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Showing metal in tough times

Saturday Interview: Jack Sanderson�s eyes light up like a blast furnace when he talks about steel. He has a passion for the metal, having grown up in Coatbridge when the town was an industrial powerhouse.

Jack Sanderson's eyes light up like a blast furnace when he talks about steel. He has a passion for the metal, having grown up in Coatbridge when the town was an industrial powerhouse.

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"I think I was always destined to be a steelman, growing up in the Iron Burgh, and going to Gartsherrie Academy," the managing director of Cairnhill Structures said in a wide-ranging interview with The Herald.

"Indeed, the academy had a blast furnace with the sparks flying out as its blazer badge."

Coatbridge has changed a lot since those days. The Sahara-like heat, showers of sparks and deafening din of the mills have disappeared. There is almost no raw steel produced in the area now. The industry was decimated by the collapse of Clyde shipbuilding, locomotive building in Glasgow and the motor vehicle industry at Linwood, Renfrewshire, and Bathgate, West Lothian. British Steel - now Corus - delivered the coup de grace when it closed the huge Ravenscraig steel complex at Motherwell in the early 1990s and concentrated production in North-east England and South Wales.

Although the blast furnaces have given way to housing developments and shopping centres, fabrication companies like Cairnhill that use steel as part of a manufacturing process continue to thrive. Cairnhill makes steel staircases and frames for building among other products. Some of its structures look like a giant Meccano set.

Sanderson described Cairnhill Structures as a family business that combines traditional values of customer loyalty, quality and service, with the performance, standards and investment policies of major commercial businesses. He became the firm's managing director in 1992.

The company, which was set up in 1990 by Bobby Watson and David Towers, operates from the Sun Works, a former steel works on Coatbridge's Waverley Street. Watson is a former Rangers player and Towers is chairman of the Airdrie Savings Bank.

The plant occupies about 20,000 square feet, housing high-precision steel sawing, drilling and fabrication lines. Operating under a single roof with sister companies providing specialised engineering fabrication and blacksmith services enables Cairnhill Structures to offer quick turn around, high-precision production, and a single-source service to major contractors.

Cairnhill's highly skilled and experienced 50-strong workforce includes platers, welders, fabricators, steel erectors and three specialised teams of site operatives. The drawing office and design team produce conventional and computerised drawings using complex equipment.

Cairnhill works with a wide range of major construction and civil engineering companies, including Laing O'Rourke, Miller Construction, Raynesway, Doosan Babcock, Expanded Structures and the Dunne Group.

The company has created some of the most significant steel structures in Scotland including the pergola at the Scottish Parliament, the Forth Bridge Toll Canopy, and the headquarters of East Renfrewshire Council in Paisley. It has also won contracts from the Ministry of Defence to widen the Rosyth naval dockyard in Fife.

Under Sanderson's stewardship, Cairnhill has built a solid order book with yearly turnover of about £8m despite the protracted recession that has ravaged the broader economy. "It has been hard work," he said, pointing out that sales in the early days of the company were only £350,000 a year.

Sanderson said a "very loyal" workforce is helping Cairnhill perform well amid tough trading conditions. "They have stuck with us during the good and bad days." he stated. "That's a big part of our success."

He added: "We've always had a hands-on approach (to the business). The management would never ask the workers to do something that we wouldn't do ourselves."

Asked about his business philosophy, Sanderson, a man who gives the impression that he enjoys his work, replied: "You must always have a vision. Mine hasn't quite faded yet."

He added: "I have always tried to put as much as I could into the steel industry.

Sanderson's contribution to the industry has won him recognition at a UK-wide level with his recent appointment as national president of the British Constructional Steelwork Association. Its member companies undertake the design, fabrication and erection of steelwork for all forms of construction in building and civil engineering, He is only the fourth Scot in over 100 years to become national president and follows local steelman John W Rankin, the managing director of former Coatbridge steel company William Bains, where Sanderson started his career more than 45 years ago.

As president, Sanderson is now head of a London-based organisation that looks after the interests of the constructional steel industry throughout Britain and on the international stage.

He said: "It's hugely flattering to be appointed national president. However, I am under no illusions as it is going to mean a lot of hard work.

"The constructional steel industry is going through its most difficult time since the last recession of almost 20 years ago, and we face some tough challenges."

Sanderson said he is personally committed to using his presidency to help other companies cope with the recession by looking at new European legislation on fabrication standards, traceability of steel and improving the industry's carbon footprint. He pointed out that steel is an environmentally friendly material because 80% of it is recyclable.

"Cairnhill Structures is the only Scottish company to win the BCSA Gold Award for its environmental policies." he commented. "However, I want to see more Scottish companies, and more of UK-wide members, reaching the same standard."

He is also assisting the community with partnership agreements in place with three schools in the Monklands area, namely St Patrick's Primary, Greenhill Primary and Gartcosh Primary, helping them to develop environmental projects.

Asked if there was a Sanderson dynasty in the works, he replied with a smile: "Unfortunately, neither of my two sons Daren and Alan has followed me into the steel business but I have high hopes of my grandson Hugo Jack Sanderson.

"But I am going to have to wait a while to find out - the wee fellow is only two years old."

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