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Millions of pounds to be invested in Glaxo plant in Barnard Castle

FOR anyone who has not had the chance to see inside GlaxoSmithKline’s factory in Harmire Road, it’s absolutely huge. Here in Teesdale, Glaxo operates a 60-acre pharmaceutical powerhouse that produces a massive 500,000 drugs a day. The footprint is a mile to trek around. 

“There are half a million people in the world taking our products every day – from products for skin care, to those that treat hay fever, asthma, to more serious stuff like cancer and heart disease,” says site director Andy Cockroft. “When you reflect on that, it makes what we do feel so worthwhile. We get a real kick out of helping people do more, feel better and live longer.

“The thrill of seeing products come out of the factory is great but when you realise what they are used for, you can understand why a lot of people who work here say they can’t imagine a better job.”

There can’t be many places with such a unique relationship with their biggest employer. Clearly, many towns rely on big firms and factories for jobs.

If such and such firm sneezes, they’ll say, then such and such town catches a cold. This is probably true for Teesdale and Glaxo, which employs more than 1,000 staff in Harmire Road.

But the special relationship the dale has with its world-class pharmaceutical firm goes further than that. 

Every year, for example, Glaxo bosses hold a long-service dinner for employees at Barnard Castle. You would think 20 years is a long time to work somewhere but the 20-mark in Barney is the bare minimal qualification to be invited along to feast with long-serving staff.

One worker due to hang up his chemist’s goggles this year has racked up 43 years of service and there are others on site with an even longer record.

“That’s not uncommon at Barnard Castle. Few of our competitors benefit from such loyalty and experience,” says Mr Cockroft. 

The original factory was built in 1945 to make penicillin to treat wounded troops from the battles of the Second World War.

It was a wonder drug and the Government was encouraging increased production. Barnard Castle was selected. It had reasonably high unemployment at the time and there was a ready and willing workforce.

Clean air was needed for the fermentation process and a plentiful supply of water required. Teesdale has both in abundance.

The site quickly expanded with more buildings and more manufacturing equipment to produce more products. The railway line, which was later the victim of Dr Beeching’s axe, meant the company was well placed to use and transport raw materials and finished medicines.

Penicillin is no longer made at Barnard Castle. In fact the only building still standing from those original days is the boiler house – the building with the two tall chimneys at the back of the site.

New drugs have come while older ones have been discontinued. But while medicines, buildings and people leave, families have stayed at Glaxo.

Mr Cockroft says: “Teesdale and GSK has been a great marriage for 70 years. We have had generations of people who have worked here and the reason why Barnard Castle has been so successful has been through the quality and commitment of the people in Teesdale. They have played a huge part in the factory’s success.

“When you see documents, you see the surnames of people whose grandparents, children, wives, sisters and brothers have worked here. It creates a sense of commitment to the company and that’s probably unrivalled in the entire company.”

Nearly 30 per cent of the workforce lives in Barnard Castle with around 80 per cent of the rest living within 30 miles of the town. 

It is no secret that Teesdale is a special place and the fact that Glaxo’s plant nestles at the heart of one of the most beautiful parts of the country comes in handy when recruiting staff. The frontline staff are not the only ones who know they are onto a good thing. The site director himself made a return to the site to take the top job.

He has been in charge for three years but started his career in Barnard Castle in 1988.

“I had a taste of the place at the start of my career,” he says. “There are not many better places to live and work. We’ve got industry-leading experts on site and there is a good reason why they stay. Retention has never been a problem nor attracting new talent to the site.”

Barnard Castle is now a secondary pharmaceutical manufacturing site. This means raw active ingredients from other Glaxo sites or suppliers are brought in and converted into the finished products.

Glaxo’s research and development division also works closely with the Barnard Castle factory to launch newly developed drugs. As well as supplying existing products globally, this role as a new product introduction site makes Barnard Castle one of the most important and most complex in the Glaxo network. 

Mr Cockroft says: “From the company’s perspective, the site has always been here and it has always delivered. The company has asked it to do so many different things over the decades. And no matter how big or how difficult, Barnard Castle has delivered.”

The factory is now a lot more productive than it used to be. New technology, methods and smarter ways of working have seen to that. One key consideration for GSK is how to make drugs more affordable. 

Price is something you and I take for granted – thanks to the NHS.

A UK prescription costs £7.85 (it went up by 20p on April 1). This charge to the public is regardless of how much the drug costs the NHS to buy. Some specialist items run up to four figure sums.

 “How much a drug costs is not as obvious to us as patients in the UK thanks to the NHS but in other countries the patient pays whatever the costs may be,” says Mr Cockroft.

Glaxo is seeing a growth in products it has been selling for 20 or 30 years because they are now more affordable.

Zinnat, an antibiotic, has been around for 35 years but is now selling in increasing numbers in places like China where thanks to reduced costs and their growing economy, more people can benefit from the treatment.

For the untrained visitor, the 60-acre site has seemingly endless laboratories and production lines. There are “clean” manufacturing areas and there are “sterile” manufacturing areas. Standards are incredibly high. Any signs – and I’m assured there are lots of safety nets in place– that something is not quite right, the whole batch of drugs is destroyed and the process starts all over again.

It has to be right because unlike most jobs there is absolutely no room for error. Put simply, it’s a matter of life and death.

The factory even has its own fire engine and trained fire-fighters, as well as generators to supply power in an emergency. There are areas set aside for wildlife, an uplands hay meadow and, in tribute to the dale that gave birth to the factory, there is a garden representing plant life of Teesdale.

Glaxo makes a lot of its own electricity and heat from a state-of-the-art combined heat and power plant. Gas is burned to drive turbines, which generate electricity. The waste heat is piped into the factory to keep everybody warm. More importantly, the system is reducing the factory’s carbon footprint considerably.

Barney supplies 1,500 different types of drug packs to 140 different countries.  

There are four different product types – known as dose forms - made here.

 l Sterile products in vials and syringes for injection, including several biopharmaceuticals and vaccines

 l Clean liquid products inhaled via nasal sprays.

 l Dermatologicals, for example creams and ointments in tubes and pumps.

 l Tablets and suspensions, specifically antibiotics called cephalosporins.

The third in that list has been in the spotlight recently. This is because of Glaxo’s 2009 buyout of specialist dermatology company Stiefel, which made treatments for spots and rashes.

A substantial amount of the company’s production is now being transferred to Barnard Castle and millions of pounds are being invested in Barnard Castle to make this happen. The sums are eye-watering – in the past five years £80million has been spent in the town. Some of this has gone on necessary improvements but a good portion has been invested in new equipment and facilities.

“This year we are spending just shy of £14million on new equipment and facilities,” Mr Cockroft says. “That’s a sign of the commitment to the site.”

The new dermatological centre of excellence is taking shape and transferring the products from Stiefel to Barnard Castle is a huge job. Many of the creams and ointments have already gone on the manufacturing line, while others are in the pipeline.

But Mr Cockroft is quick to point out that the skin care side of operations is just one part of what makes Barnard Castle what it is.

“Dermatology has been highlighted because of the growth and it is a terrific growth story. We’re going to be manufacturing more than double what we were producing five years ago. I’m really excited about that,” he says. “But there are four centres of excellence. The others are sterile products, clean liquids, and tablets and suspensions. That’s what makes us unique – other GSK sites may have one or two but we have got four different dose forms in one location.”

Glaxo nearly landed another huge prize last year but was piped at the post by Glaxo’s Ulverston factory. The £300million biopharmaceutical plant would have created hundreds of jobs in Teesdale but it was not to be.

The race for the prize was run far more publically than most decisions made by the drug giant and stories of progress regularly appeared in the press.

Mr Cockroft say: “Decisions on other investments are made all the time and many of those do come to Barnard Castle. If you gathered all the site directors at GlaxoSmithKline together, I’m sure very few of them would feel their site had the same level of opportunity as Barnard Castle, which is in an extremely strong position.

“The biopharm investment would have been great but there are going to be plenty more opportunities for Barnard Castle because of the level of expertise we have here and our reputation. We’ve got lots of new, diverse products coming to site at unprecedented levels. 

“I know some were worried when Ulverston was selected for the biopharm investment, but it really wasn’t too big a blow for us.”

Because of the nature of what Glaxo does, for people who aren’t in the know, there will always be an element of wonder about what goes on behind the gates.

The site director says the key thing for the team there is to get the balance right on health, safety, environment, quality, supply and cost.

So what makes the factory tick?  “That’s an easy one”, he says. “We have one of the most talented and committed workforces anywhere in the company, probably in the whole of the industry. It’s our people that make the site so special and who have made it so successful for the company and the town for generations.”

And what makes the workforce tick?

He can’t speak for everyone, of course, but communications officer Paul Stinson is as good an example as any.

 “I remember when I first started – I felt this was the place to be for opportunities. Twenty years later, I cannot imagine myself working anywhere else,” he says.

“There’s a drug we make called Atriance. We produce only about 6000 packs a year and it’s used as a last resort for children with leukaemia – it’s a life saver and it’s a wonderful feeling to know that that’s the difference we make in our jobs.”