Obituary: Derek Muir, OBE, engineer, former chairman and managing director of Brown Brothers

Derek Muir has died at the age of 86
Derek Muir has died at the age of 86
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Derek Muir, OBE, former Chairman, Brown Brothers. Born: 12 July, 1933. Died: 26 November, 2019 aged 86

A leading figure in marine engineering in Scotland and beyond for more than twenty-five years, Derek Muir, OBE, former managing director and chairman of Brown Brothers of Edinburgh, has died at the age of 86.

With Brown Brothers, and later with Vickers’ Marine Engineering Division, Derek and the teams he led were at the cutting edge of the industry both at home and abroad, overseeing innovative developments in mechanical equipment for both shipping and for offshore oil drilling operations.

After successfully steering the extensive Brown Brothers plant at Rosebank through the recession-hit years of the 1980s, he was appointed to head up parent company Vickers’ operation in Japan and spent the five years from 1987 based in Tokyo.

Derek Peter Muir was born in Edinburgh in 1933, the second son of Charles and Janet Muir, and attended Boroughmuir High School. He went on to study mechanical engineering at Heriot Watt College, as it then was. He was a talented rugby player during and after school days and, although a bad leg break in a motorcycle accident put paid to that, he remained a lifelong supporter of the game.

In 1959, Derek and Patricia (Pat) Cameron Walker were married at Cramond Kirk.

Derek’s first job was in Ferranti’s drawing office, meanwhile supplementing the household income by lecturing night school students in mechanical engineering. In 1964, the family moved to Bristol where he worked with the British Aircraft Corporation until 1969 when they returned to Edinburgh.

It was here he took up a post with the engineering firm Brown Brothers. After his appointment as technical director in 1970, sales and marketing was added to his portfolio in 1972 and he became joint managing director and chairman in 1978. During this period, Brown Brothers, part of Vickers Offshore Engineering, was at the forefront of ships’ stabiliser technology and, by the end of the 1970s, produced more than 75 per cent of the world’s shipping stabilisers.

One of the most important contracts in the firm’s history was a £2.5 million order from the United States Navy to develop stabilisers for their new FFG-7 frigates. This was at a time when Brown Brothers supplied similar equipment, such as sophisticated steering mechanisms, to 18 navies around the world.

Other major customers included leading cruise companies such as Cunard and P&O, as well as passenger ferry and freight operators.

An energetic and charismatic business leader, Derek was instrumental in the formation of the Vickers Marine Division in 1980 and its subsequent rapid growth which included the acquisition of a number of key engineering companies in various parts of the world.

Within six years, the Division was producing more than £80 million in annual turnover and £6 million in profit, making it a vital contributor to Vickers’ overall performance. In what was seen as a somewhat controversial initiative at the time, he oversaw the extension of the company pension scheme to include manual workers for the first time.

Towards the end of this period, Derek was awarded an OBE in the 1985 New Year’s Honours List, a source of great pride for Derek and Pat and the family. In the same year, as a result of the firm’s attainment of the Queen’s Award for Export Achievement, he conducted a tour of the factory at Rosebank Works by HM The Queen.

During this visit, she performed the official start-up ceremony for the newly developed heave compensator – a device designed to allow ships and rigs to drill safely at sea. A highly innovative piece of engineering, the heave equipment compensated for movement of the surface of the sea and proved a boon to the burgeoning North Sea oil industry, as well as other oil exploration sites around the world.

Over the years, Derek also found time to serve on the management board of Napier College (later University), Heriot-Watt Council and on the finance and general purposes committee of the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce. He was also a non-executive director of Tullis Russell in Fife.

The move to Tokyo in 1987 to head up Vickers’ activities in Japan proved a rewarding and exciting period for Derek and Pat. On their return to the UK in 1992, they divided their time between homes in London and Edinburgh. While they may have chosen to spend most of their time in London, they both continued to regard the Scottish capital as their spiritual home.

After his retirement from Vickers, Derek was keen to maintain an interest and activity in business and became involved with Scott Bader, where he served, very much hands-on, as company chairman from 1995 to 2001.

During this period, he was greatly saddened to see the sweeping changes in industry that led to the eventual closure of Brown Brothers’ once thriving factory at Rosebank and the subsequent loss of so much engineering talent and skill.

Derek and Pat’s four children, Gillian, Pamela, Alan and Jane, were all born in Edinburgh – and the family has since grown to include eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Their long and happy partnership came to a sad and sudden end with Pat’s passing in December 2011.

Away from his busy career, Derek developed an abiding love of jazz, building a huge record collection on vinyl and later on CD. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject and could name even the most obscure musicians and sidemen and the details of their recording sessions. Not only a listener, he was an accomplished pianist and had a fine singing voice, which enlivened many a party.

One of Derek’s hardest challenges came later in life with the onset of Parkinson’s disease and the limits it set on his enjoyment of life. Even then, however, he retained a sharp intellect and an irrepressible sense of humour.

JIM MIDDLETON