Joyce Dundas talks to a Scottish viscount who appears to be more at ease on the shopfloor than he is on the grouse moor.
William Kenneth James, Third Viscount Weir, seems to be a fully paid-up member of the huntin' and shootin' fraternity. The conventional breeding is certainly there: Eton, Trinity College, Cambridge, and membership of White's.
Yet appearances can be deceptive. The affable 58-year-old chairman of The Weir Group may look at ease on the grouse moor, but he is actually most comfortable among the pumps and valves of his 100-year-old Glasgow works. For Weir is the last of the great Clydeside engineering and shipbuilding firms still managed by a member of the founding family.
Engineering runs in Weir's veins. He was born in 1933, the same year in which his family firm test-flew the world's first helicopter. His grandfather, the first Viscount Weir, was one of his greatest industrial heroes and, given the protean nature of the first viscount's achievements, it is easy to see why. "He established the electricity grid in the UK, and he was the first person to build prefabricated houses," points out Weir. It was also through the first viscount's "initiative that the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth II were built in Glasgow".
Weir junior joined the company in 1957, but insists that he did not spend his childhood being groomed for stardom. "I was lucky," he considers, "in that the business built by my family was in one of the most interesting and exciting fields. It was never understood that I would automatically join the company, but it was certainly no hardship to do so."
Two years later Weir went to New York to work for the group's agent, Ampower Corporation, and on his return he took over the running of the seawater distillation division. He progressed through various subsidiaries, learning the business all the while, eventually to become director of The Weir Group in 1966. His appointment as chairman came in 1972, just three years before the death of his father.
Despite his background, Weir is not too exalted to serve the tea personally - a homely touch which fits comfortably with the living-room atmosphere of his office. The overstuffed leather armchairs and huge fireplace, replete with mock coal fire, give the room a relaxed ambience which seems miles away from the throbbing factory below. But it is when Weir describes these works, and the thriving business built by his family, that he becomes most loquacious.
He is the first to admit that one of the group's greatest strengths is its readiness to venture into new technology and invest heavily in research and development. The only cuts being made today are done with diamond-tipped precision; the heterogeneous structure of the company means that the current recession is having little effect on the business. Proof of that came with the unveiling of the 1990 results in March - a 33% increase in pre-tax profits and an order book advancing by a healthy 38%.
"An important feature of the group is its diversity," Weir stresses, acting as a guide to the shopfloor. "We have five main areas of involvement: oil and gas, energy, water supply and sewage, naval and marine, and the general industrial field. We can be sure that not all five cylinders will fire at the same time," he declares, "but what we hope is that they don't all misfire at the same time." He seems relatively confident that Weir can avoid the trials and tribulations caused by the previous recession, when he was asked to stand down as chairman.
Weir's expansion during the 1970s had been financed by heavy borrowing, which, when interest rates rose to record levels, almost crippled the group. The banks took fright and, by 1981, would be satisfied with nothing less than Weir's head. He was replaced by Lord Tombs, chairman of Rolls-Royce and then one of the top company doctors.
But Weir was not to be vanquished so easily: his impeccable connections with the City's financial establishment also helped. Jacob Rothschild, a close friend, subscribed to a large number of new shares in the group. Within two years Tombs had left, his job done, and Weir resumed the helm, "rising from the coffin like Dracula", he drily observes. He is now, coincidentally, vice-chairman of J Rothschild Holdings.
Weir clearly hates confrontation. "His inclinations are to find agreement," confirms Ron Garrick, the group's managing director. "He's very much the wet Tory, without being a drip; he has no airs and graces ... (He is) in the Lord Whitelaw category, a peacekeeper."
However, Weir steadfastly refuses to compromise on his "identity": "I consider myself extremely Scottish," he asserts, "though my mother was Canadian and I have spent a lot of time away from Scotland. But I am not a Nationalist." Perish the thought. The most recent of his public observations appeared, appropriately enough, in The Scotsman in January 1990. Then he described devolution as a recipe for three evils: uncertainty, conflict and cost. "Uncertainty is a deadly poison for business confidence," he wrote, "and business confidence is the key element in investment decision."