Whether that was due to the fact that piloting a heavy truck or van required a certain amount of brute force and yes, often ignorance, or because women were smart enough to see that sitting in an uncomfortable van without so much as a radio for company was hardly a great way to spend the day is open for discussion.
Of course times have changed, as have the vans, which are now very nice places indeed to make a living, with power steering, CD players and air-conditioning becoming increasingly popular. These days, quite rightly, you are just as likely to see a woman behind the wheel of a van as a man.
But if van driving was a predominantly male preserve in the dim and distant past, how much more so would van production have been? As a journalist, you get to walk along van assembly lines in many countries. And, particularly in North America and on the Continent, it is not unusual to see women wielding air spanners or fitting components on the line. What is less common is to see women at the top of the business, running the plant.
So it is all the more surprising to find that the UK’s biggest van plant, the IBC factory in Luton, is run by not one, but two women. As a subsidiary of US car giant General Motors, it is less of a shock to find that they are both American. But just how did two of Detroit, Michigan’s finest come to be controlling the build quality of Vauxhall’s Vivaro?
Plant manager Donna Sanford still considers herself something of a newcomer at Luton, having taken over the running of IBC in November 2004. She has been with GM since 1980, starting in Michigan on a school co-operative training programme that resulted in an engineering degree.
She said: ‘I was working in a manufacturing plant from the start and I loved it.’
Sanford progressed through four manufacturing jobs in the US before being offered the plant manager’s job at IBC, a chance that she had no hesitation in accepting.
Assistant plant manager Teri Quigley is more of an old hand at Luton, having moved to Bedfordshire two years ago. She too has come up through the co-op programme, finishing with a manufacturing engineering degree. And she served her time in a number of plants in the USA before uprooting her family and moving them across the water.
She has certainly settled in well though, even supporting local sports teams in their endeavours. She said: ‘I got to go to the last football match of the season with my two boys.’
The IBC plant has undergone plenty of changes over the years, with a £130 million investment bringing things up to scratch prior to the launch of the Vivaro and its Renault Trafic partner at the start of the millennium.
So was it a case of all change once Sanford and Quigley had got their size fives under the desk? It would appear not. ‘We didn’t come in making big changes,’ said Quigley.
‘GM is a big company and we want to benefit from our experience in many countries. GM wants to have all plants working along the same lines.’
‘A lot of good things were already in place here,’ added Sanford.
‘Really it was about talking to the staff to see what we could improve on. They’ve all been very positive in their response.’
Luton operates under GM’s global manufacturing system, which means that it has a lot in common with plants elsewhere in the UK and overseas. ‘There’s still a lot of flexibility,’ said Sanford. ‘Say in safety, where we wanted to increase the focus, we now have four times the number of observation tours in the plant.’
This has had a very positive result, as Luton is now GM’s third safest plant in Europe, with more than 1.7 million hours worked without a day lost to injury. ‘We’re targeting the number one spot by the end of the year,’ said Sanford.
More than 2,000 people work at IBC and Sanford and Quigley want to involve every single one in the way the facility can be improved. Indeed when walking through the plant it is obvious that both women are held in very high regard by the line workers.
‘I love the area,’ said Sanford. ‘Luton is a close-knit community and I’m always meeting people that I know outside of the plant. They’re willing to be involved. We can’t do it alone – we need all 2,000 people on board. People can’t think “I’m just one person”. Every person counts and our people make a big difference.’
‘We’re coming on leaps and bounds in terms of quality,’ said Quigley.
One way of achieving that is by rewarding workers who make a positive contribution to cost savings at the plant. Any employee who comes up with a cost saving idea that works is entitled to 20% of that cost saving, to a maximum of £1,200, in the first year of the saving being made. That’s some incentive, especially when you consider that already this year more than £500,000 of savings have been made in the plant through employee ideas.
‘We’re also seeing teams making suggestions, which is fantastic,’ said Quigley.
With an established product like Vivaro, and its Trafic and Nissan Primastar stablemates, you would imagine that there can be few additional savings to be made.
Not so, says Sanford.
‘We have room for improvement – of course, there’s always room for improvement. We monitor ourselves day in and day out. On costing you’re never good enough and that’s not where we want to be. But in the last two years this plant has reduced our hours per vehicle by a third.’
‘The creativity of the people here is great,’ agreed Quigley. ‘The organisation continues to rise and meet that challenge. I don’t expect us to slow down at all.’
Sanford said: ‘We all see the big ugly waste. It’s the small things that you have to chip away at.’
One reason for this constant focus on quality, cost and waste is that IBC, despite being the only van plant of its kind in GM’s European operation, still has to compete with other manufacturing facilities for the right to build the next generation Vivaro.
A revised and facelifted van, which will include engines designed to meet coming emissions legislation, will be launched in August 2006. Sanford says there will be greater differentiation between the three manufacturers’ models and work is already well under way on getting the build processes right for the new model.
‘There is so much work to do between then and now,’ said Sanford. ‘And we want to earn the next vehicle after that too.’
All of which costs money. IBC is currently investing £5 million on improvements to the paint shop, so that it too can meet coming emissions regulations.
That’s on top of an annual bill of around £2 million which goes to upgrading tooling in the plant and looking after the buildings and infrastructure. ‘It’s important for the workforce to see that GM sees us as a viable plant,’ said Quigley. ‘We are the only plant building a CV product, but we have to earn that right,’ said Sanford. ‘If we have an outstanding phase two van launch (the facelifted Vivaro) then we’ll know that the plan we’ve been operating to is the right plan.’
The plant may not have to wait that long for recognition, however. In the last month a team from Investors in People finished a nine-day inspection of the IBC plant, putting forward a positive recommendation. All being well, the site will have achieved IiP by the time you read this.
‘It feels good to have someone from outside the organisation telling you you’re doing the right thing,’ said Sanford.