Obituary: Sir Duncan McDonald

Tam Dalyell
Saturday 01 March 1997 00:02

As managing director of Bruce Peebles, power station equipment engineers, as chief executive of Reyrolle Parsons, switch-gear engineers, and as chairman of Northern Engineering Industries, Duncan McDonald had more in common with his heroes Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59), Daniel Gooch (1816-89) and the great Victorian engineer-managers, than modern industrialist- accountant managers who work in terror of slick stockmarket analysts and the havoc they may cause. It is perhaps an indication of how industrial perceptions have changed in the last quarter of a century, not necessarily for the better, that McDonald told me proudly: "I have raised the number of people working for us in our companies to nearly 35,000." He would not like to have said: "I have cut the workforce, becoming more cost-effective and have done x per cent better than last year."

What McDonald cared about, explained Hamish Morrison, former chief executive of the Scottish Council of Development and Industry, was giving people worthwhile engineering work which would give them job satisfaction and be useful to society and Britain. I never did discern what McDonald's personal politics were, but frequently sitting beside him on the Edinburgh- London plane I came to know that he had an obsessive horror of human waste in the shape of unemployment and a demonic energy in trying to do something about it by providing skilled jobs.

He was a passionate power engineer who believed, above all else, that the prime mover in the power station, the turbine, had to be perfect. If not there would be many other problems. He motivated people, who recognised that he knew where every proverbial nut and bolt should go in the burning instrument. I saw at first hand how he was admired on account of his engineering expertise and an ability to understand the complexities of any task being carried out by his employees. On many occasions, I went round the Bruce Peebles plant at Broxburn, West Lothian with him as the local MP and sensed the respect in which he was held by shop-floor and junior managers alike. Shirt-sleeved and immaculate, he made a point of knowing everyone in the factory by name. The result was that when the transformer industry was undergoing periods of traumatic change in the 1960s and 1970s, he was given co- operation by the Amalgamated Engineering Union. Soft- spoken, with a twinkle in his eye, McDonald's philosophy was that huge problems, technical and human, were there to be addressed quietly, unostentatiously and with sustained intelligence.

He was born within sight of the Forth Bridge, the son of a cable jointer with the then South of Scotland Electricity Board, now Scottish Power. During his childhood in Inverkeithing he had been inspired by Sir John Fowler's wonderful cantilevers. Whenever I saw him he would say to me as the MP for South Queensferry, "Are you looking after my bridge properly? Are you sure that rust, which never sleeps, is not getting a hold?"

He was an inspiration to those of us who campaign for properly maintaining the greatest engineering monument to the 19th century. It was a great pleasure to him when the company of Sir William Arrol was added to his Northern Engineering conglomerate since Arrol had been the structural engineers responsible in the 1890s for the Forth Bridge's construction.

In the early years of the Second World War he obtained first class honours in electrical engineering at Edinburgh University, and went on reserved occupation as a graduate apprentice to British Thompson Houston at Rugby. When the war ended, BTH earmarked him for research and development in transformer design which suited his talents perfectly.

In 1954 he transferred to Bruce Peebles Industries and became their chief transformer designer from 1954 to 1959, when he was promoted as chief engineer. In 1962 he became managing director, and in 1974 chairman and chief executive, both of Bruce Peebles and of Reyrolle Parsons. Bob Smith, Bruce Peebles' quality and safety manager, who worked with him from 1954, described McDonald as "superb during the difficult mergers of Bruce Peebles, Reyrolle Parsons and Clark Chapman. He respected the identity of Bruce Peebles and kept it as a core large transformer unit, thereby helping the morale of the workforce. Equally the managers of Reyrolle Parsons and Clark Chapman were pleased at the dignity he accorded them."

His relations with employees were further enhanced by the fact that he was a keen fly fisherman and a regular member of the Bruce Peebles fishing club. Many good relationships were formed on the banks of Scottish rivers at the expense of trout.

He was particularly interested in developments for nuclear power-stations and was elected to the board of the National Nuclear Corporation. Truth to tell, he was always ambiguous about nuclear power at a time when great efficiencies were being made in the winning of fossil fuel. He was impressed by the advanced gas-cooled reactors and praised Dr Robin Jeffery's engineering feat in the creation of Torness. He was less enthusiastic about both the Magnox stations and the problems of Dungeness B and elsewhere among the next generation of nuclear power-stations.

For ten years (1983-92) McDonald was on the board of Scottish Accident, whose chairman, the Earl of Airlie, told me yesterday: "He was much loved not only on the board but by managers and their colleagues. He had a wonderful way with people. He put his points in a way that was most acceptable."

McDonald was a decentraliser by conviction and in his latter years felt that running a great company out of Newcastle put him at a disadvantage with those of his competitors whose headquarters could intermingle with government in London. He felt hurt that the metropolitan stockmarket was never kind to Northern Engineering Industries and suspected that they felt that they were some kind of sleepy set-up in the outback rather than a great international company at the cutting edge of technology - in the 1980s they had a pounds 700m turnover. He always extolled the virtues of the Scottish Office in Edinburgh with whom he had had exceptionally cordial relations. It was characteristic of McDonald that he made time to return from Newcastle to Edinburgh for meetings of the Scottish Council of Development and Industry. Though it was common knowledge that he had been offered the chair of the Scottish Council, it was also characteristic that he resisted a strong personal temptation on the grounds that the chairman of this prestigious body ought to be based in Scotland and not in the North of England.

Duncan McDonald was a man of international vision and travelled the world in search of orders to keep his employees in work. In February 1985, in the company of such heavyweights as Lord King of British Airways, Richard Giordano of British Oxygen and Denis Jackson of Rolls-Royce he was one of ten prominent industrialists who went under the leadership of Lord Young, then Mrs Thatcher's Minister without Portfolio, to China. He was the first man I knew to emphasise the potential of the Pacific Rim. His hallmark was vision.

Duncan McDonald, turbine engineer and industrialist: born Inverkeithing, Fife 20 September 1921; CBE 1976; Group Managing Director, Northern Engineering Industries 1977-80, Chairman 1980-86; Kt 1983; married 1955 Jane Guckian (three sons, one daughter); died Edinburgh 23 February 1997.

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