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Mark Kirkbride

Chief Executive Officer of West Cumbria Mining

We caught up with Mark Kirkbride, the CEO of one of Cumbrias newest and most active companies as they set out their plans for reopening a coal mine in West Cumbria. 

1. Could you tell us a little about yourself, your background, family, where you live etc?

I was born and brought up in Middlesbrough in the north east of England, in a normal working-class family. My grandad worked for British Rail and I have fond memories of heading down to the railway sheds at a weekend to drive diesel locos in the sidings and sitting in the cab with the driver on train journeys to Whitby. Kirkbride is a small village near Carlisle and I believe the family on my father’s side did originally come from Cumbria. My mother was adopted and has never traced her side of the family. My father (who completed an apprenticeship in plumbing and glazing) was a chemical process plant shift worker for ICI on the huge Wilton chemical works site; my mother stayed at home (as was typical in the 70’s) to bring up my older brother and me. My education consisted of local infants/junior school and then on to a normal comprehensive – I worked hard and gained a good set of ‘O’ levels and then went on to sixth form college to study ‘A’ levels. I currently live in Sussex after moving to the South with work more than fifteen years ago, albeit I spend a lot of time in Cumbria now as well – I would like to settle back in the north in the future.


2. When did you go into this industry and why?

I was always interested in how mechanical ‘things’ worked, and I would often take stuff to bits and then rebuild it (successfully) out of curiosity - so I always had an interest in engineering. I decided to study geology at ‘A’ level as it was interesting and a bit different to school subjects. I was fortunate to have an excellent geology teacher (Terry Cattermole) who had worked for most of his career as a mining geologist; I can remember him telling me not to study geology at university but to look at mining engineering if I was serious about being involved in the extractive and resources industry. Back in the 80’s there were still five universities offering mining engineering degree courses, I visited them all, and decided that I wanted to go to Camborne School of Mines (a world famous old mining school) which is located in Cornwall (a long way from the north east). I graduated in 1993 and was offered a job with a large construction contracting company who had two mining businesses in South Yorkshire. I spent the formative years of my career working in a wide range of mines in the UK and overseas, including the remains of the UK coal industry in the early 90’s. I do genuinely find the resources industry fascinating in its diversity and challenges. Mining engineering covers a very wide range of skills and topics – including finance, survey, computer modelling, geotechnical, mechanical etc. It taught me an awful lot very quickly and you quickly realise that the camaraderie and nature of working underground makes it a very special and unique workplace.


3. What did you want to do when you were younger?

I grew up in the 70’s/80’s and I was fascinated by flight and space exploration, so I secretly wanted to be an astronaut or pilot.


4. Talk us through an average weekday...

If I am working in the office I normally arrive around 8am and work through to around 6pm. Typically I spend my time dealing with correspondence, emails, making telephone calls, signing paperwork and various mundane tasks. A lot of my time is spent engaging with my team and reporting to my board, as well a wide range of stakeholders. I often have conference calls which may be early or late in the day, and I will carry on working during the evening once I leave the office. I regularly attend meetings in London or Cumbria, so I spend quite a lot of time travelling by train too.


5. What does being the CEO of West Cumbria Mining involve?

WCM is a relatively young company, which was established in 2014. I believe that being a CEO is about inspiring people, being consistent in behaviours whilst showing determination and passion in leading and bringing people on the journey as a business/project grows. I also believe that businesses have a duty to be open and honest in all their engagement. It involves a very wide range of skills and really is a lot like spinning many plates on poles! Technical knowledge of the project and mining is crucial to really understand the work that goes on in the business. Attempting to build the first new coal mine in 30 years is not straightforward – whether that is planning, design, environmental, legal, resources or perception. A key focus is recruiting and developing a strong team, having clarity in terms of the long-term ambition and protecting the brand and how people feel about us.


6. What do you enjoy doing at weekends and in your spare time?

I like to keep busy and am pretty good at DIY and fixing things so often it will be gardening and other practical jobs. I also enjoy cooking and find cleaning the car on a Sunday morning quite therapeutic too! I have always liked a challenge; I rode motorbikes for a long time and then gained my private pilot’s licence flying helicopters, albeit at the moment I just don’t have the time to commit to flying or riding (which both need regular practice to remain at a safe and capable standard).


7. What do you enjoy most about your job?

I like to see people grow and succeed in their own development – it is massively rewarding to help people increase their skills and self-confidence and move into more senior roles through support and encouragement.


8. What do you believe are the biggest challenges for our area?

There are many key aspects to this. Diversification in terms of employment and businesses, raising the profile of West Cumbria and the attractions/benefits, improving connectivity and transport links, retaining young people and attracting families to want to live in the area. Another key challenge is to try to change the way people perceive the whole nuclear legacy and industry – it has been and is a massive bonus for West Cumbria and should not be considered to be ‘a problem’ as is often the case.


9. In a nutshell what do West Cumbria Mining want to do in our area?

We want to build a 21st century, state of the art underground mine to extract metallurgical coal – used only in the manufacture of steel in the UK and Europe. The Cumbrian Coalfield has been worked over many years and there is still a huge quantity of high quality coal underground.


10. What benefits will the development bring to our area?

The mine will employ more than 500 people and would spend more than £100m every year in the local area – so it would provide a massive boost to Whitehaven and the surrounding areas. I am committed to local people and employment as well as using local businesses wherever possible – so the project would provide far more benefits that purely jobs. I really want to be able to train and develop our own employees through apprenticeships and in-house training schemes to ensure we do whatever we can to realise improvements to the local society at large, including supporting local schemes to improve social and health aspects.


11. What is your advice to people who have doubts about the sustainability of the mine?

I completely understand why people may doubt the concept and ask questions about a coal mine and the long-term market. The reality is that global and European demand of raw materials, including steel, are increasing and will continue to do so. The drive for renewable sources of energy demands high grade steel. As such, natural resources underpin the whole basis of modern living and I do not believe that importing materials from another country is a sensible or relevant argument against utilising our own in-country resources where practical and viable to do so.


12. What was your first job and did you enjoy it?

My first job was as a summer vacation student working in a factory in Stockton-on-Tees that manufactured heavy duty plastic bags and sacks. Yes, I did enjoy it, although it confirmed to me that I didn’t want to work in a normal factory environment long-term.


13. What is the highlight of your career so far?

I was in charge of a project to save the largest Neolithic mound in Europe, called Silbury Hill, in Wiltshire. Silbury is a scheduled ancient monument within the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage site. The hill, which is around 4,500 years old, is constructed of chalk and stand 40m high. A shaft and tunnel were constructed in the 18th and 19th century, causing instability and collapse in 2002. It was a unique project with significant challenges and being able to lead the team that saved the hill was a major highlight which even included guiding Sir David Attenborough through our tunnelling work.


14. What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you in the workplace?

The mining industry is full of characters, so there are lots of stories that cannot be re-printed! I did once have a site foreman who used to complete his shift reports in rhyme, most of which was full of expletives telling management how useless they were – including the seven ‘P’s’ – Proper Prior Planning Prevents P*** Poor Performance. I do also recall arriving onto a project site one morning to see the project managers car on top of a shipping container and the foreman and miners in hysterics – the poor project manager had upset the wrong guys and was less than happy that day………

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