CIO interview: Nick Reeks, Tata Steel UK

Nick Reeks, Director of IT, Tata Steel UK


Facing an economic slowdown in an uncertain UK steel industry, Tata Steel’s Nick Reeks is battling cost constraints and a widening IT skills gap.


The economic downturn is hurting some industries more than others. Just take Tata Steel UK, which last month not only called on the UK government to offer better green energy subsidies to decarbonise its Port Talbot steelworks, but also issued a critical warning of ‘material uncertainty’ over the future of its UK steel business.  In a financial report which revealed that earnings at Tata Steel Europe, which includes the UK subsidiary, fell 60% year-on-year to £477 million last year, Tata put the results down to difficult market conditions and a lack of clarity from the UK government on the move to ‘greener’ steelmaking. Such results, alongside warnings from the union Unite that the local steel industry is at “breaking point”, have put a clear focus on cost control for Tata Steel UK’s Director of IT, Nick Reeks.


“In the context of high energy prices and difficult market conditions creating a cost-demand squeeze, the focus for the IT team is to understand more deeply the cost base for IT and identify where consumption can be reduced or eliminated as a priority this year,” he told HotTopics.


“The steel market has a history of cycles and many of the team have been through this a few times, but this time round, with greater uncertainty on the future of the steel industry in the UK, more effort has been made to connect with the teams, identify which projects can and must be delivered and deepen relationships with key outsourcing partners.”


Watch the interview highlights with Nick Reeks below:


A CIO’s gig economy

Reeks is no stranger to the steel market’s volatility, having worked in the UK steel industry since 1990, two years after the-then British Steel was privatised by the UK government. Today, he leads the IT function for Tata Steel UK, and is responsible for IT strategy and operations across Tata’s operations in the UK. 

Following the decision to outsource the bulk of its IT services to partners TCS and Vodafone in 2016, he says he’s focused on how the UK business can sustain legacy applications while moving to new cloud platforms, decarbonising the supply chain and modernising production methods.  


It’s a far cry from how Reeks’ IT career began in the first place.


I've almost had a gig economy,” he told HotTopics’ Kani Talabani at The Studio, reflecting on 10 years in sales, 12 years in procurement and, to date, 11 years in information technology.


“I've had quite a widespread experience within the company, lots of obstacles, and quite a lot of them have been technology related, which is why I ended up in technology.”


Reeks believes that his grounding in sales has been a critical component of his leadership skills, giving him a clear understanding of his role, how processes worked and systems operated. That stayed with him through his roles in procurement and IT, and also infused his belief that his team needs to be more than technical specialists.


“I often say to my new starters: do you need to have a strong affinity for IT and technology? Of course you do. You need a reasonably good technical understanding. But it's amazing just how much process knowledge, logistics, maths, and insight you need on how things get done.”


‘It's not just the technology, it's actually how the whole thing works together,” he adds.


Talent shortages at Tata Steel UK

Talent shortages are rife, to the point where even the technology giants of Silicon Valley are struggling to hire, have frozen recruitment, or have been forced to make significant job cuts.


“There's a huge opportunity for us, because we are often overlooked when people are considering what careers to have,” says Reeks. 


“They just don't understand...or don't believe...that companies outside of the mainstream tech area have got real innovation,” he adds.


To address the IT skills gap, Tata Steel UK has established relationships with universities, pushing hard on its decarbonisation agenda to attract those seeking a greater sense of purpose, and coaxed staff out of possible retirement by focusing on its environment message, team focus and locality.


“We recruited two individuals last year who had been displaced and may have looked at retirement, but chose to join us to continue their careers,” says Reeks. “They have both adjusted quickly to the challenges and were able to accelerate their impact on the organisation.”


Tata Steel UK’s outsourced IT model does, however, offer another obstacle for Reeks and his IT team, which comprises 45 people. Technology partners like TCS and Vodafone are facing their own talent shortages, with this having a knock-on impact on clients like Tata.


“Because we've outsourced, our partners pick up a lot of the slack….and we have found in the last 18 months that our partners have really struggled,” says Reeks.


Tata Steel UK is helping here, working with its technology partners to show their prospective staff what kind of initiatives they would be working on. Reeks points to recent examples of technological innovation, from Tata deploying laser measurement technology to IoT sensors for improved energy monitoring.


“We've got a story to sell, we've got some exciting technologies that we use to manufacture coming out of steel plants, and it’s quite an exciting experience as well,” he says.


Tata Steel UK’s sustainability initiatives

As part of its decarbonisation agenda, Tata Steel is focusing on sustainability, which is no mean feat for a manufacturing company that owns Port Talbot – one of Britain’s biggest steelworks, but also one of the largest polluters.


Reeks says there is a ‘global challenge all steel makers are grappling with’, and points to cases in Europe where firms have secured government funding to support the transition to greener operations. Tata has publicly called on the UK government to ‘level the playing field’, and asked for £1.5 billion in subsidies to reduce its carbon emissions. At the time of writing, the Government had offered £300 million.


Still, the IT team has been hard at work to help make a difference; Reeks explains that data centres are being revamped to reduce energy consumption, networks have been modernised for energy efficiency and workplace devices are regularly recycled.


Meanwhile, IoT devices are being used for air quality monitoring, data tools for energy consumption reduction and Reeks says there is a greater emphasis on process control for "efficient production with the least carbon footprint.”


IT priorities at Tata Steel UK

For this Director of IT, the focus for the next 12 months is on cost, even though there continue to be challenges around technical debt and cybersecurity, as well as the development of a new ecommerce platform.


“The primary focus is on cost; the economic backdrop is so challenging that this area trumps almost all other initiatives,” admits Reeks.


“Despite this, the cyber threat is now also so significant…that improving resilience features very strongly in our priorities.”


Quick-fire Q&A:

  1. What was your dream job growing up?
    Prime minister

  2. What keeps you up at night?
    Cyber security

  3. What excites you about the next 12 months?
    Solution for steel in the UK

  4. What do you do outside of work?
    Read my Kindle with notifications off

  5. What's the best career advice you’ve ever received?
    Never believe your own propaganda


CIO interview: Check out our line-up of HotTopics Leader's Corner and Profile Interviews.

HotTopics produces interviews with a diverse array of leaders, C-suite marketing and technology leaders. These take place in-person during our much-anticipated flagship event, The Studio, and virtually with leaders based all over the world. Learn more about what makes these leaders tick, and their experiences and expertise that have supported them in their careers so far.

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