steve

“After thirty years at Birch I live and breathe this industry, completely,” says Steve Foster, as we talk over the telephone in a conversation to celebrate his thirty years at Birch. “It is deep within my DNA”.

This month Steve, who has moved through several roles within the company and is currently the Deputy Managing Director and Commercial Director of Birch Chemicals, has achieved an incredible three decades with our group.

That span of time has seen successful changes and continued development both within our group and across the wider industry itself. Steve has been right there in the thick of it all, with a wise eye and a steady hand. A dedicated company man.

For this special celebratory edition of our blog we’ve taken the opportunity to speak to him at length about his life and career.

 

Are you a local lad, Steve?

I was born in Brigg, at Brigg Hospital. By the way, my accent is a kind of mish-mash of having lived and worked all over the country. At one point I was housing with lads from Birmingham and Liverpool, so there’s all kinds of mish-mash of those accents in there now.

 

How did it all start for you? Was chemistry ‘your subject’ at school?

Back in my school days chemistry always appealed to me, yes. People who are good at maths do physics or they become traders. Biology is living things. I’m fascinated by how things are made – and chemistry is a large part of that.

 

Did you have specific work ambitions?

Many many years ago, when I was a kid, I wanted to be a nuclear research scientist. There was no particular reason for wanting to be that, not really. Everyone else wanted to be a train driver or whatever! Doing chemistry at school and at university was my stepping stone to becoming a nuclear research scientist…

 

Did you work in the nuclear industry?

I did. I spent a short while working in nuclear research. I worked for the Atomic Energy Authority. But I quickly realised that I’m actually far more interested in people than I am in test tubes or machinery.

I’m far more interested in people than in test tubes

 

You’ve also done some other interesting work…

I’ve actually done all sorts. I’ve got a fairly eclectic history of work – everything from working in a garage cleaning cars to working in a spray shop. Everything automotive related was to do with my best mate’s Dad, who owned a garage. I love racing, by the way. Bikes mostly – but anything with an engine.

 

You love your music, too…

I do. I love music and I love live music. I get to as many gigs as I can. I also have a Spotify playlist (used to listen on my iPod but now it’s through Spotify) – and there’s a wide variety on there. So the first thing I say to anybody who jumps into my car is “Anything could happen”! It could play classical or punk or disco, or anything else inbetween. If I was to choose one favourite genre of music it would be guitar-based bands, but I’ve got very eclectic taste. As long as it’s played loud! I’ve also worked as a lighting engineer for bands…

 

So how did you get from nuclear research and music lighting to working at Birch?

After the AEA I went to work at Aldrich Chemicals, down in Dorset. I also worked for Croda at their headquarters in Snaith (near Goole). I was working for a relatively local company, another chemical company, and my PA at the time said “There’s a local firm that my boyfriend works for, and they’re looking for a Technical Sales person. You’d be perfect for it, you’d be perfect for them”. I thought that it sounded like it might be worthwhile pitching up. So I went along with no preparation and just happened to thoroughly get on with the people who were interviewing me. And there you go. That was Birch and now we’re thirty years on…

 

How has the company’s offer to industry changed in those thirty years?

When I joined, it was like a family business. Now, it’s very diversified in terms of the range of markets that we supply. We have several different companies within the group now. The products that we make are used in such a wide variety of applications. Almost everything that you do, all day every day, has one of our products involved in its manufacture or in its treatment of the waste. Everything from leather tanning to waste water treatment to building projects.

We now have specific product offerings for different applications which have been developed to fully meet the needs of the individual application. This is rather than us just making stuff and hoping people want to buy some of it. The Birch Chemicals products used within the rubber, plastics, adhesives and sealants industries are prime examples of that. They’re absolute specialist products and world leaders in what they do.

 

Are there things you’ve done which are particularly memorable?

On behalf of this company I’ve been able to represent the UK and British standards at many European standardisation meetings for chemical applications. I’ve represented the UK within the European Lime Association, I’ve been the Chairman. I’ve been on technical comittees and so on. So I’ve been absolutely right at the core of a whole important bunch of industry, technical and product related stuff.

 

Are there specific projects you’ve worked on which you’re proud of?

I personally have been involved in building projects including Manchester Airport, the Olympic Park, Heathrow Terminal Five, a pit lane extension at the new track down at Silverstone, the Millennium Dome (as it was called back then), the Etihad Stadium (Manchester City’s football ground, which was originally the Commonwealth Games Park) and all of that area, in terms of construction…

 

Which was the most satisfying, personally as well as professionally?

It’s very difficult to single out a particular job as having brought me professional and personal satisfaction above all others – but, having said that, there is something. One of the first things I worked on was a new application for a flue gas treatment for an ‘energy from waste’ plant in London. At the time it was the first one in the UK to be built, its purpose being to turn household waste into energy. In that application, the product that we make cleans up the flue gases. In 1993 that was revolutionary, in an eco way. Now that application is done widely throughout the UK and all over the world.

Character is what you do when nobody’s looking

 

Environmental and sustainability concerns are more in general focus as time goes on – but this is something you’ve always been concerned with…

It is. Throughout all the work that I’ve done, reducing impact on the environment has been at the forefront. That’s because, basically, I want to leave the world a better place than when I started. Additionally, in terms of that sort of responsibility, I wanted to leave the company in a better place than it was when I started. There’s a lot of fancy words for it now – ESG and all that sort of thing – but it boils down to ‘doing right by people and planet’.

 

Do you think there’s fashion attached, or are we all becoming more intelligent abiout the things we need to do?

I think we’re becoming more intelligent as a culture about what we need to do. Lots of people now are trying to find their brand or position their brand, that’s both people and companies, and so – yes – it’s becoming more popular to be associated with brand sustainability. That’s fine… But for me, trying to do the right thing has always been part of what I am. Personally I believe that ‘character’ is ‘what you do when nobody’s looking’.

 

There is strong customer service focus at Birch, which the company has turned into a major strength…

One of the things that we’ve always recognised here at Birch is that the majority of our competitors are much larger than us. They have way deeper pockets and far more resources. We know we can never really take them on in terms of ‘price wars’ or anything like that. So we have a very strong customer focused attitude. That’s one of the things I’ve helped to develop. Transferring my absolute commitment to customer service and making sure customers can rely on us is something that’s carried completely through to Birch Chemicals.

We’re service first. Now, the primary thing is that we don’t sell chemicals, we provide a service. That service is peace of mind. Obviously, as part of that service, chemicals may arrive! If you can remove people’s concerns about minutae (“is my chemical going to turn up on time?” or “will it do what it’s supposed to do?”) then you’re enabling them to do much more constructive and productive things with their time. That professional achievement brings me a lot of personal satisfaction.

 

The business has obviously changed in those thirty years, but how do you feel that you have changed?

You gain a lot of experience in thirty years and in some senses as you get older you become more pragmatic. One of the things in particular that I’ve learned is that it’s all about developing the next generation. So I do a lot of mentoring, here at work. One of my greatest pleasures is seeing the team grow and excel at what they do, and become successful.

I also do a lot of work with The Careers & Enterprise Company as an adviser. We go into schools and places and try and help kids work stuff out. There’s always kids who are 15 and don’t know what they want to do, so it’s good to try and help them and give them guidance. It’s extremely fulfilling for me, personally . If somebody had spent this sort of individual time with me it would have been great – because what you need at that age is some real guidance and some self belief. Sometimes that’s not quite possible in the traditional school system.

You’re only as good as the team around you

 

Have you achieved what you set out to achieve?

I do feel that I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve in my professional life. I’ve fulfilled a number of roles at Birch, but my original brief when I was taken on was to expand the company’s sales outside of the steel industry. At the time that was our major customer, a lot of it in Scunthorpe. British Steel was 90% of the company’s customer base. Whilst we do still supply British Steel, these days Birch has become resilient enough and diverse enough to overcome that reliance.

 

The future is bright?

It is. We’re so resilient and the business is so strong that last year the Mississippi Lime Group bought us. I’m now working with them to identify further business opportunities globally, and with market development.

 

Finally Steve, what key thing do you think could sum up your thirty years?

It’s nice to see that all of the things I’ve cared about and worked on over the thirty years have grown and become important parts of Singleton Birch and Birch Chemicals. Ultimately, what these thirty years at Birch have shown me is: You’re truly only as good as the team around you. Those people will carry you through – so you really have to make sure you empower your team.

That’s Steve all over – diligent, determined and company focused but working from a great awareness that any company is a collective of people who must all be encouraged and supported to succeed. Truly, together we are stronger.

Thank you for your thirty years of outstanding service, Steve. You are a legend – and we’re all very glad you are our legend!

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By Birch

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