Meet the former apprentice who has taken the helm at Cristal

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 11 Jan 2019

Titanium dioxide might as well course through the veins of Cristal’s new general manager, Gavin Jones. 

Having followed his father’s footsteps through the gatehouse as a teenage apprentice, he is now at the helm of the sprawling Stallingborough plant, having taken over as the new year dawned. 

He has carved out a career at the 66-year-old South Humber Bank site, taking the top job in a year which could see a potential seventh owner in US giant Tronox, as it looks to complete the buy-out it began back in February 2017.

But top level management moves were not what he envisaged as he plotted his transition from education to work. 

“I applied for an apprenticeship here in 1994,” he said, recalling the last few months of his time at The Immingham School. “I applied to other places on the Humber bank too, but had my heart set on this place because my Dad worked here.”

Brian Jones served for more than 40 years, working as an operator until his retirement. “He was always so enthusiastic about working here and said it would be a great place if I could get in.” And while Gavin “never ever thought” he’d one day lead the 400-strong team, his potential was clearly recognised as regular promotions flowed. 

“All the way through my career I would always say I’ve not been heavily career driven, though others may beg to differ,” he said. “I have been someone who is very fortunate to have had very good leaders; line managers that have seen something in me and given me enough coaching and mentoring to take the next step without ever consciously applying for it! 

Gavin Jones looks over the production facilities he learned his trade on, from his new office at Cristal. 

“I am very, very proud to come from apprentice to general manager. The role is acting at the moment, as we go through the acquisition, but I have grabbed that opportunity and I will embrace it fully.” 

And of his father’s reaction? “He was smiling from ear to ear when I told him in December.”

Gavin’s first role was as a mechanical fitter, taken on at the end of his time in the chloride plant, as the sulphate plant then shut down.

One of his first roles was on the 150K project, a major expansion in 1998. “It was a really good opportunity for a youngster coming out of his apprenticeship to be picked to work on it,” he said. That potential had clearly been spotted, and he was a charge hand and then supervisor while still in his early 20s, having his desire to continue his education and advance his trade to become a mechanical engineer granted too. That came in 2005, thanks to a principal engineer who he had repetitively asked, and was done on day release at Sheffield Hallam University. Taken off the workshop floor, he moved into an assistant engineer role, then within six months was given his own area of plant, Unit 300.

MORE: Latest on Tronox's protracted acquisition of Cristal 

“It was quite an honour to look after Unit 300 as a mechanical engineer as it is the ‘business end’ of the plant, where a lot of the proprietary technology is,” he said. “There are lots of challenges in this business. The process is very arduous, there are not many materials known to man that could survive it, with high and low temperatures, lots of acid, alkalies and lots of exotic materials. For a mechanical engineer it is a dream world in terms of having everything you would want to be able to look at, and the technical ability to handle it. We see things metallurgists very rarely see, or may only read in textbooks when it comes to deterioration.”

In 2010 he graduated, and went on to lead the mechanical engineering team, focusing on maintenance, then moving on to reliability superintendant post, a role he coveted as it gave a “great balance” of leadership and engineering. 

In the reorganisation of the business in 2015, as the cost position of Cristal was “looking very questionable” he was selected to lead the maintenance improvement plan, bringing in a saving of more than 25 per cent - equating to millions of pounds.  “We achieved a huge reduction on the maintenance budget but actually provided a better service to the plant,” he said. “We actually did more in 2016 than in 2015, a higher quality service for less money.”

Married and continuing to live in Immingham, he believes the work achieved in a six month period got him noticed on site, and when his predecessor Rob Sarracini joined later that year he was asked to become part of the strategy team.

Rob Sarracini, who has returned to his native Australia to take up a global excellence role with Cristal. 

From here he went to the senior leadership team, before being invited to lead the strategy team, and finally working as the general manager’s deputy, until his departure to take up a global excellence role from his native Australia as 2018 closed.

Looking ahead, the keen road cyclist said: “We have done a lot of work over the last three years to drive the costs down and a lot on volume. The last year didn’t go quite the way we wanted in terms of volumes, with a number of reliability issues on the plant, but the work we have now done strategically has set us up for a strong 2019. We are, however, seeing the market soften in Europe, and when that happens you do see price erosion, so it is important we are in a good, healthy position from a cost of goods manufactured perspective. The site is set up well this year, and we have come such a long way. 

“Last year, we developed the five year strategic plan, and working on that has set me up really well to understand where we need to go. Our ethos is safe, quality and low cost tonnes, while focusing on the assets, the people and the culture, the process and the systems. If we can do all of that well, the balance will be a world class resource. That’s what we are looking for, we are on the journey, and we are already best in class in quite a few areas. We have had excellent safety results last year, with a zero total recordable injury rate, which is a great achievement for any manufacturing facility. 

“The vision is to make Cristal world class and we are delivering on it.”

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