Belfast Telegraph

Paul McMorran: 'I've drunk vodka to do Russian deals and been held as a spy, but running this firm is as good as it gets'

The Big Interview with Paul McMorran of the Crossle Car Company

By Linda Stewart

When you've been arrested in Nigeria as a "CIA spy" and been able to laugh about it afterwards, very little is going to faze you.

Crossle Car Company managing director Paul McMorran has spent 40 years working in the oil industry all over the world - and his tales are endless.

The business, based in Holywood, Co Down, is the world's oldest constructor of bespoke racing cars. It was founded in 1957 by innovator and designer Dr John Crossle MBE.

Paul had several hair-raising adventures before joining Crossle, which marks its 60th anniversary this year.

"I was arrested a couple of times for being a CIA spy in Nigeria and on one occasion I had my ankle chained to the cylinder of a Peugeot 504, so I wasn't going anywhere," he says.

"I had some Nigerian friends who intervened. I wasn't there long and we all saw the funny side. The allegation wasn't true."

These days, Paul's life is considerably more serene, after he became Crossle's managing director, based at Rory's Wood in Holywood. But it's not such an about-turn as it seems. For years, Paul has been a huge fan and collector of the Crossle racing car and has even raced them to victory in a series of European championships.

The 59-year-old is married to Larissa (49), who is Russian, and has three children, Patricia (12), and also Ciaran (30) and Naomi (27), from a previous marriage.

Paul grew up in north Belfast in the fraught days of the early 1970s, the son of a Presbyterian minister at Duncairn Presbyterian Church.

He attended Belfast Royal Academy, and the family moved to Bangor shortly before he went to Edinburgh University to study mechanical engineering.

Paul spent two summers working at Harland & Wolff shipyard at an exciting time, when it was still building supertankers for BP.

He also spent a life-changing year at the University of Pennsylvania as part of his degree.

"I think that year probably helped me to understand that working in and experiencing different cultures was something that I enjoyed and I pretty much decided at that point that I would seek to work overseas," he says.

After graduating, Paul moved straight into the international oil industry, working for Schlumberger, which he describes as a "truly global company".

Paul trained in south west France before being sent to Sarawak in east Malaysia on his first overseas assignment, where he worked on an offshore drilling platform in the South China Sea.

"It gave me the opportunity to visit many other countries in that region - Indonesia, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Borneo, Singapore. After that I was based in the Middle East - Saudi Arabia, Yemen, places like that, and after that, west Africa. I've been in every country on the west African coast at some time."

Paul describes what it was like drilling for oil high in the mountains of Yemen. "We were finding fossils of sea life thousands of feet up in the mountains. There were tribesmen armed with jambiyas (curved daggers) and AK-47s who were there to protect us. There were all sorts of shooting incidents - it was like the Wild West."

Paul first went to Russia in 1997 at a time of "mayhem" following the break-up of the Soviet Union, when the Russian oil industry was in disarray and Schlumberger was helping an oil company called Yukos to turn itself around.

"It was fascinating, it was exciting, it was a very challenging and difficult time - but as some bosses have always told me, that is the most exciting time," Paul says.

"In three or four years, Yukos went from being a basket case to being valued at $30bn. I was very proud to have been a part of that.

"The people out there were absolutely fantastic - they are hardworking, funny people.

"Russians get a lot of bad press over here and a lot of that is propaganda.

"They know how to get things done and they know how to let their hair down - my liver probably suffered to some degree when I was out there. A lot of business relationships are built in the sauna, with much vodka flowing in the background."

By the time Paul had been in Russia for 15 years, he had become a vice president in an oil field service company - "the job of a lifetime" - and that was when a new opportunity came along. At 40 he had begun to race classic racing cars as a hobby, and he was soon persuaded to buy a Crossle.

The company's heyday was the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, and Crossle single-seaters played a significant role in the early careers of top motorsport names such as Nigel Mansell, Eddie Jordan, Eddie Irvine, John Watson and Martin Donnelly. Tom Cruise and Al Pacino have also driven Crossles.

Now the company is enjoying a resurgence, with the revival of historic race cars.

"There are hundreds of these cars out there around the world competing in races and I have a small collection myself," Paul says. The zenith for me was competing at the Monaco Historic Grand Prix in 2010 and finishing up on the podium, where I received my trophy from Formula One driver Jacky Ickx."

Over the years, he had become friends with the Crossle Car Company owner Arnie Black, who suggested Paul might be interested in taking up the reins after he went into semi-retirement - and that's what he ended up doing.

"It meant I had a whole new career as the MD of an iconic racing car company which is unique in the world.

"There are very few companies that built racing cars in the Sixties and Seventies that are still in business and even fewer that continue to operate from the original factory.

"This is the oldest company of its type in the world.

"Crossle Car Company has fans and admirers all over the world and I am very proud to be the custodian of that legacy.

"When I took over the company, there were so many wonderful things about it that there was no reason to change - the brand, the heritage, the craftsmanship, the customers and some of the products."

There were also some things that did need to change - for example, the need for a stream of apprenticeships to be developed.

"That's a time bomb for many companies of this kind and one of the first things I felt needed to be done was to address that ticking time bomb of skills that need to be handed over to a younger generation.

"It has resulted in a larger and a younger workforce."

But the company is preserving its rich heritage, and has worked with the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum on the restoration of the Crossle Mk III, on permanent display in the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum.

The Crossle Mk III will be on show at the Victoria Square Museum on Saturday as part of a partnership between National Museums NI and Victoria Square Shopping Centre in Belfast.

Paul has also tried to re-engineer some of the processes and, most importantly, focused on developing new export markets.

This year, the company has built seven cars for historic racing circuits at the Classic Racing School in Clermont-Ferrand in France and a 9S racing car for a German professor.

Part of the business involves sending parts in wooden crates to Crossle owners located around the world.

"We are producing a beautiful product of exceptionally high quality which all of us had good reason to be proud of.

"I always take a personal delight in using the stencil on these wooden crates to print the words 'Crossle Car Company, Engineering Emotion'," Paul says.

"It's exciting that a small company like this can still produce world class craftsmanship like this. It's nice to build something from start to finish, put the name on it and send it off."

Paul says the challenges of running a micro-company like Crossle and running a company of more than 100,000 people are the same - the only thing different is the scale.

"I think in this country we are far too insular," he says.

"We need to leave aside the introversion and looking at what we do badly and look at what what we do well and look beyond the shores of this island.

"We need to remind the world of what we are good at in this little country."

Belfast Telegraph