Douglas Hume: Fourth-generation engineer

David Hume
Monday 27 July 2009 00:00

Douglas Hume was the last of four generations of his family to run the international Glasgow-based engineering firm James Howden & Co. Ltd., where he was managing director from 1964 to 1987 and chairman in 1988. The company celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2004.

James Douglas Howden Hume was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1928, where his father, Jimmy Hume, had been installing Howden fans and other equipment in Munmorah Power Station. Hume was named after his great-great uncle James Howden, the renowned Glasgow engineer and inventor, who founded the firm in 1854. Returning to Scotland in 1930, the family settled in Helensburgh on the Firth of Clyde, within easy reach of the Scotland Street office and works near the centre of Glasgow. Hume was to live in Helensburgh for the rest of his life.

Serving his apprenticeship at Howden from 1947, Hume qualified as a "reliable craftsman in all aspects of general engineering" in 1955. During this period he did his national service as a subaltern in the Royal Artillery and crewed on his father's six-metre yacht in the 1948 Olympic Games at Torbay (where he carried the flag for Great Britain at the head of the procession). In 1950, he married June Spriggs, the younger daughter of Sir Frank Spriggs, managing director of the Hawker Siddeley Group. He also studied mechanical engineering, graduating with an Honours BSc degree in 1953 from Glasgow University.

This was followed by a fruitful three-year spell with David Nicholson's Production Engineering, and on returning to Howden, his first task was to modernise its production methods. The result was that Howden was able to announce a "no redundancy" policy at a time when over-manning had become endemic on Clydeside. A vital principle of this policy was that no skilled workers were shed from Howden. This was a revolutionary approach to industrial relations and was undoubtedly a key to the survival of the company in the prevailing economic conditions.

When his uncle Crawford Hume retired in 1963 as chairman after 50 years of service, Jimmy Hume, who had been managing director since 1934, took over. Douglas was appointed managing director, a position of responsibility for which he had had a thorough practical training. One of his first initiatives was the amicable merger of Howden with Godfrey Engineering; this brought the latter's experience of the precision engineering of Lysholm rotary screw compressors to Howden. Today, the Glasgow Craigton factory has a worldwide market for these specialist compressors.

The next major initiative overseen by Hume was the gas circulators for the AGR (advanced gas-cooled reactor) nuclear power stations, a unique Howden design that stood the test of time with trouble-free operation. This was followed by the Channel Tunnel project, which saw the Scotland Street factory making the two giant 600-ton machines which successfully completed the drilling of the main tunnels.

It is not widely known that the first two prototype wind turbines to generate electricity for the national grid in Britain were made and erected by Howden in the early 1980s, at Carmarthen in Wales and Burgar Hill, Orkney. Hume was keen on this pioneering development, which was initially successful; however, after a catastrophic and expensive mechanical failure at what was then the largest wind farm in the world, at Altamont Pass in California, they were discontinued when new leadership took over at Howden in 1988.

Tom Zacaroli, an American colleague who was appointed CEO of Howden by Charter plc when it acquired the company in 1997, wrote of Hume: "He was a serious businessman – but he did a great job hiding it. He was about fun and people. As a boss, he was always fair. He listened. He advised. And he could always be counted on to help as a friend when you needed one. I cannot recall a single instance when I was forced to do something I disagreed with and never anything I thought was unethical."

Hume left Howden in 1987 after serving as managing director for 23 years, during which time the annual turnover grew from £5m to £500m. He became chairman of the Industrial Committee of Glasgow Action and chairman of Magnum Power Solutions, a small company that made a built-in power supply for computers.

Hume had a wide range of interests and enthusiasms. He loved sailing, racing on the Clyde and elsewhere with his wife June, and one of his favourite family cruising holidays was among the Greek islands. He was an expert fly fisherman, too, on the Spey, Tay, and the Findhorn, and a first-class shot during the pheasant season. Hume loved classical music, and was a great supporter and enthusiast of the visual arts. He was generous to friends and family, typically inviting 21 of his close family as his guests on a 10-day trip on the Nile to celebrate his 80th birthday.

Latterly, he set up a charitable fund as a result of June's struggle with cancer. This fund assists terminally ill patients who wish to spend their last days in their own homes and who may need to purchase equipment and make house modifications. When Hume died, the family named this the June and Douglas Hume Memorial Fund, which is run by the Scottish Community Foundation and has already helped many people.

June, his wife of 53 years, pre-deceased him, as did their elder daughter, Evelyn. He is survived by his son, Duncan, his younger daughter, Clare, and 10 grandchildren.

James Douglas Howden Hume, CBE, LLD, engineer: born Melbourne, Australia 4 May 1928; married 1950 June Spriggs (died; one son, one daughter, one daughter deceased); died 26 April 2009.

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