Few industrialists can boast the depth of experience of Sir John Parker. After a glittering career spanning several decades he is seen as one of the country’s most respected executives, having been chairman of blue-chip companies such as mining conglomerate Anglo American and National Grid.
But when he looks back on his achievements, it is not his experience of running FTSE 100 companies that enthuses him most. Sir John might be best known as a businessman, but before that he cut his teeth as an engineer. And it is this period of his life that he recalls with relish.
“I was born into a farming family but I determined very early on that I didn’t want to do farming as a career,” he says. “At school, I was pretty good at maths and science and I had great teachers who were the inspiration behind my enjoyment of those subjects. And engineering gave the chance to apply them in a practical manner.”
Back in the early 1960s, when Sir John set out on his career in Belfast, there was only one place where he wanted to work: the giant Harland and Wolff shipyard that dominated the city. He landed on his feet – the company offered him the chance to become a student apprentice, earning while he was learning. He was employed part-time for six years across all departments while completing his studies in naval architecture and mechanical engineering. Those were the days when industrial leviathans like Harland and Wolff offered the best apprenticeships in the business. Sir John acknowledges that he benefited from a technical grounding that was second to none. “I was given tremendous development by the company, working my way through all of the engineering and technical offices and many of the other departments in the shipyard,” he says.
“Eventually I joined the ship design team. When an enquiry came in, we were tasked with producing the conceptual design. It was fascinating, because then Harland and Wolff was one of the largest shipyards in the world, so there was an incredible variety of ships.”
One of the earliest projects he worked on was the design and build of SS Canberra, an ocean liner commissioned by P&O. Canberra was something of an oddity: instead of being mechanically coupled to the propeller shafts, the ship’s steam turbines drove large electric alternators which provided power to electric motors which, in turn, drove twin propellers.
They were the most powerful steam turbo-electric units ever installed in a passenger ship; at 42,500hp (31,700kW) per shaft, they surpassed SS Normandie’s 40,000hp (30,000kW) on each of the four shafts. This gave Canberra a speed of 27.25 knots (50.47km/h). Canberra also had a bow propeller for manoeuvring in port and for docking, and was the first British passenger liner to use alternating current as power.
Sir John was inspired by playing his part in bringing the Canberra to life. He recalls: “I had a modest role, really, it being very early days in my career in the drawing offices. I was in charge of the deck covering plan, which determined what galleys, lounges and cabins went in. I also had to go on to the ship when it was being outfitted to check on progress. That really brought me into contact with the rest of the yard’s workforce. I was very inspired by that ship.”
After extensive ship design and research experience, Sir John went on to hold senior management positions in technical, production and ship sales departments at Harland and Wolff. During his time there, the yard broke new ground, winning the contract for the world’s first commercial liquefied natural gas ship, the 28,000m3 Methane Progress. It was also a time of transition. The yard was moving from mainly manual-based production processes to embrace emerging computer-controlled cutting techniques.
Sir John says this process required technical and people management skills in equal amount.