Official Reopening of the Iconic Armstrong Works in Newcastle by Alan Shearer OBE
24th September 2015
Football legend Alan Shearer led the celebrations as the iconic Armstrong Works officially reopened as the new home of Reece Group after a £20m transformation.
Once dubbed the world’s first defence factory and the Workshop of the World, the historic factory produced the hydraulics for Newcastle’s Swing Bridge and London’s Tower Bridge, as well as parts for the Spitfire and the ‘bouncing bombs’ used by the Dambusters. It also made the first breech-loading gun for the war in Crimea and Chieftain tanks after the Second World War.
It was a devastating blow to the city when former owners of the site, BAE Systems, announced in 2012 they were closing the factory with the loss of 330 jobs. It was feared it would be the end to heavy engineering on the Tyne and the factory which had employed generations of families.
But now with a multi-million pound cash injection the vast structure that stretches the length of five football pitches along the Scotswood Road has been revived and reinvented as the new home of Reece Group and its 500 employees, bolstering the region’s legacy as a world leader in innovative engineering.
The North East family firm is the holding company with a diverse range of engineering businesses operating in the defence, oil and gas, power generation, construction, medical and subsea markets – Pearson Engineering, Responsive Engineering, Velocity UK, Pipe Coil Technology and Reece innovation.
Officially opening the factory, which features in the song the Blaydon Races, Newcastle and England footballing legend Alan Shearer OBE, himself a Tyneside icon said: “I am delighted to be asked to officially open the redeveloped Armstrong Works. The commitment of the Reece Group to the region is truly impressive. They have ensured the historic Armstrong Works with its industrial heritage remains in the hands of local innovative engineers.”
Over 100 guests took a behind the scenes tour of the state-of-the-art facility, including a glimpse of part of the British Army’s Challenger 2 tank fleet, back in the factory where they were made as they undergo structural assessments.
They also toured the modern open-plan office space, individually branded for each business, which runs alongside the shop floor and has facilities for staff that include a café and shop.
Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes said: “The reopening of the Armstrong works is great news for Newcastle, and a real sign of what can be achieved here. I am delighted to see the investment in our city carried out by the Reece Group, not just in terms of our history and our buildings, but in our people as well. We see here a growing business with a global presence and a uniquely skilled specialist engineering workforce, all on the banks of the Tyne.”
Reece Group Chairman John Reece MBE said: “The iconic Armstrong Works is synonymous with the best of British engineering. The new facility provides our group companies with an outstanding capability which is already attracting a wide range of new customers to each of our engineering businesses as well as increasing our scope to supply existing customers.
“We believe engineering and manufacturing has a valid and prosperous future in the North East and we place great emphasis on research and development. Our investment at Scotswood Road includes the creation of the Reece Innovation Centre whose focus will be to design the Group’s next generation of innovative engineering products.
“More poignantly for me personally is that the Reece Group will be located at the very site where my father, the late Dr Alan Reece, developed his enthusiasm for what he called ‘real engineering’ in his first job as an apprentice for Vickers Armstrong.”
As well as ploughing money into facilities, Reece Group companies have invested in apprenticeships with over 10% of employees on apprenticeship programmes.
Reece Group CEO Phil Kite said: “The move to the Armstrong Works has been two years in the planning. Our Pearson’s defence business now has the capability to refurbish, integrate systems and manufacture armoured vehicles and our Responsive Engineering business is now able to offer a complete subcontract manufacturing service with over 40 CNC machine tools, an extensive range of laser, water and plasma cutters and over 200 welders and platers.
“Our impact on the Scotswood Road will be felt beyond the employment we bring to the area. The Reece Foundation was set up by the Reece family to support good causes primarily associated with encouraging more children to take up STEM subjects and follow a career in engineering. Over the last 10 years it has donated £15m to good causes. In the West End of Newcastle the Reece Group has supported organisations associated with business start-ups, youth development, education and sport.”
Known to many as the Vickers tank factory, the Armstrong Works has been a centre of British engineering for over 160 years since it was founded by one of the country’s greatest industrialists and philanthropists Lord Armstrong. Employing 25,000 people in its heyday, over the years it has produced cars, locomotives and aircraft.
Reece Group started in the 1980s as a break out business from Newcastle University, developing plough technology to bury telecommunication cabling on the sea bed through its original business Soil Machine Dynamics (SMD). This same plough technology was then developed in Pearson Engineering, another group company, into a defence application to clear land mines.
In the period 2008 to 2012 Pearson Engineering won orders worth over £400m for its SPARK mine roller which protected troops from mines and IEDs and was responsible for saving the lives of many allied soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
On the back of this success the Reece Group was able to invest in a diversification programme which has seen it break into the oil and gas, power generation and road construction markets through the acquisition of three businesses, Velocity UK, Responsive Engineering and Pipe Coil Technology. The group has also invested £3m in the creation of its own Innovation centre.
It also enabled the business to acquire the Armstrong Works facility. As a result of the move into the factory, Pearson Engineering is now able to provide an armoured vehicle refurbishment and upgrade service. This has led to a contract to undertake a structural assessment of the British Army’s Challenger 2 tank fleet.
James Ramsbotham, Chief Executive of the North East Chamber of Commerce, said: “This a diverse engineering company who does not stand still. They are paving the way for the future and laying down strong foundations for the next generation of North East engineers. There is very much the impression that Reece Group is on the cusp of something very special.”