Within hours of meeting the deadline for bids on the collapsed Ferguson shipyard at Port Glasgow, the engineering tycoon was on a flight to Australia to visit some of the specialist pump and hydraulic companies owned by his Clyde Blowers Capital (CBC) empire. He was in Fremantle, whose harbour serves as the port of Perth, when news arrived that the Ferguson bid was successful.
From half-way around the world, McColl managed some interviews with the media back home before heading on to Sydney, the base for a few more of the 90 or so companies that CBC has dotted around the world. From there he was then making his way to Bangalore.
“I am going to see a business that we are interested in buying,” he tells The Scotsman from Singapore’s Changi International Airport. “It would be an add-on to one of our hydraulic businesses. It is owned by an Indian family so I am going to meet them and see if they would be interested in selling.”
It would be a bigger deal than the Ferguson transaction, which was relatively modest by CBC’s standards. However, the Port Glasgow yard fits nicely within CBC’s bigger global strategy.
So the plan is that, as of today, McColl would be back in Scotland with the aim of restarting operations at Ferguson by the beginning of next week. Meetings with the management and union representatives have already been arranged.
Discussions with the latter are aimed at bringing back as many as possible of the 70 employees made redundant when Scotland’s last commercial shipyard fell into administration last month. An initial workforce of between 100 and 120 is expected to be in place within 12 to 18 months, rising to 300 within three years.
McColl sees a “huge opportunity” to create a marine engineering technology business on the Clyde. He expects to invest many millions upgrading workshops and equipment that will allow Ferguson to not only regain its previous footing in building ferries, but also expand out into vessels for the offshore energy sector.
“We [CBC] have a lot of experience in engineering, and we also own a lot of companies that feed into marine engineering,” he says. “The hull is the housing for a lot of different technologies that we have in our portfolio.”
McColl also sees potential in the fact that Ferguson is one of a dwindling number of working quayside locations.
“We think there may be some opportunity there as well,” he says. “Most of the quayside facilities in the UK have been turned into wine bars and luxury flats.”
Set up in 2008 with an initial investment fund of £250 million, CBC is an extension of Clyde Blowers, the heavy engineering group which McColl bought a minority stake in after striking out on his own in the late 1980s. After taking the company private and increasing his holding to 70 per cent in 2001, he embarked on a series of acquisitions that catapulted Clyde Blowers from the smallest to the largest of eight competitors in its market.
He then purchased Glasgow-based Weir Pumps from Weir Group for £48m in 2007 – saving about 550 jobs in the process.
McColl began his working life as a 16-year-old apprentice at Weir, but has always insisted the decision to buy Weir Pumps was sound business judgement, and not based on emotional considerations.
Though still keen to grow, expansion became considerably more difficult soon after the acquisition. Capital markets froze in the wake of the financial crash, and though McColl could continue bringing in private financial partners on a deal-by-deal basis, that set-up was becoming too unwieldy to manage.
The £250m CBC fund created a pool of cash on tap, and gave every investor an interest in every deal done. The formula worked. Acquisitions continued to successfully roll in, and by 2011 all of those initial investors had been repaid.
This whipped up huge interest in the follow-on fund. McColl comments: “At that time, most people were having to write down the value of their private investments, but we were moving in the opposite direction by paying all of that back.”
The current fund of £420m could have been as large as £720m, but CBC decided to turn some of that money away. About half of the total is now invested, a figure that is expected to rise to roughly 70 per cent by the middle of next year. At that point, McColl plans to begin marketing a new fund to the value of £500m.
CBC’s portfolio of companies currently generates a collective turnover of about £1.5 billion, but McColl still sees plenty of room for growth.
With investments in an array of heavy engineering firms operating in sectors such as the oil and gas, chemical, power and water industries, CBC is firmly focused on scale.
“A lot of the types of businesses we are in are global businesses, and some of the biggest opportunities are in emerging markets like China or Africa,” McColl says.
“You really can’t do that just from the UK, or the US, or wherever – you have got to have a global presence.”
Born: Carmunnock, near East Kilbride, December 1951
Education: Rutherglen Academy
First job: When I was 12 or 13, I started delivering morning rolls around the village. I suppose it was quite an entrepreneurial endeavour – the bakery delivered the big tray to my house, then I would bag up the number of rolls each house wanted and take them around each morning, and collect the money at the end of the week.
Ambition while at school: I was interested in cars – sports cars, and Formula 1 in particular.
Can’t live without: My family
Kindle or book? Book
Favourite city Monaco, though it is not technically a city. It vies with Glasgow.
Favourite mode of transport? Private jet. I also like being on the water on a boat – there is a freedom to it.
Favourite car to drive: Ferrari
What makes you angry? Negativity
What inspires you? People who are dynamic and enthusiastic
Best thing about your job? I love what I do – I love seeing value being created.