Head of the British Ceramic Confederation talks transferable skills

Clay Technology magazine
12 Dec 2008
Laura Cohen

Dr Laura Cohen has had a diverse career, progressing from a research
scientist to the head of a major UK trade association. Gary Price talks
to the new Chief Executive Designate of the British Ceramic
Confederation about the challenges that lie ahead for the industry and
the importance of transferable skills.

Seized opportunities are the backbone of Dr Laura Cohen’s career. This
outlook will stand her in good stead in her new role as Chief Executive
Designate of the British Ceramic Confederation (BCC). She faces immense
challenges in supporting and representing an industry that is dealing
with soaring energy prices and striving to remain competitive in a
turbulent financial global market.

‘My academic background had equipped me well for the manufacturing
industry so I was able to move between a broad range of technical
disciplines in my first few years in industry and make a practical
contribution,’ says Cohen. ‘It is important that academic institutions
provide employable people that are literate, numerate and armed to do
real jobs, yet have sufficient breadth to adapt to a range of
possibilities in the future.’

Cohen’s career has criss-crossed from roles in research to project
management, as well as overseeing regulatory policy. She has
successfully intertwined academic research with a more commercial
outlook, which was enhanced by embarking on a two-year Manufacturing
Professionalism Programme at Warwick University, UK, from 2001-03.

‘The course covered everything from business strategy to finance, and
managing people to product development, so it gave me a range of
skills,’ she explains. ‘I’ve since gone back to teach on a couple of
modules, particularly on making business cases, which I think is
something that everyone in industry needs to be able to do
effectively.’ Making those cases and quantifying their potential
effects is useful and can be helpful when talking to regulators to
explain the impact of their decisions.’

Opening doors

For as long as Cohen can remember, she has been intrigued by science.
‘I recall reading a lot of books about science and scientists, and
thinking, “I’d like to understand more”. I was fascinated about what
made things work and was in a school environment where we were
encouraged to study science.’

This curiosity led Cohen to study for a PhD in Materials Science and
Metallurgy at Cambridge University, UK. 'I enjoyed looking at
microstructures and being able to explain what was happening to a
material, for example, corrosion and mechanical damage, by linking this
to what was happening at near atomic levels. It was about practical
science, working on real industrial problems rather than abstract

Putting it into practice

Her desire to work in the ‘real world’ was illustrated during her
tenure at AstraZeneca, headquartered in London, UK, from 1994-2008,
where Cohen began to take an interest in legislative issues while
working as an International Packaging Project Manager, and later moving
to Regulatory Policy and Intelligence.

‘We worked closely with trade associations in the UK and Europe to
ensure that the industry’s voice was heard on a number of issues, such
as legislation implementing Braille in pharmaceutical packaging and
labelling,’ she explains. ‘We pushed for a more sensible timescale for
implementation.’ Cohen also representated the pharmaceutical industry
on the UK Cabinet Office Better Regulation task force, concerned with
labelling regulations for medicines. 'These experiences opened my eyes
to the excellent work that trade associations do and from there my
interest in the regulatory process grew and grew.’

A new challenge

It was this experience that made Cohen an attractive candidate for
Chief Executive of the BCC. During this difficult time for the UK
ceramics sector, with escalating energy costs and the effects of the
credit crunch on the housing market, the heavy clay industry (bricks
and roof tiles) is hit the hardest. Cohen believes her primary role is
to represent the industry on key legislation and promote the sector.

The implication of the UK’s growing gas import dependency is that it
must increasingly compete in global markets. ‘The ceramics industry is
a major user of energy, and fuel bills can represent up to 35% of
production cost,’ says Cohen. ‘There has been an entirely favourable
report over the summer on energy prices from the Department for
Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform select committee. The
British Ceramic Confederation wants to see the recommendations
implemented – and the market working well. The UK ceramics sector has
invested heavily in energy recently and probably is the most energy
efficient in the world, yet, in the current climate, companies have
been forced to rationalise production to remain viable, to the
detriment of local employment prospects. It is important that the
industry becomes even more energy-efficient, moving towards a low
carbon economy.

‘However,’ she continues, ‘the regulatory system needs to be a level
playing field with UK targets and taxes similar to those elsewhere in
Europe. If this doesn’t happen, UK manufacturing jobs may be lost and
we would rely on importing goods – made in a less energy efficient way
and with higher carbon emissions from transport.’

However, she is optimistic about the industry’s future, and encouraged
by projects such as Adoptic, a European R&D venture where the BCC
is working with academic partners and SMEs to assist ceramic companies
in identifying and selecting appropriate additives, and understanding
manufacturing faults in ceramics through an online database.

‘I want to work with companies to ensure the UK industry remains
competitive, by making sure that the manufacturing sector is not at a
disadvantage compared with manufacturers overseas, and by encouraging
companies to invest in new products and technologies to meet customer
and environmental needs,’ insists Cohen.

The long-term situation in the UK ceramics industry is therefore far from ‘doom and gloom’. ‘We have an industry in the UK that is efficient and effective, but for the ceramics sector to survive and thrive we need the economy, the housing market and the energy market to function well.
‘With the UK about to make a legal requirement for an 80% reduction in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, there is clearly more that industry can do to share good practice, and more that Government can do to fund and catalyse the step changes in technology required in industry.’

And her advice to the UK brick industry during the current economic climate? ‘Use the time now to research future customer needs, and develop the products and technology for the future. Work in partnership with trade associations to make Government aware of any changes needed or areas where
it can aid economic recovery and consumer spending.’

Further information: The British Ceramics Confederation