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Shipyard boss bows out from top role and vows to continue 'battling for Barrow'

Published on: Thursday 13th April 2017

With his no-nonsense attitude, naval background and self-confessed impatience and determination, it comes as little surprise that Tony Johns was head-hunted to come to Barrow and take over the helm at the shipyard. The North-West Evening Mail’s Amy Fenton spoke to him as he prepares to bow out after a 10-year tenure at BAE Systems.

Born in Bristol into a typically working-class family - his dad was a gas fitter and lifelong member of the GMB, Tony Johns has been "nuts about submarines" ever since he watched Cold War thriller Ice Station Zebra at the age of eight.

Thanks in part to a sponsorship from the Royal Navy, Tony was able to fulfil his dream of serving his country as a submariner, which he did proudly for 28 years.

"You see that advert about being made in the Royal Navy, I absolutely was made in the navy and I have a very huge affection for the institution," he said.

But in 2007, Tony decided "it was time to break away" and after a spell working for a private equity firm and major player Deloitte, he was headhunted by then shipyard boss John Hudson.

By 2010, Tony was leading BAE Systems' Successor programme - now known as the Dreadnought-class programme, and when John Hudson was promoted in 2013, Tony took over.

"Submarines are in my blood, I know an awful lot but in such a complex product there's always going to be stuff you need to learn," he said.

Arguably one of the first - and Tony suggests jokingly "the last", former submariners to take charge in Barrow, his background has allowed him to understand both the shipyard and the customer - something the Ministry of Defence will no doubt have been happy with.

Yet Tony remains characteristically modest about his qualifications for the job.

"You bring a different perspective, it's no better, it's no worse," he said.

"I understand the shipyard and I understand the customer. I've been in the submarines business for 33 years but there's always stuff to learn."

Challenges and achievements during his three years at the helm

Tony had always planned to leave the shipyard in 2017, so his departure is no surprise.

But despite only holding the position of managing director for just over three years, the changes, challenges and achievements in Barrow during that period have been nothing short of extraordinary.

The workforce has almost doubled - from 4,700 to 8,400, the first three Astute-class boats have been handed over to the Royal Navy and construction has started on the £41bn nuclear-armed Dreadnought-class submarines programme.

"To get Dreadnought from concept to the start of construction on the date that we said we would back in 2011, that was a phenomenal achievement, it's extraordinary," he said.

"We've got investment and started on the major facilities programme, and we've delivered batch one for Astute. Put all those three together, that's no mean feat.

"Everyone here should be proud. I am extremely proud of what people have achieved."

Although he admits it is "time to slow down a bit", Tony is clearly not the type to sit still for long.

After spending some time with his family, which may or may not include a trip to Australia to watch the Ashes (depending on whether his wife Clare reads this), he will decide on his next step.

But, he joked: "Whatever I do will be non-executive and I won't do anything as silly as running a nuclear submarine business. I think my wife would shoot me.

"I'm only 55, I'm not ready to put my slippers on just yet. It's time to slow down a bit. Until I get bored."

And finally... not farewell but bye for now

"I love this place and I love working in Barrow; I've always been made to feel welcome," Tony said in his final message to the town as shipyard boss.

"As someone who is a southerner I feel like an honorary northerner. The friendship here has been wonderful and I'll miss it but I will come back to Barrow.

"As someone who's been in the navy, you never have a home as such but I feel as at home here as I do anywhere.

"I wish the town and all its people all the best and I hope they capitalise on the opportunities the shipyard will bring over the next 15 years.

"And to the workforce, thank you for all the fantastic support you have given me.

"I will be cheering you on from the sidelines and batting for you and telling everyone what a wonderful place this is. Build lots of submarines and don't screw it up."

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