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Port reaping the rewards of value added thinking

The Port and surrounding estuary at Blyth has changed dramatically during the last decade. Overhead cranes, engineering workshops, warehouses and large complex machinery now dominate the landscape. There’s a hotel too, restaurants and a new training centre, all there to accommodate the Port’s growing clientele. Engineering giant Royal IHC moved its entire UK base there in 2015 and other ‘big players’ such as DeepOcean, Global Marine Group and Osbit also have sizable and expanding operations at the site. Big tenants bring with them a broad supply chain too and, in all, 500 jobs are now based on the land. “The whole place looks and feels different than it did ten years ago,” says CEO Martin Lawlor. “It looks like a good place to invest.”


These developments have taken place under Martin’s astute leadership, who since joining the business as Commercial Director in 1994 before his appointment as CEO in 2006, has overseen its transformation from a traditional “ship to shore” handling operation, to a unique “one-stop-shop” of Port related solutions. With a twenty-three-million-pound turnover and three back to back record years of growth, the Port of Blyth is one of the fastest growing Ports in the whole of the UK. Vision, geography and market forces, Martin tells Nigel Wright, have propelled the business forward. 


It all started with a belief that modern Ports should seek ways to add value to customers. Traditionally, Port Authorities exist to ensure vessels arrive and dock, cargo is lifted to the terminal ready for collection, and the vessel is then moved out of the Port. All goods handling and warehousing services, though, are outsourced to third party suppliers. Most still adopt this approach too, Martin notes, following what’s referred to as the ‘eighty-twenty rule’ whereby eighty percent of boxes go through a port unopened. Port of Blyth’s “value adding mentality”, however, has reversed this rule, as Martin explains:


“Our customers benefit from goods handling, warehousing, complex lift management, training and other associated services. Around eighty percent of cargo passing through the Port is taken to our warehouses, emptied and palletised.  Transped, our worldwide logistics subsidiary, does door-to-door and ‘Just in Time’ deliveries if required. And we offer these services across different sectors. Supermarkets, for example, and even the coal trade. Coal is a simple thing to handle but most Ports won’t do it.”


The main driver of its recent success, however, is the Port’s emergence as a major offshore energy hub. With most Port activities now linked to renewables and oil and gas, according to Martin, they’ve met the needs of operators seeking to broaden their sector focus amidst challenging market conditions. Furthermore, because Blyth sits between Aberdeen and Great Yarmouth, two other large energy focused Port Authorities, Blyth has become a strategic mid-North Sea base for everything offshore energy related, as vessels no longer want to bypass the North East.


Because of its recent success, customers in this industry are flocking to Blyth to take advantage of the business’ unique way of working. In Martin’s words: “The growth of renewables and offshore wind has taken the edge off issues in oil and gas. Diversification into other sectors like renewables helps vessel operators drive efficiencies by servicing different markets. Using different ports, too, as well as different methods and innovations, means the costs of production are improving. The sector has both stabilised and morphed into something more robust. Few purely oil and gas or renewables companies remain. We’ve offered a different solution to those companies who have been forced to rethink how they work — it’s been a win-win for everyone.”

CEO Martin Lawlor

Several organisations have moved into the Port in recent years, and it boasts some major tenancies like those previously mentioned. The Port, too, though, must continue to evolve to meet the high demands of these companies. Infrastructure, Martin highlights, is an essential part of the package and with rapid growth into different sectors, investment in strengthening quays, installing overhead cranes, building warehouses, as well as converting warehouses into workshops has been a major focus in recent years. Running alongside this is the ‘Energy Central’ proposal, a concept developed together with Northumberland County Council’s development arm Arch in 2013, to help attract investment around the estuary. This work will continue throughout 2018, alongside a bigger project of joining together the Bates and Wimbourne Quay Terminals. Martin explains:


“Our South Harbour Terminal is already close to capacity, so combining the Bates and Wimbourne Quay terminals represents the beginning of our next phase of growth. It means we will have one large fifteen-hectare terminal with access to the Enterprise Zone, which we’re developed in conjunction with Northumberland County Council.  The town, too, benefits because in completing the project we’re also creating a new flood wall for Blyth. We expect the project will be completed in the summer.”


Talent acquisition and retention is another critical factor the Port must get right. Big customers like Royal IHC, DeepOcean and Osbit need competent people and Martin says ensuring relevant high-level skills on site is all part of the Port’s value-add way of thinking. Having its own training arm, Port Training Services is advantageous and through this organisation, the business up-skills employees to reinforce its reputation and expertise in renewables and oil and gas. Its industry leading Port Operations apprenticeship also welcomes applications every year and such is Port Training Services reputation that it now routinely delivers courses at other Port Authorities across the UK.


Moving forward, as part of the estuary expansion, Martin confirmed the business is working alongside key clients to establish a training hub with the view of introducing even more specialist skills. He added: “We’re not just another Port Authority. We get under the skin of our customers, involved with their operations and aligned with their way of working. A true partner.”


A brand new service offering with the Port acting as a decommissioning site for nearby oil and gas fields will become available soon. A two-year process to secure a licence was completed in November 2017, and conversations are now taking place with prospective partners. Focusing on small 'top-side’ gas field structures located in the North Sea, as well as below the surface materials, Martin says it’s a logical move given the Port’s location, while several of its customers are also interested in offering decommissioning related services. Furthermore, the licence means guaranteed revenue streams for the Port regardless of the health of the oil and gas industry. In Martin’s words:


“Much of the hard work is done and we’re ready to go.  Developing the site will only take a few months, but we’re waiting to see which structures may come ashore first.  In the meantime, we’re talking to our land-side partners who would do the actual decommissioning.  This is a long-term opportunity and we likely won’t see much activity in this area until 2019.”


It’s all going extremely well, says Martin, and he expects the Port to continue its rapid growth through further investments over the next few years. The Town of Blyth, too, will benefit from the Port’s ongoing success. As well as the direct impact it’s already had on the hospitality industry, initiatives such as inviting local primary school leavers to the Port’s training centre to learn about potential careers, and attracting Newcastle University and Northumberland College to become part of the Blyth Education and Community Hub, all help raise the profile of the area as a place to live and work.


Through its collaboration with Northumberland County Council and Arch, the Energy Central concept is also going from strength to strength. Already home to the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult — the UK’s flagship research centre for wind, wave and tidal energy — the estuary also now hosts the operational base for EDF’s Offshore Demonstrator Wind Farm that is located just 5km off Blyth. This year, work will begin in earnest on the world’s longest electricity interconnector – a 354-mile power cable that will stretch from the Northumberland shoreline to Norway, allowing for capacity sharing of electricity by the two countries. And the next catalyst for the area, Martin confirms, is the twenty-six-million pound redevelopment of the former Blyth Power Station that will set the area up for the next decade and beyond, he explains:


“The site sits on thirty-five hectares of land and investment will focus on land reclamation as well as building a new quayside. Only a few developments of that scale are currently occurring in the UK and it will help us double the number of Energy Central jobs between now and 2022. All these achievements have a snowball effect, and what’s more, we’ve got one or two other potential inward investments which we’re expecting to announce over the course of the year.”

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