How fortunate the North East has been – avoiding those nightmare floods and their aftermath elsewhere. But Kevin Byrne is under no illusion our region’s out of danger for good.
Byrne, whose company has saved hundreds of North East homes from such miseries and heartbreak in recent years – and whose flood alleviation makes every cloud someone’s silver lining – recalls Morpeth, Hexham and Newburn as having all been through it recently.
“There’s no room for complacency,” he declares. “I’m no supporter of theories that danger from water are all down to global warming. I believe it’s caused more by society’s ways in development – our abilities to concrete over everything for example. There’s no soak time in the fields now. We create the problem.”
Seymour Civil Engineering at Hartlepool, where Byrne is managing director, has been relieving or protecting Tyneside homes at Shiremoor, Longbenton and South Shields, and Cleveland homes at Loftus.
Byrne, who gained the helm in 2012 after 23 years with Seymour, says: “We joke that we’re so proud of our work as civil engineers that we bury it.
“We have structures underground you’d only recognise from seeing four manhole covers.
“Yet underneath will be something the size of four Olympic swimming pools storing water for release at a rate nature can cope with.
“The foresight of Victorian engineers was incredible. Capacity they created with vision was outstanding. But sewers not maintained and kept clean and efficient are effectively choked arteries.”
Coastal erosion menaces too. Here Seymour’s skills have safeguarded Berwick, Seaton Carew and Hartlepool. “All tidal work is fraught with dangers,” he points out, “both in safety and inundation. They’re the most critically planned jobs we do. Working with tides, you can’t do nine to five.”
Significantly, one of Seymour’s sibling companies in the parent Renew Group (in business since 1786) has the job of restoring the Devon-Cornwall mainline rail link recently washed away by the angry sea.
Is “pro-active” the watchword? Should alleviation be tackled before crises threaten? Yes, says Byrne. Northumbrian Water (NWL), providing about 70% of Seymour’s workload, is constantly tracking sub-surface blockages.
“They’re on record as best provider in the UK. Not everyone’s like them,” he regrets. “We’re often the contractor delivering a solution worked up by consulting engineers engaged by NWL after a catastrophic flood, such as on Thunder Thursday, when Newcastle Quayside was submerged two years ago.”
To protect homes and premises, several solutions will be considered, taking in topography and other physical constraints. The goal’s long life and low maintenance cost, hence pumping’s avoided if possible.
Seymour’s turnover is around £30m, against £2.5m when Byrne joined in 1989. Annual capital investment is £750,000, spent on new and innovative plant, especially for trunk mains cleansing.
Cleaning a stretch of mains pipe that once took three weeks can now be done in a day. How?
“We’re with a specialist sub-contractor who has developed an ice pigging process. They send a closely controlled slug of slushed ice through the pipeline. The detritus it removes from the pipe walls is absorbed into the ice. Clean ice in, dirty ice out.”
Twenty more staff will join 204 existing shortly. A former family firm taken over in 2007, Seymour runs as an autonomous profit centre, ruled at arm’s length depending on success. Being in a larger group, Byrne says, offers additional professional expertise, financial muscle for borrowing, and opportunities for service sharing. “We’re regarded as the civil engineer within the group,” he explains.
Seymour’s many awards have included a unique double – two top regional honours in the same year for its ending of flood misery that haunted residents of Newlands Court in South Shields. Do such kudos prosper a business? Or are they vanity trinkets? Byrne says: “They help win contracts. Our workforces enjoy the success and it develops healthy competition, showing the market our ability to deliver quality.”
Distinguished projects above ground have recently included restoring Sunniside Gardens in Sunderland as a public plaza, Saltburn promenade, heritage sites at Hartlepool – and remediation and construction at Grade I listed Cragside, the Rothbury home of Lord Armstrong, visionary inventor, scientist, engineer and businessman.
Byrne says: “Among other things there we rebuilt a water cascade that collapsed, I think, in 1926. We’ve done quite a bit for the National Trust – always interesting. We’ve a select team who enjoy that sort of work.”
Hence a benefit of employing only direct labour. “That way, I can sell a product I’m comfortable I can deliver. We offer job security despite vagaries of the market and have little turnover of staff. When the market reeled, we had to release people – very difficult – but we’re back up to strength. We will engage specialist sub-contractors, though.”
The industry’s next big challenge? “Skills shortage across the board. Massive experience has been lost over seven years. People returning now would meet an extremely technological age. I’m afraid some wouldn’t know what to do if the batteries ran out.”
To publicise sector opportunities, Seymour was first to sign up to ICE’s This is Civil Engineering campaign. Through Business in the Community, engagement is also made with schools, sports clubs and the local hospice, “Often it’s only when infrastructure fails or is compromised that the industry’s importance is recognised,” Byrne observes. “We want more graduates and youngsters with a mechanical bent. There’s no bar to career progress.”
He was lucky. “As a young guy from college I was on to building a liquefied natural gas plant at Isle of Grain in Kent. I had five fabulous years, gaining experience in almost every technique there. The project was in excess of £100m – in 1978. I was blessed – surrounded by fabulous workpeople. Didn’t think so at the time when they were shouting at me though…
“But I was taught by engineers and tradesmen, many of them Second World War ex-servicemen. Their candour, attitude and resourcefulness in looking out for one another, and their ability to train you without realising it, has been lost a bit.
“We may depend more on training programmes and competency reliance rather than direct mentoring now. But where we once engaged young people as trainee engineers they’re now known as management trainees, exposed to every department. If they love doing something in particular we’ll try to fit them there if we think that’s right for them. Business suit or boiler suit – all are equally viewed.”
Blackburn-born Byrne, now 55, may have a flash car and a nice home shared with his wife and two sons near Sedgefield. But he too continues to develop, having recently worked to become a Fellow of the ICE – “the ultimate accolade,” he suggests. “I never thought years ago I’d achieve that. But I’ve always wanted to progress as far as I could.”
Soon after becoming a director in 1996 he had responsibility for health and safety and became chartered in it – and still gives time to it.
“It’s a desire to get everybody home safely in the same condition they arrived at work in the morning,” he explains.
On setting out as a trainee/surveyor 36 years ago at 19, did he imagine he’d ever be a managing director?
“Not at all. But I was always driven.”