New vision: Ian McAulay of Viridor at Ardley, a waste reclamation site in Oxfordshire © David Parry
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One week into Ian McAulay’s intense, three-month management course at Harvard, everything changed.

About 9am on a Tuesday morning, a lecturer interrupted lessons to tell the students that an aeroplane had flown into one of New York’s twin towers. As they gathered to watch the 9/11 attacks unfold live on television, it became clear that the world from which these 100 or so high achievers had come was not going to be the same by the time they were due to leave.

“You could see the scale of that event on the national psyche, the impact it had on the Americans there, who then spent a lot of time contemplating and opening up,” he recalls.

McAulay is now the chief executive of Viridor, the British waste management company that is part of Pennon, the FTSE 250-listed group. But at the time he was an ambitious 36-year-old executive, making his way up the ranks of MWH Global, the US water company.

The three months he spent at Harvard, working 17-hour days and living with his fellow students on the Advanced Management Program, seen by some as a “mini MBA”, shaped much of how he now approaches business.

Nothing left as long-lasting an impression, however, as watching his American fellow students come to terms with their grief and adjust their views of the world.

“Many of these people had friends or family who died in the attacks and some of them had to leave,” he says. “There were discussions about whether we should stop the course. We decided to keep going, but the tone after that had completely changed.” One of the things McAulay believes is most important in business is bringing in outsiders to challenge the way a group thinks — at Viridor, he has brought in managers from the energy sector and consumer industries.

He saw that in action during those weeks at Harvard. The brutal events of 9/11 forced members of what he saw as an otherwise occasionally insular group of American businesspeople to confront a world they did not fully understand.

“The day was obviously very emotional,” he says. “But it also represented a step-change in their executive education. They realised they had to open up to what was happening in the rest of the world.

“We sat in our living group late at night and people were actually asking the foreign students among us: ‘Where is Afghanistan? Where is Iraq?’

“One professor said it was a reversal — instead of Harvard teaching the rest of the world how to do things, Americans were coming and asking the world what was happening.”

Talking to McAulay, the effects of that day 15 years ago are obvious, but the fact he was even there shows how far he had come in his short career until then.

Born in Glasgow in 1965, his father was a boilermaker in the city’s famous but notoriously tough shipyards. Despite showing an early interest in engineering, his father insisted he should look instead at a more desk-bound career.

“My dad always said to me: ‘Don’t be an engineer, son. You’ll travel around the world and you won’t make any money,” he says. “He wanted me to be a lawyer or an accountant.”

Following this paternal advice, McAulay embarked on a law and accountancy degree at Strathclyde University in his home city. But he admitted defeat just a year in and switched to civil and environmental engineering. “In those days, water was just starting to emerge as quite a big issue in the UK, never mind around the world,” he says. “I remember in the 1970s we had hosepipe bans and droughts, even in Scotland. There was a sense that we needed to manage water resources differently.”

While studying, McAulay also worked during his summer holidays at Crouch, Hogg, Waterman — a Glasgow engineering consultancy founded in the 19th century.

“I was doing summer vacation work while I was at university, so effectively it was combining the practical experience of an apprenticeship with the theory taught at university,” he says. “It was ideal and it meant I was able to fly through my professional qualifications in just under three years, which would be unheard of these days.”

As a result, McAulay is keen to promote apprenticeships in his present role — despite the fact that from next year, large companies will have to start paying the government to help fund them. Viridor currently employs 230 apprentices.

Having completed his professional qualifications, McAulay worked at Crouch, Hogg, Waterman until 1994, when he joined the US-owned company Montgomery Watson. It was here that he met Bob Uhler, a former soldier turned executive, who was to become a mentor. It was Uhler who encouraged him to go to Harvard.

“He committed, regardless of good times or bad, that the company would have two people per year attending the [Harvard] AMP course and he never stepped back from that.”

On arriving at the Ivy League institution, McAulay realised that he was by far the youngest person there — something he thinks helped him survive the gruelling schedule that was to come. Days involved starting classes soon after a 7am breakfast and working until the early hours analysing case studies.

Lasting lessons: Ian McAulay still applies what he learnt at Harvard in his current role © David Parry

“I couldn’t get enough of it, so I would do extra case studies because I had a thirst for learning,” he says. “Some of the older people on the course probably found that just a little bit draining.”

One of those case studies in particular stayed with the young water executive. “We looked at the turnround of SAS [the Scandinavian airline]. Executives were driven by their new chief executive to undergo the customer experience, learn from it and implement change.

“They then drove it into the organisation with little comic-book presentations that made it very visual.”

Viridor is also experiencing a period of upheaval as it moves away from traditional waste disposal towards recycling and burning waste to generate electricity. Despite the differences between the two businesses, McAulay thinks his company can learn from SAS’s experience.

“One of the biggest hurdles is the fear of change. We’ve had to make it more personal for our staff,” he says. “We’ve moved away from the stereotypical 25 bullet points on a PowerPoint slide. Now we have passionate people who stand up and explain what the new facilities do, why they are good for society and what it means for the development of the company.”

A Glaswegian shipbuilder’s son, who studied at Harvard and went on to run one of the biggest waste management companies in Britain, McAulay has seen first hand what a varied background can bring to management. He also saw it in action at Harvard itself, where African ministers mixed with corporate bankers and even an astronaut.

Now, at Viridor, he is keen to make sure management does not become too monocultural, which is one reason why two of the people in the succession plan for his job do not have university degrees. “We’ve got people in our company who have some incredible experiences. Our job is to turn that into a process that can be used to determine the company’s entire strategy.”

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