Here is our Fireside Chat with Michael Harper. This interview touches on Michaels's numerous roles within the fire industry, his enjoyment and fascination of aviation as well as his terrifying experience, observing the first of the Twin Towers collapse on a business trip to New York.

22 February 2022 by Ryan Brassil , Business Liaison

 Fireside Chat with Michael Harper

Intro: 

I was educated at Barrow-in-Furness Grammar School, and London University.  I achieved a BSc in Engineering at Kings College and an MSc at Imperial College.  I joined Vickers PLC in Leeds in their Printing Machinery Group and eventually took on a general management role, followed by taking responsibility for their Hydraulics and Nuclear divisions in Swindon, before moving on to Avon to take responsibility for their business, designing and manufacturing propulsion units for guided weapons.

I joined the Fire Sector in 1984 with responsibility for a company called Graviner and when Williams Holdings acquired the business, we quickly expanded into a major division of the group focused on fire and safety products, systems and equipment.  I was the Chief Executive of Kidde PLC when the division became a separate public company and I retired from executive life when UTC acquired our business in 2005. 

I then followed a plural career chairing four companies at different times and acting as a Senior Independent Director of three others.  I still retain one position on the board of the defence company QinetiQ PLC today and of course, I’ve been the non-executive chair of the Fire Sector Federation for the last four years and that was a welcome return to the fire sector after nearly twenty years.

How have you been affected by Covid?

I’ve been restricted but I don’t think as yet, myself or my immediate family have been infected.  Some of the children and grandchildren have, but we haven’t and working from home has come quite naturally as I’m enjoying part-time working at present, so it fits in very well.  It’s been a major issue with many of the businesses I’ve been associated with, but personally, we’ve managed to get on quite well. 

Personal Questions

Do you have any pets?

We have two Border Collies; one is a twelve-year-old named Buddy and the second is a six-month-old named Bobby.  The puppy is a real challenge for all of us not least the twelve-year-old who prefers a quiet life. 

What’s your favourite movie of all time?

The first movie I ever saw was ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ around 1954 and that was my favourite for many years.  Presently my favourite is ‘What we did on our holidays’ starring David Tennant, Billy Connolly and Rosamund Pike.  It’s funny but it also has some serious themes and plenty of emotion and I much prefer it to crime and gangsters and all the other horrid stuff that’s on at that time of night.  It’s a very good film and I watch it regularly. 

Describe yourself as a teenager in 3 words?

Hardworking, sporty, pretty normal otherwise. 

My parents had a very strong influence on the work ethic.  We, for example, had no TV in the house until I was fifteen.  There was homework to be done. 

What is your biggest pet peeve/hate? 

Motorists imitating Lewis Hamilton on the motorway and passing me at high speed on the inside, I think it’s extremely dangerous and we should be doing much more about it. 

If you could be from any other decade (or era), which would it be and why?

I’m troubled by two choices here.

One is Ancient Egypt from 1000-2000bc which produced the most amazing buildings and architecture with no computers, few tools, no lasers etc and I’d just love to see how all that was done as well as what their life and customs were like.

The second would be the British Industrial Revolution from 1760-1820.  That was my favourite of all the courses I ever did, the GCSE O’Levels in Industrial and Social History, I thoroughly enjoyed that.  It was a starting point for a lot of things in this country so, I’d like to go back and have another look at that. 

What is your favourite quote and why?

I have a few.  I’ve always been a big fan of Winston Churchill as indeed was my father and almost any of his well-known quotes will do.  I used to fancy myself as a bit of an actor and at one stage I was rather a good mimic of Winston Churchill, but I won’t try that on you now.  So, that’s one source of quotes.

The other one that has always stuck with me was from Sir Isaac Newton, who in 1676 said “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of great men.”  That, to me, underlines the importance of paying attention to those who have gone before, particularly those who you admire. 

The third quote I heard on the radio when I was at university a long time ago.  It’s a rock climbers’ motto but I think it’s a useful lesson for all aspects of life and it is just simply “Don’t look down.” 

If you weren’t in the fire industry what would you be doing and why?

I think it would probably be aviation related.  Graviner was very focused on that when I joined the fire sector in the 1980s and it’s stayed with me.  I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed my six years as director of the Aerospace Technology Institute, which aimed to stimulate and guide investment in R&D in aviation and that role concluded last year.  I’ve always enjoyed aviation, I think it’s a stimulating and growing industry so I think it would be something to do with that. 

What’s on your Spotify or iTunes?

I still use CDs.  Mainly Opera and Ballet music.

If you could have any three people (dead or alive) over for dinner – who would they be?

The first would be Winston Churchill who happens to be a great hero in our family, at least partly as a result of the war years.

Secondly Nelson Mandela and thirdly Margaret Thatcher.  All of these people have exhibited great conviction, drive, focus and above all, achievement in their own various ways.  I’d love to hear what they have to talk about.

What two things would you take to a Desert Island?

The works of Shakespeare would give me plenty of reading material, I don’t know how long I’d be there but that would probably cover a lot of time.  I’d take a solar-powered CD player with lots of CDs particularly aimed at the classical side of music. 

Name a book, movie or tv show that has positively shaped you and why?

A History of the World in 100 objects by Neil Macgregor.

If you were animal, what animal would you be and why?

Can I be a bird?  I had a very stunning visit a couple of years ago to the Argentinian Andes to visit my son and I became very much more aware of the Condor that soars around the immediate peaks that we were enjoying in the Andes.  They’re so graceful and have access to beautiful scenery.  There may be lots of problems up there, but you can’t see them from down below, so I’d quite like to be one of those. 

What is the best gift you’ve ever received?

Five healthy children; they’re all gifts.

What's your favourite thing in your closet right now?

A slip-on coat that allows me to have thirty minutes of fresh air with the dogs and to have a bit of a walk.  That’s the thing I go to most, I feel comfortable in it and it keeps me warm.  It’s my favourite thing now.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

I’d like to be capable of time travel like Dr Who.  There are lots to see, do and learn by looking back over different time periods and situations but I’m not so sure about going forward, quite so much.  I’m not sure I really want to know.  I’d like to look back on some things, so if I could have that ability to time travel, that would be great.

Professional Questions

Where’s the most interesting place that you have ever been with the Fire Industry?

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel quite extensively in my time involved in management in the fire sector.  The most stunning and terrifying experience that I’ve seen was watching the first of the Twin Towers collapse from the New Jersey side of the Hudson River during a business trip to New York in 2001.  You couldn’t see much after the first rumbling noise because it was covered in massive amounts of dust, but I shall remember that forever. 

What's the best piece of advice you've received?

The importance of integrity.  To guide your personal behaviour.  My father was a great one for that.  So, to guide your personal behaviour and also in dealing with others, I think integrity is critical. 

What time did you get to work this morning?

Now that I’m working part-time, it’s 8.30- 9 am.  That’s the time I switch the computer on.  In the olden days when I was working full time, I’d be in the office usually by 7.30 am. 

What does your usual day look like?

When I was working full-time my usual day was 7.30 am – 7.00. 

The day would be a mixture depending on the schedule consisting of meetings, site visits, international travel and the usual things.  A real mixture but nothing different compared to lots of other people. 

How does your work and family life come together?

At the moment, very easily.  I’ve got a nice comfortable study and my wife is available providing support and I have two dogs and a field copse out at the rear of the gsarden, so I can get about.  It’s very straightforward and comfortable at the moment. 

When I was working full time, it was clearly much more difficult due to travelling to and from work and there were obviously clashes and pressures and so on.  I should just say congratulations to my wife and children for putting up with me. 

What makes you excited about the future of this industry?

My present position at the Fire Sector Federation which commenced very soon after Grenfell, brought home to me the importance of significantly raising the profile of fire safety and indeed, our sector, as it applies within the whole of the built environment.  We live in a very rapidly changing world and it’s important that fire safety keeps pace with the changes that are affecting the built environment so that we can try to avoid some of the tragedies of recent times.  So, within the Fire Sector Federation, we’ve focused on input to government legislation, emphasis on the key issue, as I see it anyway, of raising confidence in fire safety roles.  To help building regulations to keep pace with the modern methods of construction, which are very much to be supported, but to be understood and to understand the implications of them.  To move forward with third-party certification and accreditation of product and services.  Those are the things we’ve been focusing on. 

The fire sector needs a strong and clear voice to influence building regulations and confidence levels and to change the culture of the built environment, which too often has seen fire safety and building regulations as a set of rules to find a way around.  We have got to do much better than that. 

What does the fire industry need?

There is very clearly, from the people that I have got to know and dealt with, a very deep resource of expertise and experience in fire safety.  We’ve got to put that to good use in improving fire safety regulations, competence and culture in the built environment as I referred to previously.  It is a major challenge. 

What do you like about the fire industry?

There’s tremendous expertise and experience.  We’ve got to get together with a very focused voice to try to improve the industry and profile of fire safety as we go forward.

What matters most to you?

I’ve always tried to make a positive difference.  I’ve tried hard in all my roles in business to leave the business in a better shape than when I joined it.  I have found focusing on that has been a very helpful measure of performance.  I’ve enjoyed it all very much. 

What would you tell yourself at the age of 21?

To listen carefully, to experience leaders and people who you respect and work hard on what you learn from that. 

What motivates you?

A job well done.

Where do you want to be in 5 years?

I’d like to be healthy, I’m pretty confident I will be fully retired, but I’d like to think that I would be pretty active.  I will continue to have a very close interest in the business that I have previously been involved in, I look forward to significant progress in the fire sector etc. 

I will continue to be very interested in sport.  Cricket has always been my favourite sport and I enjoy rugby and football,.  I am from the north west and I am a big Liverpool fan..

Why is the FIA important to you and the industry?

I’ve supported the organisation both personally and through my companies since the days of BFPSA.  The FIA now represents a significant part of the fire sector, to which it clearly provides leadership, representation and significant training capabilities.  I hope that it will continue to work closely with other sector leaders in achieving much-enhanced safety and understanding of fire safety within the built environment.

It's a very important player and its voice together with a coordinated voice from the sector would be very effective. 

What do you want to say to the readers?

Grenfell exposed a series of failings in regulation, practice, culture and integrity in respect of fire safety.  An underlying concern during my time at the Fire Sector Federation has been the relatively poor standing and profile of the fire sector in the context of the built environment and I think our challenge is, therefore, to raise the bar’ (which was the title of a key work on competency in the sector).

We need to raise the bar for fire safety so that it can keep pace with the rapid changes that are taking place.  All contributors to the built environment need a much better understanding of fire safety and we need the appropriate regulations in place to make good use of them.  I think it’s quite a task and we need to get together as clearly and concisely as we can to push that forward. 

Words are easy, there’s a very significant five-year challenge associated with a few words.