Obituary: Vic Emery, who had salt water in his veins and became a titan of the Clyde

Died:December 18, 2021.

VIC Emery OBE, who has died aged 77, 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 arrived in Glasgow in 1996 to take over the reins of the then deeply troubled Scotstoun shipyard, with an international reputation for problem-solving, trouble-shooting 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, his 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 secure work of ever greater sophistication and complexity that secured jobs for years.

As someone who had salt water running through his veins, and had as a boy watched the shipyards from his bedroom window at his home near Portsmouth, the pride and thrill of seeing vessels rolling down the slipway or taking part in their first sea-trials would never leave him.

For all his later accomplishments, his whole demeanour and intensity would change when the opportunity to talk ships came up.

In the yards, he was no mere numbers man, solely obsessed with balance sheets. He knew finances inside out but prided himself on having, 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 that relationships with those who worked for him were ones of mutual respect.

Yet on the Clyde he 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, he was 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 had been a powerful 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 Glasgow and its airport to open economic potential.

That foresight was also evident at the other end of the M8 when, having played a key part in bringing the troubled Edinburgh tram project back on the rails, he predicted that the city would regret not forging ahead with its full tram ambitions.

As his time in shipbuilding ended in 2008, that passion for important and relevant work remained undimmed and would take him onto Scotland’s national stage.

Presciently, he became non-executive Chair of the Scottish Police Authority, a new public body aimed at improving the delivery and efficiency of support services to the nation’s then nine police forces.

As the financial crisis began to take its toll on the 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 turn to Emery to be the SPA’s first Chair, working closely with Police Scotland’s 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.

Emery 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 SPA office under the shadow of the Finnieston crane, remain pertinent today.

He subsequently brought 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 chairing 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 his age, and the occasional critic, irrelevant to him.

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 he did was his desire to provide and support his family. He recognised that the international life he had led had provided security yet had also taken him away from his wife, Dianne, and daughters Lucy, Juliette and Victoria, for long periods. The love they shared as a tight-knit family meant that even his periods away from home did not weaken their bond, but only strengthened it.

His life touched many people and many strands of life, 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 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.

John McCroskie

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