An interview with Richard Jeffers of RS Industria
Richard Jeffers, the trailblazer behind RS Industria, shares his journey to leadership in the dynamic world of STEM in an interview for our Leaders in STEM podcast. Discover his invaluable experience collaborating with renowned beer brands and gain expert advice for aspiring young minds eager to make their mark in the thriving STEM industries.
Could you tell us a little bit about how you became to be interested in engineering?
Well, if I'm honest, I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be an engineer. My father's an electrical engineer working in as was then the CGB, and it was just always a thing that was a topic of conversation, discussion point around the family table. So I've always known engineering was the field I wanted to go into, and it was simply a question of what type of engineering. And I eventually landed on mechanical engineering for, if I'm honest, reasons I can't now remember. Yeah.
Beyond your own sort of family background, was there one person in your life or an event or something else that really fired you up and got you focused on developing a career in the engineering world?
It was just something that was always going to happen. I remember happy, sunny afternoons in the garden, taking things to pieces with a hammer. Then I progressed onto using screwdrivers and spanners. I used to love going to the local jumble sale and purchasing a piece of electromechanical machinery at the jumble sale, and then attempting to work out how it worked in the backyard. Sometimes with the help of my dad and sometimes just with the help of the hammer.
When you moved on from lump hammer mode to spanners and screwdrivers, can you remember the first thing you ever pulled apart and actually fixed and got working again?
I had Lego, Meccano, and all those good toys. My grandfather was a master boat builder and I remember spending endless hours in his garden shed making wooden boats with his second-best toolkit. I progressed in my early teens onto getting an electronics kit and building electrical circuits and then attempting to redesign them and make them do different things from what they've been designed to do in the book in the first place.
Did any of that stuff ever get you into any trouble at home? Can you remember any particularly difficult instant incidents that came as a result of your tampering with things?
Well, I do remember once when I was seeing what happened if you put high current twelve-volt through a traditional pencil and discovering the graphite core heats up to red hot, and then when you drop that on the velvet seat cover, you end up with a very large hole in said velvet seat cover.
Which route did you take education-wise into engineering?
I came through a degree. I did a fairly broad-based set of O levels (to show my age there) before going to do my A levels in triple maths, double physics and economics. From there I applied for, and successfully got, a sponsorship with the MOD and spent a year in industry before going to study mechanical engineering at the Victoria University of Manchester.
You mentioned you got a sponsorship in the defence sector to support your education, but you've also been involved in making some other very different products over the years, such as shower screens. Tell us more about that…
I had this sponsorship with the MOD, but with the wisdom of youth, I decided that because I didn't want to work for the MOD when I graduated, that I'd resign from my sponsorship. Because at that point in 1990, the economy was definitely on the way up and everybody was going to walk out of an engineering degree into their choice of jobs. Suddenly, by the time I graduated, we were in the depths of a recession. I then spent my first year after graduation doing a variety of things from counting trees to odd jobs, and so ended up working in the defence sector, the sector that I didn't want to work in, but with a local, small defence subcontractor, predominantly in design work. And that confirmed that design was not the field for me.
After my first couple of years, I then managed to get a job in manufacturing, running as a production shift manager in a company making solar wire and solar powder. And that was what first introduced me to operations management, and the challenge not of sitting behind a desk designing things, but actually getting people and machines to make things in factories. I spent a couple of years in that business and applied fairly randomly for a role as a factory manager in a business making shower doors and I was successful in getting that role.
I didn't know at the time that they'd recently relocated from Leicestershire down to Dartford and employed a completely new workforce. So when I turned up about four months after the relocation, the reason the vacancy existed was because the previous factory manager had moved down to Dartford, then promptly resigned. So, the factory had been a new factory with a new workforce, with no real leadership. As a 27-year-old site general manager at that point in time, that was definitely a baptism of fire.
And you also have some experience in the wonderful world of brewing I understand…
Yeah. Found myself after a job, and realized that the one thing I didn't have for a tech start-up was tech capability. So, on the way I became a Microsoft certified solution engineer. I think the day I passed my qualification was the last time I did anything, so I'm a lapsed MSCE! I got offered three jobs in the same week. One was in Grimsby making mobile homes, one was with Thames Water working in the sewage treatment, and one was with, as it was then, Scottish & Newcastle working in the brewery in Reading.
So you ended worked for Scottish and Newcastle in Reading, and what was the biggest challenge you faced when you moved into that role?
I'm not a brewer and a modern brewery is a very complex process factory, so things like Scardas and PLCs and control and automation was completely new to me. And the sheer scale of the machinery involved was beyond anything I'd worked at in the shower business or in the solar wire and solar power business. The complexity of machinery and the process control areas in a highly unionized environments. So, a different challenge when it came to leadership, same in terms of trying to motivate people, but you've got the additional working with the trade unions and, of course, more complexity in terms of up and downstream supply chain.
Were you running a seven-day production at that time?
Yeah. When I first joined, I was working as a process engineer in brewing. I then fairly rapidly moved on to be site logistics manager during a SAP implementation, and that taught me to never be on a SAP implementation. And then after that I went on to the role that motivated me the most, which the packaging manager of two of our high speed can lines. And at that point in time, I ran the largest beverage canning operation in the UK, running a 24/7 operation.
How many cans of beer would you be producing in a month?
My small line was 1,200 cans a minute and my large can line was 2,400 cans a minute. You get used to looking at beer in vast quantities, going off site in trailers, until you come in one morning and discover there's 90 minutes of product on hold, which is nine trailers worth. Oh my word, that's a lot of beer when you see it stacked up in the quarantine area.
how long did you spend in the brewing industry before you made a move?
I spent four years down at Reading and then we bought a brewery up in Tameside in Gateshead: the Northern Clubs Federated Brewery. I was lucky enough to come up to the northeast to run that brewery and to integrate it into the broader Scottish & Newcastle supply chain.
Scottish & Newcastle got bought by Heineken shortly afterwards and then I was looking after maintenance, capex, and energy across our UK sites.
After we got acquired by Heineken, we needed to look at what the long term strategy for our UK production footprint was and I got the opportunity to run that network review to decide which sites we were going to invest in and which sites we were going to either wind down or exit from.
Then I got the opportunity to run the ensuing 150,000,000 pound capex program that came on the back of that. So, two very large brownfield projects, one in Manchester and one in one in Hereford, and the project in Manchester was deemed to be the most complicated brownfield that Heineken had ever done, with major capacity expansion, a new packaging line, change of the entire control environment for the site, new utilities — a lot happening!
Of course, you have to do all of that in flight while still producing all the beer that you've got to produce. I had an absolutely incredible time for about four years or so running that investment program. But as that drew to a close, I wasn't internationally mobile, so there wasn't an opportunity to go on to other, similar or broader role in the wider Heineken group. So it was time to gracefully say farewell to Heineken and try something else.
I spent a couple of years as a consultant in operations and engineering consultancy before deciding that wasn't for me, and then almost fell into the role at RS. I had a relationship with the UK managing director at the time. I went to see him, not after a job with RS, but because I thought, he knows loads of people. So, I was looking for a role while he was looking for somebody to run the technical strategy for RS!
What parallels or differences could you draw in terms of your experience working at RS compared to some of the organizations you've worked with previously?
It is very different being on the supplier side. No longer am I the guy setting the engineering strategy for a major business, no longer am I the person deciding the problems to solve and looking for solutions. Instead, I'm the person anticipating the problems to solve and offering those solutions. But I think there's no doubt that my intimate understanding of the needs of the maintenance professional allow me to both build relationships quickly with customers, but also to understand their pain, because ultimately, I've been on their side of the table and have experienced their pain.
So you were working on a strategy for the maintenance stuff at RS. How did that morph into what has now become RS Industria?
Right from the start of my time with RS, I've been introduced to concepts such as industry 4.0 and industrial IoT. And effectively, the question I was asked by the business is, what are these things? And crucially, how do we make money out of them? Are they real? Is it just showmanship? Is it just fluff? Or is there real substance? Is this an area that RS Group should be looking at?
That got me into the whole area of corporate start-up and the lean start-up methodology. The whole methodology really resonated with me because it was all about working out what customers want and supplying that. Which is so blatantly obvious; you don't build a better mouse trap and wait for the world to come to your door. You go out and find out what people want for their mousetrap and pivot and change and adapt the concept, build some hypotheses, build some minimum arbitrable products, go and test those in the real world and then be happy to rip it up and start again.
Really, with me, that was the approach I took when I was doing the early conceptual design for the Network Review and the Breweries, because you'd have ideas and you then have to test it and see whether it was going to work or not and not be afraid to admit you're wrong.
There's a lot of talk about digital transformation in Industry 4.0. You speak to 100 people, you get 100 different interpretations and definitions of what those things mean. What does this jargon-infested thing actually mean in practice?
I think a lot of the buzzwords are super unhelpful because it creates barriers to people adopting emerging technologies. Take industrial IoT, which is about collecting data. Why is that fundamentally different from a SCADA platform? There are some technical differences, clearly, between IoT and SCADA. But at its heart, they're both data acquisition platforms. One doing it with quite a narrow set of data one of them doing is with broader, more diverse data sets from different sources.
Fundamentally, they are trying to solve the same problem of understanding what is happening in your factory and allowing you to make management decisions based on that. If, like me, you started work in the early 90s, you'd have been collecting data on a clipboard with a piece of paper and a pen and then moved on to three-and-a-half-inch floppy disk drives.
Now, I'm directly extracting that data from machines and putting into the cloud. But actually, the problem I'm trying to solve is the same, which is I want to know what's happening with my process, I want to know what's going to happen in my process and I want to make rapid management decisions to ensure the best outcome.
How did the concept for RS Industria come about?
As a distributor, we are constantly wanting to make sure that we remain relevant. With marketplaces coming on and other people distributing and OEMs going direct to market, we want to make sure that we’ve still got a right to exist in the world.
We do that by adding value and services to the way we supply products. Those solutions, services, value come in a number of ways, whether it's about helping our customers manage their inventory, helping them buy better through Epocurement channels, whether it's through allowing customers to outsource their entire indirect stock, indirect procurement.
We've got a range of solutions and services and we add to the product, making it more than just buying a widget from us. Our ability to supply a broad range also becomes a benefit, as opposed to the only benefit we've got at a strategic level.
We want to become a solutions provider and not just a box shifting distributor. We want to do that to make sure we remain relevant to our customers. And RS Industria has come out of that. How do we offer the benefits of these developing technologies to our customers? And how do we allow it to make customers easier to access the tools to digitize their manufacturing processes and to get better access to data?
In layman's terms, tell me the elevator pitch for RS Industria and how it can add value to your customers.
You need to understand what's happening inside your factory to drive improvement. That underpins the entire lean manufacturing mindset – to measure and drive improvement. Factories are full of data, but quite often that data is difficult to get on. It's trapped inside machines, stranded inside sensors, or being used for one purpose, but not being used for a purpose. What RS Industria allows our customers to do is to take the data that already exists in their factory, enrich that with additional data if required, and then use it to address challenges in the operational, maintenance, and energy management space by turning data into insight.
Give us a couple of examples of where working with you guys has made a real difference.
I'll use two examples, and in both cases, it's where the customer has spoken on our behalf at tradeshows. They've been so pleased with what we've done, they put their name on the proposition for us.
One is from Kerry Group and we've been working with them for about two and a half years now. In fact, they were customer number one! Their initial challenge was around the management of their wastewater plant where they were suffering challenges around compliance. The first project we did was to allow them to get all that process data in one place so we could start to respond to trends as they occur rather than after they breached limits. From there we generated some savings, moved in to look at their freshwater system and then into his steam farm and into his electrical infrastructure. They are now seeing savings of around about £4,000 a week driven by the insight they're getting from Industria. That's off the back of tens of thousands of investment, not hundreds of thousands of investment.
What advice would you give to a young person who's considering a career in the STEM sector?
Go and get a career in the STEM sector! It opens every possible door for you. Whether you want to be a design engineer, work in operations and maintenance, work in fundamental research, move into the commercial side of things, work in sales and marketing.
That understanding of STEM can move in any direction. You're not tied into making a choice at the age of 16. I wanted a really solid, broad-based education that's going to stand me in good stead and give me the ability to reinvent myself on a regular basis. That fundamental understanding that I've got through my education means that I can apply it to lots of different sectors. And when I get a new challenge, a new thing to learn about, I've got the education to then absorb that information on whatever topic.
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