Business interview: Charles Berry, Weir Group

Charles Berry of the Weir Group. Picture: Robert Perry
Charles Berry of the Weir Group. Picture: Robert Perry
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AFTER a week away in Aviemore, Charles Berry returned home to Glasgow to a number of telephone messages from Inzito Partnership’s Carol Leonard, writes Kristy Dorsey.

It was October 2012 and naturally curious to hear from the doyenne of UK corporate headhunters, Berry phoned Inzito’s London office and was put through to its co-founder.

Leonard explained that she was looking for candidates to chair a FTSE 100 engineering company based in Glasgow – Weir Group – did he know much about them?

“This is the phone call I had been wishing for all my life,” recalls Berry. It might also be termed something of a homecoming. Berry, who succeeded Lord Smith as chairman of the venerable engineering business at the turn of the year, is the son of a life-long Weir man. His first paid job was a two-month apprenticeship at the company’s pumps division in Cathcart, the former home to the historic headquarters of the group.

Eager to get some practical training before undertaking his engineering degree at Glasgow University, he was given a lump of metal and told to fashion it into a hammer head. This he did with enthusiasm, though the pay was less than inspiring.

“It was single-figure pounds a week, but that was not the point,” Berry says. “I was just very keen to get hands-on experience. It was great. I learned a huge amount.”

That apprenticeship set him off on a career that has spanned four decades and more than half-a-dozen companies before bringing him back to Weir, the firm where his late father Theodore worked for most of his adult life.

After completing his degree in electrical engineering in 1974, Berry joined Barr & Stroud, the Glasgow optical engineering firm where he served as an apprentice during the summers after his initial stint with Weir.

Barr & Stroud was taken over by Pilkington in what Berry describes as a “very fast, friendly acquisition” that paved the way for his next round of education, a master’s degree from the Sloan School of Management at MIT. Though tempted to stay on in the US after finishing in 1982, he returned to the UK with Pilkington, which had paid for his degree.

“There was no contractual obligation on me to come back to Pilkington, but there was a moral obligation,” he says.

He left seven years later for a brief stint with Norwest Holst, the UK division of the French-owned construction conglomerate now known as Vinci. His work kept him away during the week from his wife and three children in Glasgow, so when the offer came in 1991 to join ScottishPower, he seized the chance to return north. “The opportunity to come back up to Scotland was a great one, because my son had just been born, and I was back in my home city.”

He landed his first chief executive’s role with the Scottish utility group after being put in charge of UK operations in 2000 and got his first feel for the chairman’s seat a year later when he took over the post at Thus, ScottishPower’s telecoms subsidiary which had just floated.

It was at ScottishPower that he got to know Weir’s current chief executive, Keith Cochrane, who became finance director. Berry spent 14 years at ScottishPower and admits he probably would have stayed on were it not for a boardroom clear-out that forced his and several other departures in 2005.

“When you enter corporate life, these things can happen,” he says. “It isn’t pleasant, but you have to accept it and move on.”

That he did quickly. Within days of his departure, he was contacted about the possibility of chairing Drax, the power generator that was preparing to rejoin the London Stock Exchange after a troubled period brought about by a plunge in wholesale prices and the collapse of its main customer.

Though the majority of Drax’s woes were in the past, Berry thought hard about the decision before going ahead. At the age of 53, executive management was still a possibility. However, he already had a non-executive role at Securities Trust of Scotland, so the addition of a chairman’s post would set his career on a new path.

In the end, it passed what Berry describes as the “wake-up in the morning test” – when the board meeting rolls around each month, would he look forward to it? He believed he would.

What has kept him occupied recently are efforts to move Drax into a greener future by burning biomass in addition to traditional coal generation. Since joining Weir’s board in the spring of last year, he has been travelling the world in preparation for his chairmanship in Glasgow.

He has visited operations in Australia, Holland, the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Thailand, India and the US. South America, China and Korea are due up in the coming months.

“The great thing about going around the Weir Group is there are very good teams all around this business,” he says. “In this company, people embrace being part of the Weir Group.”

For Berry, the urge to integrate comes naturally. To prove the point, he pulls out his iPad and calls up a photo that his mother Elma gave him after telling her he was to be the next chairman of the company.

In it, a four-year-old Berry sits at his father’s desk at the Drysdale pumps business. His dad eventually became managing director of the pumps division before retiring in 1979.

“It’s the first business I ever knew,” he says. “If there is one job I would have hoped to have one day, it is this one.”

30-second CV

Job: Chairman, Weir Group

Born: Glasgow, 1952

Education: Kelvinside Academy, University of Glasgow (BSc electrical engineering), Sloan School of Management at MIT (MSc in management)

First job: A summer apprentice at Weir Group’s Cathcart training facility

Car: Audi A6 Allroad

Kindle or book? I have not got a Kindle, so it would probably be a book.

Can’t live without: My iPad

Favourite place: Glasgow

What makes you angry? That is a powerful word, but the thing that irritates me is if people say they are going to do something and then don’t do it.

Best thing about your job: Being the head of a global FTSE 100 company where there are also family ties – that is as good as it gets for me.