I’ve just heard from some old colleagues about the impending closure of their company in Coventry. I have no attachment to the company they work for as it was taken over after I left. However I do know a fair number of the people being affected.

Like many people being faced with redundancy they have already been through a lot of disruption and uncertainty. The company in question started off as GEC Telecommunications, an arm of the giant GEC Company controlled by the late Arnold Weinstock. Lots of people judged him as a risk averse MD who managed an old fashioned company in an old fashioned manner. Despite this, in the 33 years as MD at GEC he managed to increase the business turnover from £100m to £11bn. (wikipedia)

In its heyday in 1979 GEC was Britain’s largest private employer. With manufacturing, and research and development, there were about 5 sites throughout Coventry. The main Coventry site, (sometimes referred to as the Stoke works), boasted a ballroom, two restaurants (staff and executives), an on-site health clinic and two social club venues, including a sports club complete with golf course. Although most of the original site, having been built in the 1920s, was quite old new buildings had been created to accommodate the larger number of engineering staff now that manufacturing was declining.

The company may have been considered a low payer, but it provided benefits to its employees in other ways. When I joined in September 1985 it ran very successful apprenticeship and training courses for sixteen year olds, eighteen year old and graduates. The atmosphere at the Coventry site, (and I gather at other sites, from comments I have heard), was one of camaraderie. There was an active social scene in most departments with employees arranging events and trips at regular intervals. It was almost as if the workers banded together against the controlling, sometimes stifling, style of the upper management.

When in 1988 it merged with Plessey to become GPT I was nearing the end of my training. Despite a reduction in the training programmes offered by GEC Telecommunications for engineering staff there were no noticeable changes within the company and the future was looking very good. They appeared to have more of an issue retaining their newly trained Engineers than they had placing them in jobs within the company. Those that did stay could see the benefits within the company. Although the pay was still considered poor, compared to other companies within the industry, the jobs were considered secure and interesting and the social atmosphere remained a big pull to the employees.

However In 1996 Lord weinstock retired and George Simpson took over as MD of GEC. The change was described as a ‘wave of new corporate management’ which wanted to ‘focus on core business strengths’. Within the next two years the company named changed from GPT to Siemens GEC Communication Systems (SGCS) and then Marconi Communications. By this time the majority of the manufacturing sites had closed and the redundancies had started as a result.

In the late 90’s and in 2000, on the surface, the future appeared very promising for Marconi. The cash mountain Lord weinstock had built up over the years was dramatically reduced as the new company made further acquisitions. By May 2000 Marconi announced a new site was to be developed at Ansty, near Coventry. A government grant of £25 million was given to the communications giant to help finance the move. New jobs were to be created at the Stoke site now known as New Century Park, as well as further jobs created once the new site was available. Lord Simpson is reported as saying “Marconi is now one of the world’s fastest growing information and IT companies and the new jobs announced today will be a vital part of that exciting future.” (CWN.Org May 2000)

As some of the more key acquisitions were made in 1999 and 2000 they were made at very high prices and shortly before the end of the dot-com bubble. Consequently the value of the company dropped significantly. The new wave of management which had brought higher salaries and greater benefits to the employees in the form of gifts, Christmas party funds and increased departmental funds, had also caused the company to go into decline. Redundancies were announced and the once safe jobs were under threat. I left the Company in 2002. I didn’t leave as part of the first round of redundancies at the site, that started around mid 2001, and there were many more announced after I had gone.

By January 2006 Ericsson bought the Marconi name and most of the ailing company. The rest became Telent Plc. The new site that had been promised at Ansty remained empty.

In August 2007 Ericsson announced its plans to build a new £60 million research and development base at the Ansty site. It planned to move its current operation from New Century Park, Coventry and some staff from Beeston in Nottinghamshire to the new facilities to be built on the Ansty complex. It was hoped the first of a total of 650 staff would start moving in the second quarter of 2009, with the phased move completed by the end of the year. (Birmingham Post). In December 2008 planning meetings were being held to discuss the fate of the New Century Park site.
Some would say the old GEC/GPT/Marconi company was lost when the old Binley Road site was closed. But a company is more than its buildings and surroundings. It is the people that make the company. As long as the some of the same sociable, friendly and tenacious people remained the company was still alive and well. Those that had left, voluntarily or otherwise, still had a link to the old days.

Now, following an announcement yesterday, the Company at the new site is to be shut down. The research and development and global service delivery activities are to be withdrawn from Coventry.Those employees that have remained with the company, so far ,may have the opportunity to apply for other jobs elsewhere, but the majority will be looking for a new role within a new company. The Company as it was will now be totally disbanded. The current and ex-employees may attempt to keep links alive through social networking sites and occasional reunions but over time the memories and friendships will fade.

Having been through all of this turmoil over the last 8 years one can understand if the employees are disgruntled with their lot. Have they really fared any better than those who were asked to leave on the very first round of redundancies, when the company shares took a nosedive? Yes, they have had several months of pay into their pockets but have they improved their knowledge and skills, and more importantly their ability to find another job? With the current recession hitting the job market harder than in 60 years those extra years may have actually given their old colleagues a head start on finding another ‘steady’ job. However if they have managed to weather each of the rounds of redundancies that have befallen others before now, they must have some great strengths of resilience and adaptability. So maybe this should not be seen as a sad day for Coventry, but a great opportunity. The town is about to see a surge in good sound Engineers and support staff available for work.

Maybe some of them will use the opportunity to take the somewhat scary step of becoming Entrepreneurs. If the Government, local and national, can see their way to providing a little investment into some local Startups we may see a new Coventry rise from the ashes and become a growing economy, rather than a continually shrinking one. It may not recreate the safe and sociable days of old but it will bring new challenges and experiences for everyone.

What do you think? Have you been affected by the closure at Coventry or any other long standing company? Let me know your views.