SUNDAY TELEGRAPH, JULY 2, 2006
The Scouser at the helm of British Nuclear Fuels, Mike Parker, is working himself out of a job as he sells off the company’s assets one by one, racking up the profit in the process. But Martin Baker finds Sellafield remains a thorn in his side
And for his next trick, Mike Parker will disappear. A very impressive feat it is too – all done with smoke, but not mirrors. Parker, as the chief executive of British Nuclear Fuels, uses nuclear reactors instead.
Tomorrow, Parker will present BNFL’s results to one of the most beady-eyed audiences in world industry. Having racked up a loss of £144m last year, BNFL is expected to announce a substantial profit. “We’re going to show some results that are very good, ahead of plan, and we’ll all feel very good about them,” says Parker, a Scouser whose 34 years in the United States with chemicals giant Dow have merely produced a light gentrification of his accent.
Mike Parker felt that the nuclear industry would be a big issue again and would have to be seriously considered
You have to take the expected “profits” with a pinch of salt, or, this being the nuclear industry, Technetium 99. The Government is the sole shareholder of BNFL, so the figures are produced with smoke and calculators. The announcement is all part of the process that sees BNFL (which runs Sellafield, described by critics as the “nuclear dustbin” of Europe) selling off its prime assets. In February, Parker signed a $5.4bn (£3bn) sales agreement for Westinghouse, a US-based division selling fuel and reactor services and developing nuclear reactor technology to commercial concerns around the world.
“We saw this as a terrific opportunity to realise value for the taxpayer and to find an owner that would want to grow it. It’s an excellent fuel and reactor services business,” he says. “But the real opportunity going forward that’s just started to happen very visibly in the last 18 months is the tide for nuclear around the world, pro-commercial nuclear power. First in China and to some extent in India, now -heavily in North America. There’s a lot of opportunity out there. With opportunity goes risk, and that risk needs to be managed.
“Ultimately, I want to do everything professionally, and then switch out the lights at BNFL,” he adds. Aided by the Government’s pet investment bank, NM Rothschild, Parker’s hand will be guided towards the switch with the sale of the biggest remaining part of BNFL’s business, British Nuclear Group, next year. The sale process is expected to begin in April and be finished by the end of 2007. The BNG price tag will be in part a function of the contribution it makes to BNFL’s expected profits, with some estimates suggesting that a figure of £75m will be recorded. Possible bidders for the specialist nuclear clean-up business, when Roths-child puts BNG under the hammer, are said to include Fluor, Bechtel, and Areva, the French company: though some speculate that UK services specialists such as Serco might also be interested.
The one black spot in the figures is expected to be the fallout from a leak at Sellafield, which may result in court cases and fines running to “low tens of millions” of pounds, according to industry observers.
When you reflect on Parker’s job, it is more than a little unusual – a form of extreme chambermaiding in the commercial world. This fellow and his company do not just exist to tidy things up; they exist to tidy everything, including themselves, into oblivion.
There is a minor exception to this. Nexia, BNFL’s nuclear research and development arm, will continue to exist as a repository of know-how after BNFL and Parker have disappeared, provided that the Government accepts Parker’s recommendations.
The recommendations are the key to what drives Parker forward at BNFL. Although it is easy enough to portray him as some sort of industrial lemming, cheerfully hurling himself and his colleagues at BNFL off the professional cliff tops, Parker is a forward-thinking chap with some forthright views on energy policy.
“Energy is so important and it influences the policy of governments,” he says at our appointment in Rolls-Royce’s Buckingham Gate offices (a choice of venue to delight conspiracy theorists). “I’d formed the view that the US and the UK were very important countries that for a variety of reasons didn’t have fully defined energy policies.
“I felt that nuclear was a very difficult subject, especially in the US and UK, because the origins of the industry there were weaponry. Eventually, both embraced commercial nuclear power. I felt it would be a big issue again, something that would have to be -seriously considered.”
There is a sense of renewal about Parker. He has come back to the UK after a marathon stint in the US, where he made it to the top of Dow, which he joined in 1968 when his fellow students at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology were busy protesting about anything and anyone that did not have long hair. After three-and-a-bit decades, Parker ran a company with 42,000 employees in 175 countries and a -market capitalisation of some $46bn.
So policy and public-sector process present a new challenge for an experienced private–sector operator who turns 60 today. “Dow was a very big private global enterprise, very successful, very powerful. I’d never dealt with government. I thought that would be interesting.”
And, in fairness, he had a bit of time on his hands. Parker was voted in to the top job at Dow in February 2000. He had the task of overseeing the $3.9bn acquisition of Union Carbide, a job that saw him having to deal with people protesting about the aftermath of the Bhopal disaster holding a candlelit vigil outside his Michigan family home.
He managed that challenge by going out and talking to them. But there were other forces that were more difficult to resist: “The chemicals industry went into the worst trough it has been in 30 years. The results became -difficult and, basically, I got shot at the end of 2002, and my predecessor [the chairman and former chief executive] came back.” Parker is still plainly shocked and angered by it: “It was a crossroads. It was a big surprise. It was a big surprise in the industry… I made it very clear to them they were going to fire me. I wasn’t resigning. The industry press were also shocked as to what had occurred.”
But the headhunters beat a path to his door round about the time when it seemed that the war in Iraq was going to be easily won (the beginning of the markets’ “Baghdad bounce” in early 2003). However, Parker was still feeling pretty raw and took some persuading. “There were some feelings that was it really even a good idea to work again, given what had happened. I decided I would be open to working again. I was a capable person, but not looking. I was still adjusting to what had happened.”
Former colleagues reckon Parker is made of pretty durable material: “It’s not just -getting to the top at a big American corporate Dow, which is an achievement he shares with very few Brits – Alex Trotman at Ford, and Tony O’Reilly at Heinz, if you count the dual nationality, are two of a very small handful,” says one. “He’s a natural competitor, and he can’t sit still for long.”
Parker, an outstanding sportsman who captained Merseyside Grammar Schools at cricket and British Universities at tennis, also had a Liverpudlian upbringing to teach him what resolve in the face of hardship and conflict really was all about. He is old enough to remember the bad old days of sectarianism in the Liverpool of his childhood. Parker’s mother (“a lioness with her children – she gave us confidence, no matter how difficult the circumstances we faced”) was one of 13 children, and was excluded from the Catholic Church for marrying a Protestant and not bringing the children up as Catholics. And Parker’s father, an artillery captain under Montgomery in the Second World War desert campaign, came back from the war badly shell-shocked: “He would sleepwalk, counting corpses for years,” recalls Parker.
Although he is working himself out of a job, Parker will take on others. He has just accepted a non-executive directorship at Invensys, and a “serial” non-executive role may be his in the future. “I have a lot of experience and energy to offer,” he says, no pun intended.