Amazing workforce fills me with pride, says outgoing Ferrexpo boss

The outgoing boss of Ukraine-based Ferrexpo hailed the spirit of its staff as he finished his final week at the iron ore pellet maker.

Jim North, who has run the FTSE 250 firm for just over three years, ends his stint as chief executive today after a tumultuous tenure bookmarked by the pandemic and a major European war.

Speaking from his home country of Australia, North, 53, told of the frantic scrambling that ensued when Russian troops attacked in February despite the group having planned for the possibility of an invasion.

‘Russia was throwing everything at Ukraine and attacking from all sides,’ he said. ‘Back in the beginning [of the war] we were meeting every four hours to discuss the situation and running through scenarios and options.’

Stepping down: Ferrexpo chief exec Jim North (pictured) is set to depart after a gruelling three-year stint

Stepping down: Ferrexpo chief exec Jim North (pictured) is set to depart after a gruelling three-year stint

Almost overnight, Ferrexpo was forced to reorient its operations and export routes after the Black Sea port of Pivdennyi, which it used to export around half of its iron, was closed.

Difficulties continued last winter when Russian missiles began raining down on Ukraine’s power grid in a bid to freeze the population and break morale. 

‘It was a major issue – not just from a business point of view but for the local community,’ North said.

‘All our employees are recruited from villages surrounding our operation so the prospect of trying to get through winter with minimal power and make sure everybody had heating was one of the biggest worries.’

Acknowledging the devastating human impact, he revealed 25 Ferrexpo workers have so far been killed in combat.

‘We’ve done our best to try to support their families but we can’t fix things like that,’ he said. ‘I can’t imagine how devastating it is to lose a family member defending your nation.

‘I have nothing but pride and admiration for how resilient everyone has been and how they have dealt with this threat looming overhead. I’ve told my team time and time again how proud I am to have been part of this.’

Shortly after the outbreak of war, Ferrexpo’s board approved around £16million in humanitarian aid – most of which has been spent over the last 15 months on emergency supplies, including food, medicine and first aid kits.

North reserves particular praise for Yaroslavna Blonska, Ferrexpo’s acting chief marketing officer, who helped to organise a shipment of 60 tons of baby formula and food into the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.

Ferrexpo was also forced to deal with an influx of refugees fleeing the Russian advance. 

Shut: Ferrexpo was forced to reorient its operations after the Black Sea port of Pivdennyi (pictured), which it previously used to export around half of its iron, was closed

Shut: Ferrexpo was forced to reorient its operations after the Black Sea port of Pivdennyi (pictured), which it previously used to export around half of its iron, was closed

North said that, about four months after the invasion, the company had been housing 8,000 refugees, mostly in temporary accommodation usually reserved for visiting contractors and consultants.

While many have moved on, some ‘chose to stick around’ and were even recruited. ‘We’ve offered roles to around 120 who chose to stay,’ he said. ‘Because where they came from, it’s not possible to work any more.’

The company has also been helping to construct bomb shelters near schools in the area as Russian shelling and missile strikes continue. 

North, who last visited the country in February, outlines the complexities of reaching Ferrexpo’s operations, which are concentrated near the city of Kremenchuk on the eastern bank of the Dnipro river which runs through Ukraine.

‘It’s quite a journey to get in,’ he said. ‘You fly to either Krakow or Warsaw in Poland. But because of a curfew we can’t reach the site directly so we need to overnight in Kyiv.’

But he says making the journey is important, adding: ‘The guys working there really appreciate it when we go in. You can support from outside but visiting in person is an absolute must for morale.’

The war looks set to cap off a bumpy tenure for North, who was made acting chief executive in May 2020 in the depths of the pandemic.

He took on the role permanently on February 14 last year, ten days before Russian tanks rolled across the border.

While North said 2020 and 2021 were ‘the best years’ the company has had, war slammed the brakes on many plans. 

‘We hoped 2022 was going to be a great year for us,’ he said. ‘We have a lot of projects planned so it’s quite disappointing that the Russians chose to do what they did.’

Despite the headwinds that are continuing to batter the business, North says that he is unwavering in his confidence in Ferrexpo’s employees. 

‘We had quite a few people leave in the early stages of the war but, for those who stayed, the level of commitment has been outstanding,’ he said.

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