Energy & Environment
Quality of production and reliability of service are key phrases that characterise the work of Freudenberg in Port Talbot, South Wales. The company provides seals for a variety of applications within the oil and gas industry, including offshore platforms and sub ocean installations.
Andy Smith paced the factory floor, which was abuzz with the sound of excited chit-chat and heavy machinery.
It was the middle of 2010 and the managing director of Freudenberg Oil and Gas Technologies in Port Talbot had just been handed a prestigious contract. An explosion at BP’s Macondo Prospect meant that millions of barrels of oil were spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. The oil giant was struggling to stop and seal the spill.
“We were called in as we had been working with a number of major oil companies supplying subsea connectors,” explains Smith. “They had to siphon off the oil into a pipe in order to clear the spill.”
However, BP had a problem connecting the piping together. So the oil giant called up the Port Talbot-based company. Freudenberg Oil and Gas has 234 workers in Port Talbot, manufacturing specialist topside and subsea pipe connectors and sealing rings for the oil and gas industry. “They wanted eight connectors made in eight days,” says Smith. “We had engineers working around the clock. The connectors were absolutely vital because BP had all the other pieces of kit but had no way to connect them together.” Freudenberg Oil and Gas – part of the German family-owned Freudenberg Group, which has 40,000 employees around the world – delivered the connectors on time.
BP was impressed, telling the company that its product was one of the few that worked first time. The oil major then asked for a further eight connectors within eight days. Smith recalls: “It was absolutely fantastic – the efforts of both our subsea and manufacturing teams here in Port Talbot were immense. It was fraught at the time. But I’m really proud of what we did here in Port Talbot.
“It was really exciting, but we were determined that by hook or by crook we would do it. It was an absolute confirmation of how far we’d come.” Smith had confidence that the years of working on very technical products – bespoke items for inhospitable, deep-water projects – would stand it in good stead. He also had a strong team of engineers and skilled workers with years of experience.
Smith joined the business in 1992, when it was known as Techlok, which had formed in Port Talbot in 1987. Techlok merged with Steel Products Offshore of Norway in 2003 to form Vector Technology Group. Freudenberg Oil and Gas bought Vector in 2013.
“When I joined I wondered were we in the right location in Port Talbot?” Smith says. “But I found there was a huge pool of skilled labour here, as engineering businesses like 3M and Ford left the area and left behind this skilled labour force. So we started recruiting them.” He also realised pretty quickly that the costs of running a manufacturing operation were much lower than in Aberdeen, where a large chunk of Britain’s offshore oil and gas sector is based. Smith explains that transport links were another positive surprise.
“A piece of equipment can come off the machine at 5pm in Port Talbot and be in Aberdeen before they start work,” he points out. The business has sales offices in all the major oil and gas locations, like Houston, Malaysia, Korea and Aberdeen. Port Talbot is the main centre for manufacturing and administration. Smith was convinced that Port Talbot was the right location, but he realised his superiors at Freudenberg may need some persuasion when the group completed its acquisition of Vector in January 2013.
At that time, Smith told Ministers in Cardiff Bay that there was a possibility the new owners may shift the business elsewhere. He said the response from Welsh Government was key to soothing any concerns.
“The Welsh Government was fantastic and helped us to find a bigger site in South Wales. We now have a long-term commitment to Port Talbot,” he says. “We’ve never had a problem recruiting good people and we have good transport links. Add to that the support shown by Welsh Government – they were all very significant factors in Freudenberg investing in the business here.” Smith is just as complimentary about living in the area and the benefits he has reaped from a better work–life balance.
“I live in Swansea, so I love the Gower and occasional trips to Pembrokeshire,” he says. “I used to live in Kent and work in London, so a three-hour commute each day was normal. Now, I can be home in 15 minutes, so I get a huge part of my day back. It’s a quantum leap in the work–life balance.”