“Chemical engineering – and university – were not part of my family background, but they changed my life.”
With a career spanning 34 years and progressing into senior executive positions, Brian Harris’s interest in chemical engineering was sparked, at the age of 16, by his maths teacher.
“My plan had been to join the RAF and become a pilot, but this particular teacher was very insistent that his students read about a wide range of disciplines and careers,” says Brian. He found that chemical engineering not only combined his interest in maths and chemistry, but also had a real practical application. “It just seemed to fit for me.”
Brian chose to study chemical engineering at Battersea College of Advanced Technology (which was to become the University of Surrey in 1966) having won a Pfizer sandwich course scholarship. This scholarship required Brian to spend a placement year and holidays working for Pfizer, which proved to be an invaluable experience.
“I worked as a process worker and in a machine shop with fitters doing maintenance work – which gave me a real feel for materials and the kinds of problems they had,” he recalls.
Armed with his degree from Battersea, Brian joined ICI’s Heavy Organic Chemicals Division (later to become the Petrochemicals and Plastics Division), where his first role was as a process design engineer for a new paraxylene plant.
Brian had entered the petrochemical industry at an interesting time. With demand for petrochemical derivatives growing quickly, the Division had a ‘department for sales control’ whose job it was to allocate the available production, since demand outstripped supply. However in 1974 the oil crisis hit, sending the price of oil rocketing and, with an increase in global petrochemical production, a far more challenging market developed. One result of this was that the industry needed to create value from by-product streams. Brian played a key role in this effort when he took up the post of commissioning manager for the production unit for petroleum resin: this by-product was mixed with pigment and used to paint white and yellow lines on the UK’s roads.
During his 34 years with ICI, Brian’s experience with the company was extremely varied, taking him from production and operation jobs to Managing Director roles, as well as to locations all over the world including North and South America, Canada, Australia, South Africa and India.
He spent 20 years with the Petrochemicals and Plastics Division, during which he progressed to senior production management roles and finally became General Manager of the Visqueen business. In 1986 he became an executive director on the Board of Nobel’s Explosives Company Ltd (a subsidiary of ICI) based in Scotland. Four years later he became Vice President of Operations, North America, for ICI Explosives based in Toronto – a role which subsequently expanded to responsibility for global operations. This gave Brian responsibility not only for manufacturing, engineering and SHE (safety, health, environment) but also human resources, which became a key focus during the latter part of his career with ICI and beyond.
“At senior level, the role is naturally very people and systems-focused – you need to enable people in different countries to talk to and work with each other in order to facilitate the transfer and adoption of best practice,” he says.
Brian’s final role with ICI was Managing Director of Eutech Engineering Solutions from which he took early retirement in 2000. He has subsequently gone on to use his experience in human resources, strategy and change management in a number of roles – including five years associated with British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. Coming full circle, since his own days as an undergraduate, Brian joined the Board of the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) in 2001, later becoming Pro Chancellor and Chair until he retired in 2014.