Sir John Parker: If I had to start again ..

I started out as a naval architect, and would have been content to stick with designing ships. It's a very special job. I sold ships for companies the world over, from China to Argentina to Scandinavia, and the industry still captivates me today.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Growing up on a farm in Northern Ireland, I was obsessed by machinery, which led me to engineering, then shipbuilding. I remember the first passenger ship I worked on, P&O's Canberra. I knew the ship like the back of my hand but never thought I'd be chairman of P&O.

My first managing director role was in 1974 at Austin & Pickersgill in Sunderland, with 2,800 people. When the industry was nationalised three years later, it was Britain's most profitable shipyard. Then I got hijacked to join the board of the British Shipbuilders Council, in the dying days of the Callaghan government. I got to know Whitehall pretty well. And I was only 35.

I was then asked to return to Northern Ireland and run Harland & Wolff. I was reluctant. This was in the time of the Troubles, bombs were going off and people were getting shot. Meanwhile, H&W was losing £45m a year, and the work was running out fast. Within three years, we'd turned a modest profit. Thatcher immediately told us to privatise.

Shipbuilding was tough, but it gave me invaluable experience. Now, as well as chairing National Grid, I'm on the board of Carnival, DP World and EADS; I'm chancellor of Southampton University and senior non-executive director at the Court of the Bank of England. I've had a lot of offers, and I'm sure my portfolio will continue to adjust. I don't exactly look back and say: 'I wish I'd been a surgeon.'

My father used to say: 'If you can't manage your time, you can't manage anything.' I've learnt not to lie awake tossing and turning over a problem. Forget it, but wake up ready to tackle it. When the bombs were going off in Belfast, that's what one did.

- Sir John Parker is chairman of National Grid.

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