Industry Interview: Bryan Buchan

Industry Interview: Bryan Buchan, CEO Scottish Engineering

As recruiters we love finding out about other people’s career journey, their achievements and what they’ve learnt along the way. So, with that in mind, we’re interviewing key figures from Scottish industry and giving you an insight into their story so far.

This month, we interviewed Bryan Buchan currently CEO of Scottish Engineering; a highly regarded industry body with a heritage that spans 150 years!

How long have you been in your current role?

Coming up for four years, taking on the role in October 2012. Having served on the executive committee of Scottish Engineering for over 10 years I found it refreshing to step back out of semi-retirement to do something totally new if not quite entirely alien!

What led you to a career in Manufacturing?

Going through university I had no real thoughts of entering manufacturing although on reflection I probably always enjoyed the notion of making things. In the summer break of my third year I got a job as 3rd Engineer or ”greaser” as it was known on an ocean going tug boat; great job, no problem getting my hands dirty, quite literally and this probably helped to set the scene!

My focus as a student was on getting onto a Graduate Programme with a global company and I was fortunate to land a place with Johnson & Johnson in the days when companies could afford to have the future in mind and invest time in trainees not seeking an immediate return.

In the first year I was exposed to a broad range of departments, including marketing, finance and project engineering, as well as manufacturing.  One assignment was in the centreless grinder department producing sutures, regarded by some as something of a black art. I was interested enough not to take the annual shut-down as my holiday but stayed to work with technicians on the strip-down and refurb of the machines so that I could understand more.  The black art evaporated.

“I found it refreshing to step back out of semi-retirement to do something totally new if not quite entirely alien!”

How did your journey develop and lead you to where you are today?

12 years with J&J taught me enough to recognise that change was in the wind and so I chose to look for other options and moved into reprographics with G.R. Advanced Materials.

I was attracted back to the medical device sector joining Award PLC; an indigenous Scottish start-up company manufacturing daily disposable contact lenses, in those days, a new concept.

We grew rapidly and were courted as a potential acquisition by major global brands ultimately being acquired by U.S. giant Bausch & Lomb. Just a little over four years post acquisition I took over as site director and during the following 10 + years we went through a period of phenomenal growth. Breaking into the Japanese market in under 3 years, producing at peak 1.2 million lenses in a single 24 hr period and employing at one point over 1,000 people.

The Scottish sites focussed on unit cost and labour costs. Of course unit labour was cheaper in other parts of the world but our quality and overall effectiveness, including customer service, were difficult to match. In response to unit cost pressures, we sought capex to automate and over the next few years invested tens of millions of dollars in new lines.  Whilst our business was highly competitive in the eyes of the private equity company which acquired the corporation, sadly our tax system wasn’t and when it was compared against corporation tax levels in Ireland and a corporation tax holiday in Northern New York State, I was given the instruction to close the sites down.

I lecture now at universities, taking them through what happened then and each and every time, I feel the pain of that day and the announcement I had to make.

Bryan presents the 2016 Scottish Engineering Incorporation of Hammermen of Glasgow Award:

Describe your role at Scottish Engineering

I’m the Chief Executive Officer or C.E.O, so, basically all things to everyone. I guide the team to achieve the mandate we have from our member companies. To an extent we are a conduit to the “body politic” for our members at local, regional and national level. More importantly though I think we offer great networking opportunities where both experience and knowledge is freely and very usefully exchanged between members. We benefit from access to University learning and thinking and this can be of tremendous support to many member organisations. Of course we also have a very strong legal services team alongside our H+S team to support our membership and these are key strengths of our service offering.

What challenges face the Scottish Engineering Membership?

It’s well documented that the oil price collapse has hit Scottish industry and therefore many of our members. I was surprised to see just how far the oil and gas sector penetrated into aspects of Scottish manufacturing. To be honest it’s been very tough for many from early 2015 and with there being global forces at play it’s been all that most companies can do to keep their various ships steady. China turned off the tap, the U.S. are now making shale viable, Russia has to sell their oil at a loss simply to get hard currency and we have Iran and Libya waiting in the wings to increase supply. Couple that to sterling being healthy against a weak euro and of you have a further challenge for exporters. So, we have held our own and continue to do so but we don’t have our troubles to seek.

What have you found challenging in your role at Scottish Engineering?

At the start it was challenging not to have a boss by which I mean a single point of reference to whom I could report and refer, but the three elected Presidents during my tenure have been excellent as sounding boards and guides.  We don’t have the benefit of air punching metrics to which we can say BRILLIANT! We’ve done it! Having been used to being called to account on a monthly basis for so many years I find the time I spend with the president each month gives me great focus.

What have you found rewarding in this role?

Feedback from member companies, the opportunity to bring my experience to bear usefully but in a dispassionate way. If it’s not a company I work in directly I feel I can be more dispassionate and use my experience with less emotion, arguably I can be more effective because of that. I really enjoy some of the activities I get involved in such as Energy Taskforce and the Engineering Skills Leadership Group. Bottom line is though, that I still get a real buzz from walking around factories, seeing what’s made and how it’s made.

How would your colleagues at Scottish Engineering describe you?

Well, it was clear that they took a while to get used to me. Initially I spent quite a bit of time looking for metrics and KPIs…things to measure, information that told me something but it’s very different to Bausch and Lomb of course! I would hope that they found me supportive and inclusive, it was new to the organisation that everyone got involved in setting objectives. Maybe I’m seen as an affable old soul, with an edge.

Do you have any career regrets?

No, not major regrets, maybe I could have moved a little earlier from J&J. On several occasions I was invited to run overseas operations for B&L and maybe if I had my time again I might act differently. However my childhood was spent traveling the U.K. as my father sought and achieved various promotions. That experience, I think, made me want to anchor my family and especially my children in one place and that is one decision I don’t regret.

“Be as flexible as you can be, look at the whole world, not just one career path or one company or one country.”

What advice would you give people today starting out in their career?

It’s quite simple really. Be as flexible as you can be, look at the whole world, not just one career path or one company or one country.

If you got the chance to change anything, what would it be and why?

In essence I’ve only ever worked for a few companies and mostly in the medical device sector. I sometimes wonder if maybe I should have broadened my experience. Having said that, when I look back at Bausch & Lomb I get a lot of satisfaction, so on balance there isn’t much I would change, if anything.


Many thanks to Bryan for talking with us. You can find out more about Scottish Engineering at:

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