National Manufacturing Day: Interview with Anthony Leaves

At Zotefoams, we’re passionate about investing in young talent and the future leaders of tomorrow. To celebrate National Manufacturing Day, which is centred on encouraging the next generation of manufacturers, we interviewed our Head of Operations, Antony Leaves.

Read on to discover how he first got into manufacturing, the best advice he’s ever received and his tips for success.

How did you get into manufacturing?

Like many people who go into technical roles, I followed in a parent’s footsteps. My dad was a bus mechanic with a broad interest in engineering and I grew up doing a lot of amateur mechanics with him.

I then chose Engineering at university and was fortunate to secure a place on a graduate scheme with BAE Systems building naval ships. As I neared the end of my training, I got the best piece of advice I’ve ever received, which was to not take the easy path – do the hard thing, go on the shop floor, start at the bottom and learn the ropes, work your way up. I took this advice and ended up on shift building ships, moving up through the ranks as a team leader and then a manager, and that experience has been invaluable. It gave me a good grounding and I couldn’t do what I do today without that experience because I learnt about people. It’s all well and good knowing the technicalities, but a factory is run by people; if you can get the people bit right then the rest will follow along. 18 years later, I’m still doing it!

Can you tell us about your role at Zotefoams?

I am Head of Operations and I’ve been with Zotefoams around two and a half years. I originally started as Head of Manufacturing, where I was responsible for the manufacturing side of the business, from raw material all the way through to finished foam.

As Head of Operations, I’ve taken responsibility for dispatch and warehousing too.

So, my responsibility starts from the moment our pellets arrive on site, all the way through to when the lorry is loaded with finished foam; I look after the process from start to finish. That’s a very topline view – what I really do is look after people.

What does a typical day look like to you?

Mornings are very structured with a clear routine. I walk through the factory, and I stop and meet with each department for 10 minutes. We’ll talk about the previous day’s performance and what’s important to focus on today. Health & Safety is always top of the agenda, and we usually touch on quality, efficiency, delivery, people and the priorities for the day ahead. Everyone has the opportunity to feed into the conversation with comments or concerns. I then meet with all of the Operations Managers to discuss performance in more detail. No two days are the same and I’m constantly changing hats – sometimes it’s HR, sometimes H&S or finance, it very much depends on the past 24 hours – but my focus is always on people and process improvements.

Whats your favourite thing about your role?

My very favourite thing is watching and being a part of an improvement cycle, seeing a factory and a team grow and flourish. Seeing our factory improve is the result of people improving and growing, and a byproduct of that is me seeing people challenge themselves and do things they never thought they could. I get a real kick out of that, specifically seeing the youngsters coming through, sometimes taking their first steps into a leadership or technical role, it gives me such a buzz and makes me feel quite nostalgic. 

Whats are some of your proudest achievements?

We’vebrought in several initiatives that really focus on staff engagement. One example is our Manufacturing North Star.

It’s a simple, visual tool to communicate to the entire team, explaining where the company is going to keep everyone motivated. Our number one priority and the top of the star is keeping everybody healthy and safe. Others are people, quality, innovation and efficiency. This enables us to communicate in clear terms what we can all expect and look forward to.

We also have our One Million Project, which focuses on improving control within our operation and making the best, informed decisions when it comes to problem solving. 

Last year, we made important changes like reducing offsite storage to save cost, manufacturing yield improvements to save material, and reducing energy to improve our carbon footprint. This year we’ve been more surgical, for example improving how our finished foam is stored before it’s transported to customers, using fewer pallets and saving cost. 

Another example is the manufacturing yield, which has tracked steadily upwards over the past two and a half years. It’s really motivating to be able to make these strategic improvements and see the impact that follows

What training does Zotefoams offer to help build skills and career progression?

Zotefoams does an awful lot for career progression and training, and we’re doing more and more. Our two-year graduate scheme gives candidates the opportunity to gain experience working in a ‘real’ environment across various disciplines. They get a lot of support, plus exposure to the senior leadership team; they work on projects to help them develop and have mentors too support too. 

This year one of our graduates went straight from the scheme to a leadership role in the Operations team, which is great to see.

We also take people on in manufacturing who don’t have a specific trade and we help them develop their skills. Two of our most experienced operators, with over 20 and 30 years behind them respectively, have become trainers. There’s nothing about our manufacturing process that they don’t know! Each new team member undergoes a Skills Assessment Programme, so that we can make sure they’re getting the training they need to help them progress. We also offer external training, for example through Make UK, as well as our online training portal.

For me personally, the biggest impact on my leadership abilities and style has been from my own mentor, my Managing Director – he teaches without you even realising it! Zotefoams wants to see people improve, so you have a lot of time invested into you and your personal development, which has been a real benefit for me.

What skills or qualities do you think someone needs in order to work in manufacturing?

Working in manufacturing is not an easy thing. Typically, you’re working on a difficult shift pattern and within a tough environment, but then you’re also working with some of the best people you’ll ever come across. 

You’re doing something together that’s very special, you’re taking nothing and you’re turning it into something. Here, we’re taking plastic pellets and we’re turning into material that’s used in aeroplanes, cars, sporting equipment… it’s very special. You need to be driven, want to be part of a team and someone who’s got pride in themselves and takes pride in what they do. If we didn’t have those kinds of people here, we wouldn’t be able to make the quality materials that we do.     

What advice would you give a young person looking to get into manufacturing?

I would pass on the great advice that I got when I was a young engineer – don’t take the easy route. You’re still young, take risks, there’s always the opportunity to try something different, no one expects you to know all the answers, but they do expect you to be driven and want to try things. 

Be polite and helpful and give it a go, it only gets harder as you get older. You’ll learn so much more from the hard thing than just taking the easy route. Keep an open mind, if you come to a company like Zotefoams you won’t just be coming to clock in and move something from A to B, every day you’ll be involved in making improvements, challenging the status quo, learning new skills and being challenged.

If you want to find out more about Zotefoams and the open opportunities available, please visit our careers page.