Belfast Telegraph

Industry grandee Sir John Parker hits out over 'zealot-like' dismissal of business

Duncan Tait, president and CEO of Fujitsu EMEIA and head of Fujitsu UK; Leo Johnson, PwC disruption lead; Sara Venning, Institute of Water president-elect and CEO of Northern Ireland Water; and Sir John Parker, CBE at Titanic Belfast for the Institute of Water conference
Duncan Tait, president and CEO of Fujitsu EMEIA and head of Fujitsu UK; Leo Johnson, PwC disruption lead; Sara Venning, Institute of Water president-elect and CEO of Northern Ireland Water; and Sir John Parker, CBE at Titanic Belfast for the Institute of Water conference
Ryan McAleer

By Ryan McAleer

The former boss of Harland and Wolff, Sir John Parker, has criticised what he has called a "zealot-like" attitude to business by hardline Brexiteers in the Conservative Government.

Speaking on a visit to Belfast, the Co Down-born industrialist described "huge frustration" among businesspeople across the UK throughout the Brexit negotiation process.

"They are frustrated that they are dismissed so gratuitously, almost, by hardliners, in particular within the Conservative Government," he said.

One of the most respected figures in UK business over the last 40 years, Sir John spent a decade at the head of Harland and Wolff before going on to chair five FTSE 100 companies. A former director of Airbus, he was also part of the decision by the European company to acquire Bombardier's C Series, which became the A220 last July.

Sir John hit out at the dismissal of Airbus chief Tom Enders' intervention in January when he issued a warning over the potential impact a no-deal Brexit could have on the business, which employs 14,000 people in the UK, with another 110,000 jobs linked to the supply chain.

"There's the attitude that 'you would say that, wouldn't you'," said Sir John.

"That's the arrogance that's present. They are so zealot-like, that they are prepared to dismiss any logical argument put in front of them from serious people, and that's a real turn-off for business."

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The chair of the Pennon Group in Exeter since 2015, Sir John was among the speakers at the annual Institute of Water conference in the Titanic Hotel on Wednesday. The line-up also included Boris Johnson's brother Leo, who leads PwC's disruption division.

Sir John referred to the former foreign secretary and front runner in the race to become Prime Minister. "Then you have our current potential, God forbid, Prime Minister, who said 'F business' not very long ago. You have this incredible divide between the business and the political. It's so unlike Germany and so unlike France. We don't drive our political decisions from what's good for business and therefore what's good for tax income in the country," he added.

A member of the Airbus board for 11 years, Sir John said he did not know whether the French aerospace giant would step in to buy Bombardier's up-for-sale Belfast operation.

He said: "Airbus is a very serious company and incredibly responsible, and honours commitments in a very responsible way, in my experience. I would be very surprised if either a primary aircraft builder, such as Airbus, or a first-tier supplier of Airbus components would not be interested in buying that facility."

But he spoke against the potential for the operation to come under Government ownership.

"I've been in nationalised industry in the UK and indeed over here, and the reality is that governments are heavy partners to deal with."

The Institute of Water conference was set in the former headquarters of Harland and Wolff. The return to the hotel was filled with nostalgia for the former chairman and chief executive.

"Wandering down the corridors here, it brings back a lot of memories," he reflected.

Joining the shipbuilder as an apprentice in 1958, Sir John rose through the ranks until he was appointed managing director of Austin and Pickers in 1974. But by 1983, then Northern Ireland secretary Jim Prior wanted him back.

Nationalised in 1977, Harland and Wolff was losing thousands of workers by the early 1980s.

Against the backdrop of massive job losses at British Enkalon and DeLorean, around 2,280 jobs went at the Belfast shipyard in 1982.

By 1983, Sir John was deputy chief executive at the British Shipbuilders Corporation when Jim Prior asked him to lead the organisation.

"I was completely unsure whether we could rescue the company," he said. "There were 8,000 employees, we were losing £40m a year. It was the worst shipping market since the 1930s."

But within three years, the company returned to profit.

"At that moment Mrs Thatcher said privatise. Market conditions were still not right, but we had to go ahead with it."

Fred Olsen bought the operation in 1989 and Sir John eventually departed four years later on good terms. Many key memories have been recorded in his new book, The View from the Bridge: An Industrial Journey.

"My biggest disappointment here, my biggest personal failure as far as I was concerned as a leader, was my failure to convince the Government that we should go back into passenger shipbuilding and particularly into cruise ships in the Eighties," he said.

Extensive research by H&W had identified cruise ships as a potentially lucrative emerging global market.

"Now, 30 years later, that market has grown consistently by 6-7% per annum."

Sir John now sits on the board of the Carnival Group, which has 105 cruise liners.

Another 20 liners have been ordered from shipyards in Italy and Germany with strong state links.

Although not a fan of nationalising industry, he still feels Government has an important role to play in steering the economy.

"I think Government has to be actively involved with universities and local businesses in working out plans and helping to support plans for the future," he said. "And they've got to take some risks."

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