Obituary: Dr Ian Preston, CBE, ScottishPower chief executive, company director, physicist and fly-fisherman

Dr Ian Preston, former ScottishPower Chief Executive. Born: 18 July, 1932. Died: 21 June, 2018, aged 85.
Dr Ian PrestonDr Ian Preston
Dr Ian Preston

Dr Ian Preston was the first Chief Executive of ScottishPower after the UK government, having already privatised the state-owned English and Welsh energy industries, did the same for Scotland in 1990. He helped turn Glasgow-based ScottishPower into a model for the rest of the UK before retiring from the company in 1994.

He stayed active, however, and became chairman of Scottish Coal, chairman of East of Scotland Water, a director of Clydeport, a director of Motherwell Bridge storage tank company and President of the Scottish Council for 
Development and Industry (SCDI), which aims to strengthen Scotland’s economic competitiveness and prosperity.

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He was also a non-executive director of the Glasgow Royal Infirmary Appeals Trust, something close to his heart. In any spare time, he enjoyed one of his lifelong loves, fly-fishing, which he learned fishing with his father on the rivers Nith and Annan.

Dr Preston was named ScottishPower boss after a long career, mostly at the South of Scotland Energy Board (SSEB), where he rose to Deputy Chairman in 1982. The SSEB, originally the Clyde Valley Electrical Power Company, became the basis for ScottishPower, which since 2006 is a subsidiary of the Spanish utility company Iberdrola. It supplies electricity and gas to homes and businesses around the UK and owns PPM Energy in the United States.

Ian Mathieson Hamilton Preston was born on 2 July, 1932, in Bournemouth, on England’s south coast, the only child of Scotsman Jack and Englishwoman Edna. Jack, from Muirkirk, East Ayrshire, was a travelling salesman on the south coast of England for the Barrhead-based bathroom supplies company Shanks (now Armitage Shanks) when he met and married local girl Edna Paull from Poole, near Bournemouth. When Ian was four, Jack moved the family back to Ayrshire and his beloved Burns country, settling in Kilmarnock. Ian would go on to attend Kilmarnock Academy where he became Head Boy, was vice-captain of the rugby team and also played in the school pipe band. Rugby, especially the Scottish team, would remain a lifelong passion.

Prodigious, he achieved his university entrance qualifications at the age of 16 but stayed on at the academy for another year, acting as an intrepid roving reporter for the school magazine. His shape and stature won him the nickname Tubby Preston, which he took in good spirit. At Glasgow University, he planned to study geology but drifted towards physics, obtaining a First Class Honours degree and a doctorate in nuclear physics. Impressed, the university offered him a job as an assistant lecturer on physics, where he stayed for two years.

At Uni, he retained his passion for sport. “It is said that the sight of Tubby Preston coming hammering down the wicket was a sight most batsmen feared,” his elder son Colin said in his funeral eulogy. “Keeping the bails on the stumps was also a challenge with his thundering footsteps.” It was at this time that a pretty young girl in the university’s Biochemistry Department, Sheila Hope Pringle, caught his eye. “Sheila had no idea he was called Ian – she only knew him as Tubby,” said Colin. They married in August 1958.

Appointed assistant reactor physicist for SSEB at the Hunterston nuclear power station on the Firth of Clyde in 1959, it was the start of a 35-year professional career in the electricity business. He worked his way up to Research Manager and latterly Technical Services Manager and, at SSEB HQ in Cathcart, worked under the direction and guidance of the company chairman Francis (later Lord) Tombs, to whom he acknowledged he owed a lot. For five years in the 1970s, Dr Preston worked down south at Barnwood, Gloucestershire, as highly-popular and successful Director General for Design and Construction for the state-owned Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB). He returned to Scotland in 1983 as Deputy Chairman of the SSEB, working with the Chairman, Sir Donald Miller of Teeside, for seven years.

Together, the two men were closely involved in the Torness nuclear station at Torness Point near Dunbar, East Lothian, which was completed to time and budget using British technology and British contractors. Both men argued strongly for the privatisation of electricity to be deployed for the benefit of Scotland and Scottish consumers. In the run-up to the creation of ScottishPower in 1990, the search began for what was codenamed “Dr Volt” – a first CEO. Dr Preston and Sir Ian were the obvious choices for CEO and Chairman respectively and both were appointed.

“Dad seemed to know most of the answers to many 
questions, even obscure facts about industrial innovation through to the history of the natural world,” Colin Preston said in his eulogy. “Trivial Pursuit was always a challenge for us since not only did he know the answer, he could provide the background to the answer and he could give it to you in Latin!

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“He was a passionate Scot (although his mother was English) and would support and promote Scotland’s history, heritage and culture in all his travels and his thinking. Throughout his international travels, Dad never forgot that he was a Scot – indeed he would take great pleasure in reminding people that not only was this ‘God’s chosen land’ but it was the land of the best people.

“His efforts and participation in the SCDI, where he played such an important role in maintaining a cross-sectoral, non-political body gaining respect from politicians, business leaders and the like, won him richly-deserved recognition for his passion and leadership for Scotland and for Scotland’s people. Scotland has lost one of its prominent captains of industry,” Colin concluded.

In 1993, Dr Preston was recognised by the Queen with the award of a CBE for Services to the Electricity Industry. He said it was one of his proudest days to be given the award at what he called “the Queen’s big hoose” – Buckingham Palace.

Dr Ian Preston died on 21 June in University Hospital Hairmyres, East Kilbride. He is survived by his wife Sheila Hope Preston (née Pringle), sons Colin and Ewan, and grandchildren Emma, Callum, Ian and Jennifer.