Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port plant is currently on tickover and operating at around 65% capacity. But that is about to change, as Martyn Cray, the plant’s director, tells Tony Lewis.

New Astra is coming. The Merseyside, UK, factory won the contract to build the next generation Astra – due in 2015 – in May. Work on integrating the new platform starts in January while pilot production teams start work in the UK and Germany in March.

New plant director Martyn Cray sees the fact that the plant is not running anywhere near flat out as an advantage. It’s easier to train new recruits and retrain existing staff when you have spare capacity. An additional 700 workers will be recruited towards the end of next year to join the existing 1,860 as launch of new Astra looms.

Ellesmere Port will build around 95,000 Astra five-door and estate models this year, 80% of them for export. “It’s still a competitive model and still selling well but it’s tough when a model gets to this stage in its life,” said Cray.

His plan is to get the plant to a capacity “where it becomes very competitive. Volume is our friend and will drive efficiencies we’ve never seen before.”

UK-based suppliers will become part of that efficiency drive – if they are up to the mark.

“GM’s strategy is to make where you sell and that needs to include the suppliers,” said Cray, who wants to strengthen links with the UK supply chain. “We need to get them competitive so they can tender for work,” he said. And that’s something that GM is doing. Currently around 15% of Astra content at Ellesmere Port is from the UK. That is forecast to rise to 30% with the next generation car. The factory has its own supplier park – seats, bumpers and so on – employing another 2,000 but dashboards are still assembled in-house.

Engines (there are six on current Astra) are imported since large volumes are needed for an engine plant to be efficient – 300,000 to 350,000 and counting in Cray’s view.

And he should know. He has a solid background in engine plants, starting his career at Ford’s Bridgend engine factory in South Wales before moving to Bosch’s factory, also in South Wales, for a taste of life in the supply chain.

He joined GM in 1995, working as lean manufacturing manager for Opel in Vienna. In 1999, he moved to Opel Kaiserlautern, taking on the role of manufacturing manager at the diesel engine plant. 

He then returned to the UK in 2001 for a three-year spell at Ellesmere Port in charge of V6 engines before heading to Saab in Sweden as powertrain manufacturing director. In 2008 he joined GM Holden in Australia where his last posting was as executive director of GM Holden manufacturing operations. 

His biggest surprise on returning to Ellesmere Port was the attitude of the unions and workforce. They are, he said, “a different animal. We are no longer at loggerheads; the union asks intelligent questions and makes the management team think.”

It is that new attitude that meant the week’s shutdown in the autumn “was no big deal, everyone understood why we were doing it.” It also allowed the factory to move to what he calls “a five-into-four” working week: working the same hours over four days that they did over five. Cray estimates the move will save GBP2m in facility costs such as heating and lighting over 18 months. It also means everyone gets a three-day weekend. And when he floated the idea of increasing production flexibility by doing away with the traditional summer shutdown if necessary – allowing workers to take holidays at cheaper times of the year – that too was greeted with enthusiasm.

Cray is not your average GM suit – he says he stopped wearing ties in 1991 – and walks the shopfloor every day for up to two hours in polo shirt and jeans, his everyday attire at the office. The walkabout is a tip he picked up during a brief spell with Toyota. Watch and talk is the idea – watch how the assembly line is running every day and you develop a sense for when things aren’t going as they should. Talk to the line workers and you can pick up on any problems before they escalate.

The workers also seem to like the idea that he shuns a bigger Vauxhall that he would be entitled to and drives one of Ellesmere Port’s Astras – a five-door diesel SRi.

When the new model arrives output will increase to 160,000 units a year with the ability “to flex up to 200,000, even to 250,000.”

That ‘flex’ comes from the flexible working agreement with the Unite union that was so vital in securing the deal on new Astra. There is no time limit to the hours banked by Vauxhall during September’s shutdown, for example.

“Unite think very untraditionally as a union, ask intelligent questions and make the management team think,” says Cray who suggests that unions in Australia are 20 years behind the approach he has found in the UK.

And while Ellesmere Port could build other GM models (anything built off the new Astra global platform so next Chevrolet Cruze or even Ampera/Volt would be feasible) Cray is cautious.

Complexity can have a detrimental effect on quality, he pointed out, adding: “I’m not going to be Martyn’s boutique building small numbers of lots of models. You can be too flexible.” Everything off the same platform at volume is the best way to get return on investment, he said.

Other aspects of his return to the UK impress him too. He was full of praise for Business Secretary Vince Cable’s decision to go to Detroit to talk to the GM hierarchy and argue the government’s case for why Ellesmere Port should be kept open.

It was “crucial” he said, noting that the Australian government did the same with success but the German government didn’t.