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Nissan's Sunderland success story: UK car manufacturing at its best

Best of British: we look at how Nissan threw a lifeline to the ailing North East with its world-beating Sunderland plant

When Nissan set up a manufacturing outpost in Sunderland in 1986, the company had no idea of the seismic effect it would have on British industry. That particular area of the North East was a barren wasteland, with dying coal mining and ship building industries that had thrown thousands of workers on to the scrapheap.

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Nissan took a step into the unknown, starting from nothing to build its first plant outside Japan with only 22 workers, in a region with no experience of auto manufacturing. In the first year of production, it built only 5,139 cars; today, the factory makes more than 10,000 a week and over half a million a year. In fact, the plant has now built 8,208,995 vehicles – and counting – since 1986.

Sunderland is the shining symbol of the resurgence of the British car industry. It’s proven UK workers can match and beat the best in the world. The factory has become a lifeline for the North East of England, employing a 6,700-strong workforce of ex-miners and ship builders, alongside a generation of new, young workers who’ve been saved from the prospect of a life on the dole. And the Sunderland factory means even more to the British car components industry, where it’s estimated to be responsible for a further 27,000 jobs.

Sunderland’s seen non-stop growth for the past 29 years, and the frenetic pace shows no signs of slowing. This year, the plant is creating hundreds more jobs to build the new premium Infiniti Q30 and QX30. Once again, winning the £250million investment for the new car was thanks to the Sunderland workforce, who beat off competition from other Nissan plants around the world.

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The formula for success on Wearside has been world-class quality and the constant shattering of production targets – and it’s convinced Nissan to invest nearly £4billion in the plant. It’s also why the company decided to build a state-of-the-art battery facility there, and to produce its cutting-edge Leaf electric car alongside its best-selling Qashqai and Juke on the factory lines.

Here, no one stands still – and every second counts, with a new car rolling out the door every 31 seconds. Kevin Fitzpatrick, the man now running the Nissan plant, epitomises the ‘can-do’ attitude of the Sunderland workforce, because he was one of the original 22 supervisors hired back in the mid-1980s.

On his way to the top, he’s experienced first-hand the opportunities that have been offered by Nissan at Sunderland – opportunities he’s grabbed. Kevin was a 25-year-old production engineer working at a depressed Newcastle mining equipment firm when he spotted the advert for supervisors with Nissan.

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He recalls: “I wasn’t impressed with my career prospects, there was no future in mining and I needed a change. But when I applied for one of the Nissan jobs, I didn’t think I’d actually get it – I just thought I’d chuck my hat in the ring.”

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However, Kevin beat hundreds of other applicants to get one of the coveted jobs, and within two weeks he was in Japan for eight weeks’ intensive training. “I’d never been abroad – only to Scotland,” he says. “Going to Japan and working in a massive car plant was a huge cultural shock.”

Kevin’s never looked back, although he happily admits that he didn’t envisage being boss of the entire operation. “I never imagined ending up running Sunderland,” he tells us. “I never thought I’d get to be a plant manager, never mind be the boss. I’ve surprised myself.”

But as with many members of the Sunderland workforce, Kevin was a quick learner, and he found that hard work is rewarded with regular promotions – in his case, all the way to the top. He says the formula is simple: “You need energy and the right attitude to work at Sunderland.

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“We never relax, and you have to be able to work under relentless pressure. It’s not utopia; it’s a fast, hard-working environment, and there is tough competition from factories around the world for every new car we win for Sunderland. But this plant has earned every new model by hard work.”

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Kevin has no doubt that Nissan has been crucial to the resurgence of the North East as an industrial region: “Nissan came here when we were at rock bottom. The mining and ship building industries had died. It was pretty brutal what happened here. It was desperate back in 1986; there were no jobs and no real future.

Nissan has been massively important to the region, it’s helped give pride back to the people.” It’s been a lifeline for entire families, with fathers and sons such as Shaun and Thomas Clark working side-by-side. Shaun, 45, was one of the first production workers as a 17-year-old trainee maintenance technician in 1986. And he has no doubt what Nissan has meant to his family and the region.

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He says: “Without Nissan, the North East would’ve been a disaster, a ghost town. The company’s meant everything for me and my family. It was hard to get a job back in 1986, so I jumped at the chance. You’re always pushed, and this place never stands still – you have to graft.”

Shaun, who’s worked his way up to be a maintenance team leader, was delighted when his son Thomas decided to take an apprenticeship at Nissan: “I had no reservations when he got a job; this is a good place to work. He has a real future.”

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Thomas, who’s just completed his first year at college of a five-year apprenticeship as a trainee maintenance technician, like his dad before him, feels Nissan offers the prospect of a career with real opportunities. “I’ve always liked fixing things and I didn’t want to go to university,” he explains. “I wanted a job where I could be hands-on, so an apprenticeship seemed the right way to go.”

He’s now started working at the factory, and he’s looking forward to the challenge. “There are plenty of opportunities with Nissan to progress and climb the ladder, and you get job security,” he says.

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Alan Bintcliffe, 52, is another worker who’s benefited from the Nissan jobs lifeline, joining in 1987 after leaving the Coldstream Guards. He started on the line building the original Bluebird, and says he’s seen constant changes ever since. Alan is now a Kaizen supervisor – the Japanese word for continuous improvement – and he confirms that Sunderland is always pushing the boundaries.

Through the Kaizen system, workers come up with constant ideas and innovations to make life more efficient and less physically demanding on the production lines. These are ideas that can save the business a few thousand pounds or millions of pounds in efficiency improvements.

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As Alan explains: “We never rest on our laurels. We have ‘where we want to be’ targets that keep pushing us. This place stretches you every day, but it’s provided me and my family with an excellent lifestyle.”

Sunderland’s ability to consistently hit the toughest targets has seen the plant produce 500,000 cars a year for three consecutive years, and makes it the most productive car plant in the UK. The Angel of the North statue may be the gateway to the North East, but Nissan’s Sunderland factory is the heart and lifeblood of the region – and one of the UK’s greatest-ever industrial success stories.

Do you live in the North East? Let us know your thoughts on the Nissan factory in the comments section below...

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