Sir James Hann


Born: 18 January, 1933, in Southampton

Died: 14 February, 2004, in Somerset, aged 71

SIR James Hann’s entrepreneurial vision helped establish a place for Scotland in the North Sea and nuclear industries. The very diversity of these disciplines typified the man; he was a born leader who possessed an infectious enthusiasm for trying to achieve the impossible.

His was an inspired appointment by the Scottish Office as chairman of Scottish Nuclear in 1990. Known to Margaret Thatcher for his robust views - he had been a recipient of an award from Aims of Industry - he was installed in that post at a time of immense upheaval for nuclear generation. Scottish Nuclear comprised two generating stations at Hunterston, in Ayrshire, and one at Torness, in East Lothian - they were unloved enough by both politicians and the City not to have featured when the South of Scotland Electricity Board was sold off to become ScottishPower.

But Hann seized on the assets as visitor centres, ensuring their establishment on tourist trails. He urged doubters and VIPs to visit them, and encouraged Westminster to view nuclear power as a blessing and a resource. He later wrote that, when he inherited the infant company, it "had no clear forward strategy and neither had the country". He changed the former, though some years later he suggested that the latter had remained the same.

Hann never quite lost his wary opinion of politicians, though his sincerity of welcome for them was never in doubt. His lead not only converted Scottish Nuclear from an energy liability to become "privatisable" (his word), but in partnership with the chief executive, Robin Jeffrey, he put the company in a world league in terms of efficiency.

Hann’s learning curve was all the steeper since, until Jeffrey’s appointment, he had the dual role of chairman and acting chief executive. He vigorously attacked the unfortunate image of the industry, spreading the gospel and buttonholing all who were prepared to listen. He was an active member of SONE, Supporters of Nuclear Energy, and his efforts on behalf of the industry were recognised by the rare distinctions of honorary fellowships of the Institute of Nuclear Engineering in 1993 and of the European Nuclear Society the following year. It proved a bitter blow when, at the creation of British Energy in 1995, there was no job for him.

Three years ago, writing in the management journal Venture, he criticised government short-termism for failing to ensure reinvestment in nuclear power, grimly forecasting that by 2020 UK electricity generation might be up to 60 per cent reliant on gas, much of it imported.

Hann’s trademark penchant for lateral thinking marked him out early as a natural leader, a quality curiously overlooked when, during National Service in 1952, officer cadet selection staff in the Royal Artillery informed him that he had "no leadership qualities whatsoever": this to a 19-year-old who had already run the family business for two years after the death of his father.

Hann was educated at Peter Symonds School, in Winchester, Hampshire. After his National Service, he joined United Dairies, where, by the age of 26, his innate capacity for leadership brought him the directorship of a subsidiary company and the opportunity to merge Cow & Gate and United Dairies into a single Unigate. The move culminated in his selection to attend IMEDE, the top European management development college in Lausanne.

Hann’s traditional position at the front was never more exemplified than when he unveiled to a disbelieving world the notion of servicing the offshore oil industry from a floating runway in the central North Sea. The revolutionary STOLport (short take-off and landing airport) could have come straight from the columns of The Boy’s Own, but Hann, by this time chief executive of the Aberdeen-based logistics company Seaforth Maritime, soberly explained what his company proposed. A new generation of short take-off, four-engined, fixed-wing aircraft would land oil personnel on the steel, semi-submersible STOLport, from where smaller helicopters would fly them on to individual platforms. It proved an idea too far ahead of its time, though his principle of flying STOL aircraft to short-runway island airfields before final movement by helicopter is now standard North Sea practice.

Lean and dapper, and with a welcoming smile, Hann oozed charm and personality: he was networking long before the term was invented. In 1972, this non-engineer burst on to the engineering-driven North Sea scene as chief executive of Seaforth Maritime, under the chairmanship of Ian (now Sir Ian) Noble, and backed by the Bank of Scotland and Sir Colin Campbell, chairman of the Glasgow tea-to-rubber conglomerate Finlays.

Hann’s initial brief was for a Scottish company to build and manage four ships for the UK sector. But this was consigned to history as Seabase in Aberdeen took shape, and Seaforth Maritime became a leading supplier in offshore servicing and contracting, transporting commodities from cement and drill pipe to fuel and fresh water. Hann’s staff energetically followed his dictum that Seaforth existed to do more, better. Other Seabases followed in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Five years after the foundation of Seaforth Maritime, Hann’s role was recognised when he was made a CBE.

A policy disagreement with major shareholders in 1986 caused his departure from Seaforth, but it did nothing to lessen his love for his adopted country. He and his wife, Jill, had settled 15 miles west of Aberdeen, in Banchory, and Scotland became their principal home for three decades.

He opened a new chapter in his life as a corporate recovery specialist, troubleshooting for top UK organisations. He served as chairman, or in leading roles, with Bauteil Engineering in Glasgow, Exacta Circuits in Selkirk, Associated Fresh Foods in Leeds and the Scottish Transport Group in Edinburgh.

He was commissioner of the Northern Lighthouse Board for five years from 1990, and used his latter years to proselytise leadership as a chiefly management tool; he used to quote Colin Powell, saying: "Leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of management says is possible."

Even when terminally ill last year, Hann insisted on introducing the first leadership sessions for MBA students at Bath University, speaking particularly of his own experience in leading corporate recoveries over a diverse range of industries.

Knighted in 1996, he enjoyed quiet pride in two simpler honours - life membership of Montreal’s Beaver club for services to Canada’s offshore industry in 1981, and his entry to Aberdeen’s 700-year-old Guild of Burgesses in 1982.

Hann was predeceased in 1999 by Jill, his wife of 40 years. He is survived by his children, David and Sarah, and four grandchildren.