Profile: In the school of hard Knox: Sir Ian Wood: Britain's northernmost tycoon looks beyond oil. David Bowen reports

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The Independent Online
SIR IAN WOOD is a teetotaller and self-confessed workaholic who travels economy class on airliners and describes himself as the 'John Knox member' of the Royal Bank of Scotland board. So it was rather a surprise to track him down at Les Deux Alpes, the French ski resort.

But no doubt even Knox needed his holidays, and when better to take one than in the wake of a prestigious new year's present? Wood has been a Sir for a week now, and is bemused by his new moniker. 'I haven't even begun to get used to it,' he says.

Many others will be bemused too, for Wood's name stands out among the six new year business knights for its lack of celebrity. The others - Brian Pearse of Midland Bank, Iain Vallance of BT, Roger Neville of Sun Alliance, Michael Perry of Unilever and Richard Sykes of Glaxo - are all in the City mainstream. Few Sassenachs outside the oil business will have heard of Ian Wood. But he is well known in Scotland; and in his home city of Aberdeen he is celebrated. For Sir Ian, head of one of the UK's largest, most successful private companies, is Britain's most northerly tycoon.

Wood Group had sales of pounds 250m in the past year, 25 per cent higher than the year before. In 1992 it made a pre-tax profit of pounds 18.5m, and though the low oil price could well take a toll, the company has been untouched by the mainstream recession. In addition Sir Ian controls JW Group, which owns fish farms and has interests in 50 trawlers; it makes about pounds 1m profit a year. As he and his family own all JW and more than 70 per cent of the main group, they are firmly in Britain's club of super-rich.

Sir Ian, 51, tall, craggy and bewhiskered, has built up a great empire on the back of the North Sea oil boom. His company provides specialist services and personnel to the industry: inter alia it refurbishes living accommodation, supplies fire- fighting equipment and carries out a range of specialist engineering work. It employs 2,500 people and, he believes, should double in size in the next four years.

It all started by mistake. In the summer of 1964, the 22-year-old Ian Wood had just finished his degree at Aberdeen University. He had a First in psychology, and had been offered an assistant lectureship at the university. 'I'd not really thought about going into business,' he says. 'My mother wanted me to be a professional.'

But he agreed to spend that summer helping his father in the family company. John Wood had started in ship repair, and by now owned half a dozen trawlers. With 90 employees, it was one of many Aberdonian companies making a living from the sea. Ian's holiday job was rather more responsible than most - he was given charge of the trawler business. Very soon, he says, 'I found I could make things happen - and so many things needed to be changed.' He told his father he would stay on for a year, by the end of which he had forgotten all about academia.

It was not difficult to make improvements. 'Aberdeen's fishing industry was not the most challenging industrial environment,' he says. 'And I was ambitious. I was either going to change things or do something else.'

Also, he says, 'I picked up the principles of business quite quickly.' Wood found his background in psychology helpful. 'Business is all about understanding people's motivations. But people often hide their real feelings behind a front.'

Another attribute marked him out from the average Aberdeen fish executive. From the beginning he worked 16 hours a day. He still does, although he insists: 'I work only until 2pm or 3pm on Saturdays and Sundays, to tidy up ready for the week ahead.' It helps that he does not drink and is fit: he played rugby for his college, and still plays squash and tennis, goes hill-walking - and of course skis.

By 1967, when his father handed him control of the group, he had expanded the fleet to 20 and multiplied the workforce by five. The following year he moved into fish processing. But it was not until 1972 that the company set off in pursuit of oil. The first North Sea oil was struck in 1969, and in the next two years a series of finds, including the giant Forties and Brent fields, were made. But in Aberdeen, Sir Ian says, 'No one had the slightest idea that there would be any major long-term change.'

He himself believed oil might add useful turnover. In 1972, he changed his mind. The perceptive chairman of Aberdeen County Council, Maitland Mackie, corralled a group of Aberdonian businessmen and took them to Houston, which was whirring with oil-stimulated activity. 'I hadn't a clue what I was going for, but it was a complete eureka experience,' Sir Ian says. 'I came back and said, 'We've got it wrong. We're going to have to form new companies and take on new people.' ' He went to London to talk to oil executives. 'I said, 'Am I reading this correctly?' They said, 'Yes you are'.'

He was also piqued by the arrival in Aberdeen of tall-walking Texans who, he says, 'would hand out crumbs from the table to local companies. They were a bit patronising.'

His first move was to pay pounds 1m for a shipyard in Torry, increasing his company's size by 75 per cent. Then he started to invest, and was soon offering a range of basic services - fabrication space, accommodation, lorries. His father was bewildered by the change. 'We took a big stand at the first Abderdeen oil exhibition in 1975. My father asked how much it had cost. I told him, pounds 8,000 or pounds 10,000. He said, 'Do you really know what you're doing?' He could have built two fishing vessels for that in the Fifties.'

Wood Group started to grow rapidly, making acquisitions and taking risks - but not too many. 'I've got a good Scottish streak in me,' he says. Inevitably, that means his big regrets have been over risks not taken. 'We could have bought an oil exploration company called Expro after the 1986 oil price crash for pounds 2m. It was sold recently for pounds 45m.' But, he says, 'We've made two right decisions for every mistake.'

He will not rule out a flotation, but it will not be for five or 10 years. By then Wood Group could have a turnover of pounds 1bn. 'If a company doesn't double its size in four years, it's not growing at a good rate,' Sir Ian says.

In the 1980s Wood steered the business up-tech, buying companies with specialist expertise. When the oil price crashed in 1986, oil groups decided to contract out many of their activities to save costs, and Wood was well placed to gather in the business. It has, for example, signed a pounds 150m deal with BP to provide a range of services. It also has a number of joint ventures, notably with Rolls-Royce, Weir Group and Foster Wheeler.

Now the oil price is soft again, and activity in the North Sea is slackening. Sir Ian is worried about the effect on Aberdeen, but has been making sure his own group at least is not hit too hard. It has been moving abroad, buying companies in the US and bidding for contracts in other oil regions. It has diversified away from oil, signing a deal with National Power to service gas turbines, for example; and it has continued to invest in JW Holdings, the original fish business.

'Fishing sustained the North Sea 200 years ago,' he says. 'We believe it will in 200 years' time.' If his three sons (the eldest is 20) want to join the business, they will be steered into JW.

He is aware that the group has reached a size where it too could become enmeshed in bureaucracy. 'It's getting harder and harder to avoid,' he says, but believes he has created a management structure that can sustain fleetness of foot. 'One young lad said he felt that in Wood Group he was expected to work an hour more a day than in other companies. When that culture goes, we will start to wither.'

He is delighted he did not become an academic. 'I would have been disastrous,' he says. 'Universities are very political, working by a strange form of democracy. I like straightforward lines of control.' He got his PhD eventually anyway: in 1984, Aberdeen gave him an honorary doctorate in law.

He is also glad he cut through his own prejudices about the sleepy hollow of industry. 'I keep saying to young people today, 'Strip away the negative comment in the media, management is a very satisfying way of making things happen.' '

Despite his protestations, and his immense wealth, it is difficult not to think of Ian Wood as a man after Knox's heart. He is almost, but not quite, apologetic when he confirms that he travels economy class. 'That's not a big deal,' he says. 'I'd rather spend the money on a decent hotel.'

Furthermore, his list of extra- curricular activity smacks of stern duty, not of lucre. Only one directorship, of the Royal Bank of Scotland, nestles among a string of unpaid activities. He spends a fifth of his week - perhaps 16 hours - on them. Among other things, he is a member of the Scottish Economic Council and the National Training Task Force, and is chairman of Grampian Enterprise.

This last is particularly important, for Sir Ian is proud of the Granite City. Once it had realised the opportunities of oil, he says, it did the right things. 'It would be wrong to say it would all have happened anyway. The business could have gone to Dundee or elsewhere. The harbour has been rebuilt, and the local civic leaders did what they could to encourage development. That is very much to their credit.'

Now he feels his job is to make sure Aberdeen does not drift back into economic obscurity. 'We're the lucky generation of north-east Scotland,' he says. 'I'd hate the next generation to look back and say, 'Well, what did you leave us?' '

(Photograph omitted)

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