Dr Alan Reece 1927-2012

11th January 2013

Dr Alan Richard Reece, founder of the Reece Group and one of the most successful engineering entrepreneurs of his generation, has died on Tyneside at the age of 85.

alan-reeceRecognised as an inspired mechanical designer and philanthropist, he was responsible for creating a number of engineering companies on Tyneside that  together employ 700 people and have a turnover of over £300m. His ideas enabled the safe installation of cables and pipelines under the sea bed and have helped save the lives of hundreds of soldiers in recent conflicts in the Middle East.

The son of a guards soldier, he was brought up in London and educated at Harrow County School for Boys.  His love for agriculture and engineering began when he took a job as a tractor driver at a farm in Amersham during the war. He came to Newcastle upon Tyne at the age of 17 to study for a BSc in mechanical engineering at Newcastle University. Here, he met his wife Doreen, who he married in 1949 and with whom he had three children. He developed his enthusiasm and love for what he called ‘real engineering’ in his first job as an apprentice at Vickers Armstrong on the banks of the Tyne. At this time, he re-joined the university to complete his MSc.

A spell further south saw him honing his skills at the Ford Tractor Plant at Dagenham and subsequently at International Harvester in Doncaster.

Having gained substantial industrial experience he was able to put this to great effect as a lecturer in agricultural engineering at Newcastle University where he proved himself to be a highly innovative researcher and gifted teacher during his 28 years of service. He also pursued his other interests with vigour which included walking, mountaineering and bringing up a family.

Alan’s engineering brilliance lay in pioneering the application of soil mechanics principles to the design of earth moving equipment. In the 1980s the foundations were being laid, quite literally, for new communications and technology, particularly in the form of undersea pipelines and telecoms cables.  Damage from trawler dragnets meant they were being uprooted as fast as they were being laid.  In a breathtaking piece of salesmanship in 1983, he convinced the giant US company Brown and Root to trust him with a multi-million pound contract to design and build a complete subsea trenching machine.  True to form, Alan duly designed a highly efficient undersea plough which slashed the costs of safely installing cables and pipelines below the seabed and increased the reliability of international telephone calls.

Alan’s initial response to his success was to commercialise his invention and continue his academic career.  Sadly the culture of the University at that time lacked the enterprising focus necessary to accommodate such an entrepreneurial talent and he reluctantly resigned his position in 1984.

This marked a significant milestone which heralded a radical career change. At the age of 57, when most entrepreneurs might be thinking of retiring, Alan was embarking on a second career, as a businessman, with the launch of Soil Machine Dynamics which was one of the very first university break-out businesses.

Developing his company on the basis of two principles – the employment of talented individuals and a belief in top quality engineering – Soil Machine Dynamics became a world leader in innovative subsea vehicles.

Turning his attention to defence he acquired Pearson Engineering to create a design and manufacturing capability for the defence sector which was rapidly expanding.  Pearson Engineering focused on the design and development of a range of counter mine and counter IED equipment to increase the capability of armoured fighting vehicles.  Replicating the success created with his previous company, Pearson Engineering became one of the region’s greatest manufacturing success stories, winning the 2012 Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Innovation for its Self-Protection Adaptor Roller Kit (SPARK) mine rollers. Attached to the front of wheeled and tracked military vehicles, they trigger an explosion as they drive over improvised explosive devices. The rollers get blown up and the main vehicle and its occupants stay safe. Used in Iraq and Afghanistan they have been responsible for saving hundreds of soldiers from death and injury.  In 2012 Pearson Engineering was also a winner of the Newcastle Journal Fastest Growing Business Awards.

Remaining enthused with the engineering sector he created The Reece Group in 2011 as a holding company for Pearson Engineering Limited, Pearson Engineering Services, Velocity and the recently acquired Responsive Engineering Group.  The Reece Group now has a turnover in excess of £211m and more than 450 employees.

Alan’s enthusiasm for engineering and his considerable success in business allowed him to build a substantial charitable fund, The Reece Foundation, which was founded in 2008 with the objective of supporting engineering and technical education as well as countryside and local initiatives. Since its inception he gave £30m to the charity which has donated £5m to the Institute of Manufacturing at Cambridge University, £1m to the Arkwright Scholarships Trust, £1.1m to Civitas to promote industry at a national level. Substantial donations have been made in the north east region to encourage engineering education.

In 2011 he was named by the Sunday Times as the third biggest philanthropist in the UK.

During his time in business he became highly critical of successive governments failure to encourage manufacturing industry and in 2011 he wrote a campaigning pamphlet, Reviving British Manufacturing, for the think tank Civitas describing how and why public policy should change.

At the age of five, Alan contracted rheumatic fever which permanently damaged his heart.  Despite warnings of poor health from doctors and this being the root cause of his eventual death, such concerns were shrugged off and he spent many years climbing the Munros in Scotland, skiing and mountaineering.  His enthusiasm for the great outdoors was evidenced by his recalling every single one of the 250 Munros he climbed.

Dr Alan Reece born March 7th 1927, died December 31st 2012.