental power of the electric arc furnaces that made the Rotherham plant the biggest of its kind in the world.
“It was freezing cold in winter, boiling through the summer, and the heat, the smell and the sulphur the electric arcs generated was just intoxicating. Unbelievable. I think he brought me to scare me - ‘Start working son, or else you’re going to end up doing what I’m doing’.”
As it happens, Kevin did choose British Steel, but went into IT - and after privatisation found himself in charge of thousands of employees and computer systems for the likes of HMRC and the Metropolitan Police. As a management consultant he helped to turn round Tesco and led the team that wrote Trainline, the online ticket office that sold for Â£75 million.
Now he is back at Templeborough, having taken over as chief executive of Magna, the visitor experience and events venue that occupies the hulking former works. It opened in 2000 at a cost of Â£46m, winning the RIBA Stirling Prize for Britain’s best building 12 months later. Funded by the Millennium Commission like the much-criticised Dome in London and the more successful Eden Project in Cornwall, it teaches people about South Yorkshire’s industrial might and the wonders of science with exhibits like the ‘Big Melt’, which recreates the steelmaking process using one of the original furnaces, kept following the factory’s closure in 1993.
Kevin succeeds John Silker, who died last year, and he has big ambitions to grow Magna’s profits and invest in the attraction, a registered charity.
“Its size, scale and uniqueness is its advantage, but also its disadvantage,” he says. “We’ve got to be attracting people who want the most unique event space in the UK.”
Kevin is affable and admirably frank about the challenges of his new job. His height means he cuts a rangy figure as he tours the site, explaining Magna’s predicament.
“Everybody who works here knows exactly what our ambition is - to double the number of people that come, the educational visits and events. And we can only do that to create money to plough back in and then market it properly.”
The centre puts on around 100 events a year - one every three days on average, ranging from concerts and product launches to conferences and parties - and has 35,000 school visitors a year, together with 70,000 public admissions. “That needs to be more,” says Kevin. “In the first year, in 2000, we had 400,000 visitors.”
Utility bills alone amount to Â£250,000 annually - a hefty sum to find. But there are early signs of improvement. Events revenue is up by 33 per cent, and the money earned by the attractions and the educational side is up by 20 per cent. “I’m not saying I’ve got a magic wand, but I’ve got some basic principles of how we should do business. We must be doing something right.”
The corporate activity, he repeatedly stresses, is a means to an end. “The amount of money available in terms of grant funding has never been lower.”
Kevin is reviewing everything. He decided shelters were needed in the outside play area, prompted by the heatwave - “You can’t have people baking out there in 32 degrees heat” - and is even looking at changing the main draw. “The Big Melt takes 15 minutes - for the actual sparks to start flying takes seven minutes. To a seven year old, seven minutes is like a lifetime. We’re thinking of redoing that to get the exciting things in quicker.”
The finer points of metallurgy are far from riveting for primary school pupils, he concedes. “All we can do for the under-11s is excite them about science and teach them a bit about the heritage of steel. But that hopefully enthuses them to think science can be fun.”
Kevin, 65, was born in Eastwood - “I’m Rotherham through and through” - attended grammar school and joined British Steel in 1970 as a commercial apprentice. “The men that worked in that period I have great admiration for. My dad was one of them for 35 years - 35 years doing a job that you only work for the money. That was a tough life but the community spirit it generated in the workforce was just enormous. And that’s what I walked into. The amount of training I got was absolutely fantastic, second to none.”
There were ‘bad times and good times’, he remembers. “One year we lost Â£700m. Did they lay anybody off? No. Because they knew next year, or the year after, the profitable times would come. It was a different time, a different culture - and obviously it really broke down with the strikes.”
In the IT division, however, Kevin prospered in an area ripe for expansion. Initially working with huge mainframes before computers began to slim down, he was rapidly promoted, becoming one of the youngest senior managers at the company. When the business was put up for sale, Kevin and others raised Â£25m to buy it, but instead the deal went to French outfit Capgemini.
He transferred to the new owner in 1996, working with top advisers to rescue struggling businesses - as well as Tesco he turned round Network Rail, and is particularly proud of Trainline. “To build a contact centre based on the internet for the rail industry was an absolute first. Building a system for Â£25m and selling it for Â£75m was pretty impressive.”
In 2001 he was asked to run Capgemini’s outsourcing arm - a Â£350m operation with massive contracts worth as much as Â£1bn. “We won stuff nobody believed we could win.”
Kevin left in 2008 and started his own management consultancy, but gave it up when he fell seriously ill. He had contracted blood clots in both lungs from a deep vein thrombosis - “They think it was travelling but we’ll never be sure” - and needed a lifesaving 12-hour operation.
“It was a bit of a shock,” he says. “I was relieved to be well. But I don’t think it changed my outlook on life. My outlook on life has always been to do good stuff and try and do right by people.”
He thought his working days were behind him, reconciled to gardening and watching sport, but he was persuaded to become a Magna trustee in 2014 by friend and board member Brian Chapple.
The attraction has ‘had its ups and downs’, Kevin admits; a low point was going ‘cap in hand’ to Rotherham Council for a loan of Â£440,000 in order to stay afloat. In 2015, when the debt was restructured, the authority’s leader Chris Read said shutting the centre would be damaging and leave 80 staff jobless, but warned: “Neither can we afford to see more and more public money going into Magna.”
Kevin vows: “I hope we never have to get into a situation again where we’ve got to borrow money.”
He wants to make Magna ‘a nice place to work’. “People can get a bit dispirited, can’t they. The best thing I learned when I was coming through the ranks at British Steel was that you learn more from bad managers than good managers. All you’ve got to do is say ‘What did he do that really upset people?’ And don’t do it. The basic premise of good management is being fair, honourable and decent with people.”
Married to Paula, his second wife, with a grown-up daughter and three stepchildren, Kevin lives at Brookhouse, near Thurcroft outside Rotherham.
“This is my last big chance to put something back into South Yorkshire. I’ve lived all my life here and yet I’ve worked away a hell of a lot. I used to work all over the world, come back at weekends, do my family stuff then just fly off to Chicago or wherever I was working at the time.”
The Magna trustees ‘work tirelessly for nothing’, he says. “There’s a group of us that really want to give something back to the town. I’m one of them and this is the best way I can think of doing it.”
'We’re going back to the things that used to work'
Kevin Tomlinson wants to bring gigs by high-profile musicians back to Magna.
In 2002 Pulp played their last show before a nine-year hiatus in the venue’s 5,000-capacity Big Hall, a space that hosted appearances by LCD Soundsystem in 2010 and Richard Hawley, who was backed by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in 2012.
“We sit between the arena, City Hall and The Leadmill, but we’re on the City Hall/Leadmill spectrum and that’s who we should be attracting,” says Kevin.
“When we have ideas sessions it’s amazing - ‘Yes, we used to do that.’ We’re not reinventing anything. We’re just going back to the things that used to work. We had a world championship boxing match here once. Clinton Woods, in 2005. Why did we stop doing it? What we’re doing in many respects is not being particularly creative. It’s actually reconnecting with the people who brought those bands, fights and spectacular spectator events to us. But the only reason we do that is to raise the cash for the attraction and our educational services. That’s our role. If it is all about money I think we’ve lost the plot a little bit.”