Siemens UK’s new chief executive has clear ambitions for UK manufacturing, but they all demand more long-term thinking, writes Pip Brooking
With such a Germanic name, you wouldn’t expect Jürgen Maier, Siemens UK’s new chief executive, to speak with a broad northern accent.
Britain is falling in love with engineering and manufacturing - it's going to make us stronger
But the Austrian moved to Leeds as a child, then started his career at Siemens on the shop floor in the company’s factory in Congleton, Cheshire.
Having worked his way up from there, you could say he is a good fit for a German company that prides itself on its investment – and the roots it has made – in the UK over the past 170 years. After three months in his new role, Maier says his personal ambitions as CEO and what he wants for the engineering company are also one and the same.
And he’s not exactly aiming for the low-hanging fruit. “We have a genuine opportunity to help the country achieve its sustainability targets,” he says. Linked to that, he wants to help Britain renew and upgrade its infrastructure – he points to transport and energy on the one side, and cities and buildings on the other.
And he is keen to improve manufacturing capability and productivity, both at Siemens and among the businesses it supplies. But there are two aims he is more passionate about. The first is to see the UK “again become a world-leading industrial powerhouse”.
The second is to do far more as a business to support the communities Siemens operates within. Here, he’s talking about not just “nice charity projects” that are good for the communities and his staff, but making a serious commitment to the skills agenda.
It’s a lot of responsibility for one company to take on – but there’s a clear sense Maier is driven by his belief in the UK’s potential, and by respect for what Siemens has achieved so far. There isn’t anything broken at the business he’s inherited, he says. And the business’s focus on, and motivation for, what it needs to achieve is what allows him to focus on the bigger picture.
Helping the country
“Britain is falling in love with engineering and manufacturing,” he says. “Combine that with what we do as a business, and it’s going to make us stronger and enable us to help the country more over the next 10 years.”
If we can be part of the bigger picture and help set the strategy, then that's going to be good not just for us
Although the UK still has a “some way to go”, he believes it can secure a better reputation for its manufacturing prowess. “We can’t go back to where we were in the 1900s, but can we increase manufacturing as a percentage of GDP?
Can we regain our reputation for being innovative and having some of the best manufacturing? The answer is yes,” he says.
Maier has referred to “a new industrial revolution”, or the “reindustrialisation” of the UK. But the process has to start with getting the basics right – and he is clear that UK manufacturing needs to invest more in automation, productivity and energy efficiency. Its failure to do so over the past couple of decades is “why we are where we are”, he argues.
This is where it’s easy to see the part he wants Siemens to play – and certainly where the business can benefit. The company’s industry division – where he has spent most of his 28 years with Siemens – contributes almost 25 per cent of its revenues worldwide.
But Maier says: “It’s my priority to get close to some of the government stakeholders, and to work with organisations such as the CBI and the EEF to make sure that we’re part of not just being able to deliver the technological solutions, but also helping the country define its best path and its best strategy for how businesses can engage.
“We work with thousands of suppliers to achieve what we achieve here in the UK. If we can be part of the bigger picture and help set the vision, the direction and the strategy, then that’s going to be good not just for us.”
In that light, it comes as no surprise that Maier supports the government’s industrial strategy, and that Siemens is heavily involved, in particular, in one of its technology and innovation centres – the Advanced Manufacturing Catapult.
The company has partnered with the latter on a “Industry 4.0” initiative, which brings together a lot of Siemens’ existing technology, as well as creating new software applications to build a digital factory. “This is a factory that pretty much organises itself, plans itself and is working. It delivers amazing productivity, efficiency and quality levels, and all that is enabled with technology. It’s moving into another revolution of manufacturing,” he says.
The skills agenda needs to be better joined-up - between government, the regions, colleges, schools, and business
The initiative plays to the trend of “mass customisation”, or the need for manufacturers to deliver more for less, while preserving margins. For example, it could be used to build a car ordered directly from the consumer, to their specification, says Maier.
The order goes straight onto the factory floor, where the manufacturing unit will start to organise itself to be able to produce it without manual intervention. It knows what features have been ordered, starts it along the production line, and moves it to where there is spare capacity at each stage in the process. “Ultimately, all of this should serve to give a better customer experience and better customer choice, at affordable prices,” he says.
Siemens’ vision of how it wants to help Britain is also apparent at the location for Maier’s interview with Business Voice: The Crystal, one of the world’s greenest buildings and home to the world’s largest exhibition focused on urban sustainability. “It was [built to] try and enthuse decision makers in cities about what is achievable and what is possible with technology to create a more sustainable city,” he says. The fact it also attracts school children and inspires them about the relevance of science and technology is also, clearly, important.
But asked which project excites him most, he says it’s the new £310m offshore wind turbine factory that Siemens is building in Hull, in partnership with Associated British Ports, which is set to create up to 1,000 jobs. “We’ve got to make sure it works, not just for Siemens, but for the community and the customer,” he says.
The bigger picture
Siemens is already responsible for about 50 per cent of the turbines used in offshore wind in the country. And Maier says that the company’s investment in the UK is heavily influenced by big infrastructure decisions.
Here, he also refers to the rail projects Thameslink and Crossrail. It’s a shame, he says, that the public don’t get the full picture of the scale of the company’s involvement in the country, pointing to the debate that has rumbled on for three years around its contract to deliver a new fleet of trains for Thameslink. “Yes, those trains are being built in Germany, but actually, we’re creating 2,000 jobs here on the back of that contract, and we’ve got 13 factories manufacturing things here employing 14,000 people.”
To secure future investment, the company also depends on the long-term vision and certainty of government policy. “The key thing that we need is stability,” says Maier.
He believes that the UK has finally got that direction on energy policy. But he’s more concerned about transport – in particular, High Speed 2 and other electrification and upgrade projects on the rail network.
Yet his big ask for the next government lies on the skills agenda. “We still haven’t really got a long-term view on that,” he says. “So this needs another look and to be better joined-up – between BIS, the Department for Education, the regions, the colleges and schools, and business.”
The biggest concern he has with current initiatives is that there is too much complexity in how employers are engaged, he says. Siemens was one of the first to sign up to the Employer Ownership of Skills pilot last year, and it is also involved in offering a range of school support and apprenticeships. But he says: “It’s just not well co-ordinated.
At Siemens, we end up taking it a little bit into our own hands, and deciding which ones to support. But where does an SME go to get the best advice on what it can do?
“What would be nice is if we could have a joint initiative between government and the private sector to decide the priorities – a bit like we’ve done on industrial strategy.”
There’s the small question of staying in the European Union too and Maier has been vocal in his support of continued membership. After all, Siemens is a global company, not used to the “more insular” behaviour that the UK can be accused of.
But beyond talk of European energy regulations being an important driver for innovation, for example, his arguments show a remarkable consistency. He insists on taking a long-term view and looking at the bigger picture. And he thinks the economy could be even healthier if more businesses and policy makers did the same.