Captain of world industry, Sir John Parker, who started out as a Harland and Wolff apprentice, has stressed the importance of skills during an address to business people in Belfast.
Co Down-born Sir John, who has worked for five FTSE 100 companies and is now chairman of mining giant Anglo American, addressed the annual leadership talk hosted by accountancy firm FPM.
He told a packed lecture theatre at the University of Ulster's Business School that good management was crucial – though with one caveat. "Good management does make a difference. But never get so high up that you can't find time to go down."
After serving his apprenticeship in Harland and Wolff's ship design team, Sir John's first leadership role was as managing director of shipbuilding company Austin & Pickersgill (A&P) from 1974 to 1978.
He later returned to Harland and Wolff to serve as chairman and chief executive for 10 years from 1983, leading a turnaround in the yard's fortunes and its absorption into the private sector.
Sir John has chaired five FTSE 100 companies, including National Grid, from which he stepped down in December 2011.
He is vice-chairman of marine terminal company DP World (Dubai) and a non-executive director of cruise ship company Carnival Corporation and aerospace firm EADS (Airbus). He has also chaired the Court of the Bank of England and is president of the Royal Academy of Engineers.
Sir John said his additional board roles were not in conflict with his stewardship of Anglo American, but revealed that separate interests meant that a fellow board member left the boardroom when a particular commodity arose in discussions.
The industrialist also set out his industrial strategy for the UK. "Education, the skills agenda, universities, research and development, industrial activity – it all needs to be more aligned and that I think is starting to happen."
Speaking afterwards, he stressed that immigration could help answer some shortfalls in skills. "I think if you have got real skill shortages and you can't train your own people to the extent that's required, then your economy will be stifled if it doesn't have the skills, so it's very important that for specialised skills that we can recruit from overseas markets."
FPM managing partner, Feargal McCormack, said: "It is clear to see why Sir John Parker has been one of the most sought-after company chairmen and directors for the past three decades."
Professor Marie McHugh, dean of the Ulster Business School at the university, said: "As a business school that is committed to developing the entrepreneurial flair, business, management and leadership skills of its students, it was an honour to welcome such an internationally renowned and respected figure as Sir John Parker, to share with us his thoughts on his approach to business."
Apprentice then member of ship design team at Harland and Wolff: 1959-1974
Managing director of Austin & Pickersgill: 1974 to 1978
Board of the British Shipbuilders Corporation 1978-1983
Managing director and chief executive of Harland & Wolff 1983-1993
Chairman and chief executive of Babcock International 1993-2000
Chairman of National Grid plc: 2002-2011
Shipyard apprentice who rose to summit of company
Sir John Parker (72) became a Harland & Wolff apprentice naval architect at 16 and rose to lead some of the UK's biggest shipbuilding companies.
He is now chairman of Anglo American, the fifth FTSE 100 company he has worked for. The Devon-based businessman is also president of the Royal Academy of Engineers. He has said that his training at H&W, which began when he was 16 and was combined with classes at the-then College of Technology, had led to many surprises in his career.
"I never thought I would ever chair the companies I have the privilege of chairing, or end up as president of the Royal Academy of Engineers. But you only achieve these things if you work hard and apply your qualifications."
Family circumstances led the Newcastle farmer's son to enter an apprenticeship. His father died when Sir John was 13, and with his mother Elizabeth left in charge of the family farm, the young man had to pick a career which enabled him to get home to Newcastle in the evenings.
He served a five-year apprenticeship and opted for further study at Queen's University.
Chairman of many talents
Sir John Parker is:
Chairman of Anglo American
Anglo American is one of the world's largest mining firms, based in the UK and listed on the London and Johannesburg stock exchanges.
Its portfolio of mining businesses spans bulk commodities and precious metals and minerals – in which it is a global leader in both platinum and diamonds.
Non-executive director of Carnival
Carnival Corporation is a global cruise company and one of the largest holiday companies in the world.
Its cruise brands include Carnival Cruise Lines, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises and Seabourn in North America, P&O Cruises (UK), and Cunard (UK), AIDA Cruises in Germany, Costa Cruises in Southern Europe, Iberocruceros in Spain, and P&O Cruises (Australia).
Vice-chairman DP World
DP World has more than 65 marine terminals across six continents, including new developments in India, Africa, Europe, South America and the Middle East.
Container handling is the company's core business and generates more than three-quarters of its revenue. In 2013, DP World handled more than 55m TEU (20-foot equivalent container units). With its pipeline of developments and expansions, capacity is expected to rise to more than 100m TEU by 2020.
Non-executive director of EADS (Airbus)
Airbus is one of the world's biggest commercial aircraft manufacturers. Its product line includes aircraft ranging from 100 to more than 500 seats: the single-aisle A320 Family, the wide body, long-range A330/A340, the new A350 and the A380 Family.