Lance Hockridge was the group General Manager at the time of the closure of Newcastle’s BHP Steelworks.
He oversaw much of the transition, and as part of our special series, we sat down with Mr Hockridge.
Looking back two-decades, did the resolve of the Newcastle community surprise you? Or had you become used to the determined mindset of locals?
There was always that determination in the Newcastle mindset, born of the long history of the place. The Steelworks employees, who in many cases were part of multi-generational families who had worked there, really showed the depth of pride and capability that they had in those last days.
At the time of closure, what were some of the projects BHP implemented to ensure the smoothest transition for workers?
Given the impact on the employees, contractors and community, the objective was to provide a structured and effective way of facilitating transition to new careers or pursuits. There was in place a very wide-ranging program that allowed workers to retrain into skills and careers of their choice. There was great flexibility around not just payments but the provision of time off etc. In many ways equally important was to celebrate the history and contribution of the steel industry and its people to the life and culture of the district. Thus under the banner of “Ribbons of Steel” there were many many ways, from books to poems, to art to performance which allowed people to record and express this contribution. It was also important in highlighting and building on that civic pride.
Tell us about how OneSteel came to be? And why BHP considered a steelmaking/processing important in Newcastle?
The closure of the Steelworks was part of a broader rationalization of the long products side of the then BHP Steel business. Globally, technology had moved on from the scale and cost of major integrated steelworks providing those kind of products. The reaction from BHP in addition to the steelworks closure was to build a billet mill at Whyalla Steelworks, upgrade the Sydney Steel Mill and bring together the downstream parts of the long products business. Many of these latter facilities of course were located in Newcastle, which therefore remained an important part of the reconfigured business. This combined business then was the business which BHP decided to separate and which became OneSteel.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
That’s always a tough question. In going into the closure process we set some fundamental principles which as a management group we would hold ourselves accountable for. Safety of course was key, but beyond that it was about doing everything we could to help and look after our employees and contractors, their families and the community to make the transition effectively. While there will always be things that could have been done better, after twenty years we can both look back at that pride and determination, but also look at the vibrant, forward-looking community which is Newcastle today.