Obituaries: Vic Emery OBE, former chair of Scottish Police Authority
Vic Emery was for three decades a leading figure in the industrial and civic life of his adopted city of Glasgow, and a public service leader in some of the most groundbreaking initiatives of Scotland’s post-devolution era.
He was born in 1944 in Porchester, near Portsmouth, to Walter and Ellen Emery. He had three siblings, brothers Fran and John, and sister Helen (now deceased).
Vic joined Vosper shipbuilding in Portsmouth aged 16 as an apprentice draftsman and achieved a mechanical engineering degree. He then worked for 15 years in Vosper shipyard in Singapore and returned to UK to become production director of Swan Hunter shipyard on the Tyne.
From 1988-1996 he worked at St John’s Shipbuilding in Canada, then returned to UK and began his association with the Clyde and the Type 45 warships which he would see through a series of mergers and reorganisations to their sea trials, before his move into policing in 2009.
He arrived in Glasgow in 1996 to take over the reins of the then deeply troubled Scotstoun shipyard, with an international reputation for problem solving and straight talking to get major vessel projects back on track. From Singapore to the Tyne, and from the Canadian Frigate Programme to the most sophisticated warship in the UK, the Type 45 warship, Vic’s track record in delivering and launching vessels through logistical, people and financial challenges was renowned.
In a dozen years at the helm, he oversaw a rebirth of the last substantial shipyard on the Clyde, transformed its workforce, navigated the complex waters of corporate merger and takeovers and demonstrated the deal-making intellect to win work of ever greater sophistication and complexity that secured jobs for years.
As someone for whom saltwater ran through his veins and as a boy watched the shipyards from his bedroom window, the pride and thrill of seeing vessels roll down the slipway or take part in their first sea trials would never leave him. Indeed, for all his later accomplishments his whole demeanour and intensity would change when the opportunity to talk ships came up.
In the yards, Vic was no remote numbers man solely obsessed with the balance sheets. He knew finances inside out, but prided himself, and was respected, for an end-to-end knowledge of the engineering process because he had trained as a naval architect himself. While he was a formidable negotiator, his no-nonsense approach and authenticity ensured relationships with those who worked for him were ones of mutual respect.
Yet on the Clyde Vic was also to find something more than just the next destination on an unblemished professional career. He was to make a powerful personal connection with the city. In an age where the word “strategic” has lost its currency through overuse, Vic was always a leader who saw the long game and the bigger picture, far beyond political cycles It was that insight he brought to shaping the city’s economic development as a major influencer within the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, including serving as its President.
He was a powerful and long-standing advocate for youth training to challenge the unbroken circle of poverty and dependency in the city’s most impoverished areas, and for improved rail connections between the city and its airport to open economic potential.
As his time in shipbuilding ended in 2008, that passion for important, relevant and vital work remained undimmed and would take him in new directions and onto Scotland’s national stage.
In what would prove to be a prescient decision, he took on the role of non-executive Chair of a new public body to improve the delivery and efficiency of a range of support services to the nation’s then nine policing organisations. As the financial crisis began to take its toll on public finances, this tentative step towards the modernisation of Scottish policing was overtaken at an unprecedented pace by a bold initiative to merge policing into a single national service with a parallel national governance structure.
It was inevitable that, faced with a scale of challenge unprecedented in the recent public sector history, government would ask Vic to be first Chair of the Scottish Police Authority, working closely with its first Chief Constable, Sir Stephen House.
While some observers caricatured these two men as locked in a power struggle for control of the new service, the reality was very different. Both saw the inherent risks in a project of this scale and complexity and shared a desire to complement one another to ensure that when the new service launched it would float and not sink under the weight of public and political expectations. Theirs was a relationship of mutual respect and friendship which would endure long after both had moved on to other challenges.
Vic brought the perceptive questioning honed in industry into this public service challenge. How many police officers does the country need within a modern, adaptable workforce and how much should that cost? The questions he sketched out in 2012, simply etched on the whiteboard of his police authority office under the shadow of the Finnieston crane, remain pertinent today.
Vic went on to bring his extraordinary knowledge and experience of infrastructure and policing to the role of Chair of the Civil Nuclear Police Authority.
In parallel he demonstrated an uncanny anticipation of the genuine strategic risks and opportunities in society by becoming Chair of the environmental body Zero Waste Scotland, long before the term "climate emergency” had become common currency.
That desire to challenge conventional ideas of where his skills and experience should take him made age and the occasional critic irrelevant to Vic. While some saw a well-heeled businessperson, he was expanding the numbers of apprentices in the yards, challenging the gender balance in senior police roles and advancing the organisations he led as meritocracies, not old boys’ clubs. He nurtured the talents of others, seeing potential in individuals they did not readily see in themselves. In return, he received a lifetime of unstinting loyalty that transcended corporate norms.
At the heart of everything Vic did was his desire to provide and support his family. He was married to Dianne for 53 years, and she survives him along with their three daughters Lucy, Juliette and Victoria and grandchildren Laurier, Jeremie and Daphne. He recognised that the international life he had led had provided security yet had also taken him away from his wife and his girls for long periods. The very deep bond and love they shared as a tight-knit family meant that even periods away from home and apart did not weaken that bond, but only strengthened it.
Vic Emery’s life touched many people – in Glasgow, across Scotland and the UK, and rippling out through the world. His sudden and unexpected absence brings a profound sense of loss to many of his friends and colleagues, and there will be time and opportunities in 2022 to pay more considered and lasting tribute to his life and legacy. A civic giant. A servant of the public. A titan of the Clyde.
More immediately, those he loved should now have the time to grieve through this hardest of winters, and in softer springtime to remember who he will forever be to them. Husband. Dad. Granddad. Vic.
If you would like to submit an obituary (800-1000 words preferred, with jpeg image), or have a suggestion for a subject, contact [email protected]
A message from the Editor
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers. If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription. Click on this link for more details.