Finbarr Dowling was the man entrusted with bringing Siemens’ £160m wind power factory to fruition in Hull – now he’s back in the region heading up another huge project. He talks to Sam Hawcroft.
One of the many endorsements on Finbarr Dowling’s LinkedIn profile hails him as a “truly inspirational leader who gets the very best out of a team”. His credentials speak for themselves – 30 years working for Siemens around the world on a list of projects as long as your arm – and one of his latest can be seen from miles around.
The huge turbine towers made at the Green Port Hull factory, which has been fully operational since late 2016, have forever changed the city’s skyline and are a daily reminder of its changing fortunes.
“The ebullient Irishman” is perhaps an over-used term when discussing personable characters from the emerald isle, but it really is an apt description of Dowling. When interviewing people for this magazine, my biggest fear is that they’ll be reticent; no such worries here. From the off, Dowling’s passion for his work and for our region shines through. “I love my job,” he says many times throughout our chat, and the words “blessed” and “privileged” crop up time and time again.
Being named project director for Siemens’ planned new £200m train manufacturing plant just outside Goole was “kind of like winning the lottery”, Dowling says. The luck of the Irish, you could say. Except, as I point out, he’s surely being modest here, and a track record for successfully delivering a raft of ambitious projects probably has something to do with it, too.
Dowling grew up in Co Cork, where the effects of recession were particularly keenly felt in the late 1980s; youth unemployment was running at over 20 per cent after numerous factory closures in the automotive industry, one of the main employers in the area at the time. Dowling did what a lot of his peers did – he got out. After leaving school at 17 with minimal qualifications, he spent some time in the US before arriving in London in 1988. “I chanced my arm,” he says. “I got working in a factory as a progress chaser, which was good fun; my job every day was to track down where things were in the factory and report back to management.”
A year later, in 1989, Dowling started his long career with Siemens, at a factory making electricity meters. “Since then,” he says, “I've had the great honour and privilege to do any amount of different interesting things for Siemens in the UK, but also all over the world.”
In 2014, Dowling was working as managing director for a Siemens business in Cheshire, where he still lives, when he received the call to lead the turbine factory project in Hull. “They said, ‘Tomorrow the prime minister will rock up on to the Humber, walk around and announce that Siemens is arriving, and after he leaves, someone’s got to have the job of turning all of that into a reality. Would you like to do it?’ I kind of hesitated for about 30 seconds, and then said yes, I’ll do it.”
After David Cameron and the media circus had left town, the following day Dowling drove down to “Vicky Dock”. “I looked across at my ‘field of dreams’ and thought, what have I let myself in for?”
At that stage, Dowling was not at all familiar with Hull and the surrounding area, except for the lazy “Crap Towns” stereotype. “It seemed that in the media for many years Hull was a bit of a standing joke. It was always described as some kind of place you wouldn't want to go, and actually, I found completely the opposite, of course, and I was there to witness everything that went on around City of Culture, the Siemens investment and the rebirth of the area.”
One of his first tasks was establishing who was who – not just the major players, from local politicians to council officials, but there were thousands of requests from people wanting to get involved, right down to the catering van outside the factory. Then there was the matter of picking a team, bringing together experts from a vast range of areas including construction, commerce and real estate.
“We started from nothing – I and my colleague at the time, Ross Dean, conducted our first four weeks of business from a small meeting room in the Holiday Inn on the marina. It was a great starting point, to have that ‘coalition of the willing’, as it were, where everybody wants to help you and support you. At the same time, it was quite intrusive because everybody wanted a part of you.
You couldn’t pick up the Hull Daily Mail or watch the news without something on Siemens being mentioned, and the first 12 months, living as I did on the marina there, was like living in a goldfish bowl!”
Two years into the project, the country voted to leave the EU, with nearly 70% of Hull people in favour of Brexit, but the drive behind the project didn’t waver. “There was never a doubt that were we going to stay committed to the project. We were very focused on delivery – we weren’t worrying in the bigger sense about what was happening politically.”
In 2017, Dowling was at the forefront of quite possibly one of the most unusual, and memorable, projects of his career – the artist Nayan Kulkarni’s Blade installation for City of Culture. This saw a 250ft rotor blade, newly manufactured in Hull, driven from Alexandra Dock to Queen Victoria Square in the small hours of January 8; there had been a media blackout and the general public were unaware of the plans right up until the meticulously planned operation was put into action.
“I think it was a great success,” says Dowling. “It wasn't everybody's cup of tea and people were arguing over whether it was art, but for us, it was fantastic. I’d go into to town and privately observe people as they touched it, and had their photographs taken with it. To me it was a symbol of what we were doing. It was something bold, novel and new and it symbolised hope and it symbolised a new industry.”
The collaboration between Siemens, the city council and City of Culture sums up, for Dowling, how the city is “blessed with some magnificent people”. Again and again during our conversation he heaps praise on some of the key local players – or unsung heroes, as he calls them. Dowling singles out Hull City Council’s director of regeneration, Mark Jones, for particular praise, calling him a “wonderful character”. “Mark was the constant throughout for me,” he adds.
“He was all about what we could do, what was possible.” Jones’s East Riding Council counterpart, Alan Menzies, had “exactly the same fantastic enthusiasm”. “Both Mark and Alan's teams are just tremendous. It's such a pleasure to do business in East Yorkshire because politically and at the council levels the people are so enthusiastic, so passionate, and so proud.” Stephen Brady, Lord Haskins, Alan Johnson, Karl Turner, Andrew Percy, the names keep coming – a host of people from all sorts of political hues coming together to “get things done”.
Dowling may have been around the world in his career, but he says he feels a particular affinity with this region due to its similarities to his hometown of Cork; after his work in Hull was done, he remained close to the area. “I found Hull intoxicating because it was very like Cork City. It was a small port city that had hard times, but the people had a very strong sense of belonging, and they were very self-deprecating. And Siemens was heavily involved in the creation of the Ron Dearing University Technical College, where I served as vice-chairman under Charlie Spencer for a number of years.”
And then came the opportunity to return and do it all again – this time on the 67-acre train manufacturing plant at Goole, for which East Riding Council has already granted outline planning permission. “It's a long journey and we're at the start of the process,” says Dowling. “I want to have a factory open in 2023 that’s successfully producing trains, and I'm very confident we will achieve that, and hopefully even have a similar impact on Goole then we had in Hull.”
Dowling believes Siemens played a “small” part in the regeneration of Hull’s Fruit Market and Old Town areas. Again, I think he’s being modest here, but the parallels between Hull and Goole are interesting; both areas have their social problems, and both have had their fair share of knocks in the media. This new train factory could employ up to 700 people in skilled engineering and manufacturing roles, plus an additional 250 during the construction phase, and about 1,700 indirect jobs are expected to be created throughout the UK supply chain. The impact this could have on Goole and the surrounding area has the potential to be tremendous.
And it’s this bigger picture that drives Dowling, and Siemens as a company – and what they learned from the windfarm factory will inform the trains project. “Very much at the heart of what we in Siemens are about is about business and community,” he says. “While we are selling power stations, and turbines and trains, we have a responsibility, which we readily accept, that when we're in a community, there has to be more to it and that means reaching out and taking a lead on things like education.
“There are several social things that we tried in the factory, which were not being tried before and we shone a light on, which I think other companies have subsequently picked up. It's the difference we can make, which is why we're really in this. This is a chance to do it all over again, and this time, do it even better, and make more of a statement in terms of the business-to-social side of it.”