A year ago this week, Harkand was forged into an international subsea giant and unveiled at the Subsea Expo in Aberdeen.
David Kerr, one of the directors of the original firm that became part of the new company, was put in charge of the global business’s European operation.
Ahead of this year’s tenth event at the Aberdeen Exhibition & Conference Centre which starts today, he said his particular end of the market – inspection, repair and maintenance (IRM) – may not be sexy, but its scale and importance can no longer be ignored.
“We are keeping the existing infrastructure going,” said Mr Kerr.
“That might not be as exciting as the guys that are building and developing the new fields, but when you see how many assets there are out in the North Sea that have had major life extensions you realise what that means for operators’ profitability, jobs for people in Aberdeen, and tax plans for the government. It may not seem that sexy but I tell you what, it is hugely important.”
Los Angeles-based Oaktree Capital Management agreed. The venture capitalists forged Harkand out of Mr Kerr’s firm Integrated Subsea Systems (ISS) and Abu Dhabi-based Iremis with ambitious plans to create a £640million global business by 2018 from four key bases in Aberdeen, Sharjah, Singapore and Perth, Australia and Houston.
Operating a fleet of diving support vessels (DSVs), ROVs and employing upwards of 1,000 people including operators, surveyors and divers around the world, it’s a far cry from the career path the Aberdeen-born Mr Kerr had originally set his heart on before finding his sea legs.
A Robert Gordon’s pupil, Mr Kerr studied farm management at the North of Scotland College of Agriculture but, on graduating, bought a one-way ticket to Calgary and spent a year travelling across Canada on a motorbike.
“I was keen to expand my horizons.
“When I came back I picked up a job as an offshore roustabout and very quickly realised that oil and gas was a pretty interesting industry so I worked in a number of different jobs, saved every penny I could and eventually set up my own business.”
He launched Otter Diving in 1979, but soon joined BP-owned Subsea Offshore, which was playing an integral role in the installation of major North Sea fields including Forties.
The job took him to Spain, India and Singapore.
“It showed me that our industry operates very differently in each region and even in the early days, the North Sea was leading the way in terms of regulation and an emphasis on health and safety. It helped me understand the true cost of what can happen in our industry if it’s not regulated to a high standard and this was a very valuable lesson which I’ve taken with me throughout my career.”
During this time he also forged several relationships that would endure throughout his life.
As well as meeting his future wife Catherine, he established a firm friendship with then colleagues Ian Herd and Bruce Webster. When they invited him to join ISS in 2009 as a general manager, it was an “easy decision to make,” said Mr Kerr.
Now the extension of North Sea assets is an increasingly hot topic, with this year’s Subsea Expo expected to be its biggest ever.
This year Harkand made a £100million order for another DSV from a Norwegian shipyard which will double the number of ships it operates in the North Sea.
Its first, the DSV Atltantis, arrived in 2012.
“Getting her established in the North Sea was an important thing for us. We have had an extremely busy year with that,” said Mr Kerr.
“I’m on the vessels all the time they are in port. I’m always on board seeing the marine crew and the diving crew. We live and breathe boats.”
Now aged 59, Kerr hasn’t stopped learning yet. He recently completed a Masters of Laws Oil and Gas at RGU, and, for fun, has taken up learning to play the bagpipes.
“There is always a new challenge round the corner and I firmly believe that an active mind keeps you young,” he added.
“It certainly keeps life interesting.”
David Kerr: Q&A
Who helped you get where you are today?
Ours is an industry filled with pioneers, entrepreneurs and interesting individuals but for me, it it’s the industry itself which fills me with enthusiasm.
What do you still hope to achieve in business?
To play a key part in developing another great company and help give the next generation the same enjoyment I have had in my career.
What is your greatest business challenge today?
It is a hugely competitive environment with a high health, safety and environment threshold – the challenge for all of us is in exceeding the standards.
If you were in power in government, what would you change?
I would give the people the plain facts. The general public are quite capable of understanding them.
Where is your favourite place to go on holiday?
The Far East. Vietnam reminds me of the time I spent in India and there’s something fascinating about emerging countries, the people and the culture.
Do you have any spare time and, if so, what do you do?
I enjoy motorbikes, golf and go to the gym most days. I don’t like sitting around because I get bored and grumpy so am always doing something. I have a Honda Blackbird.
What are you reading, listening to or glued to on TV?
Natural history programmes and sport. I don’t have the patience to sit through films.
If you were a character in a TV series or movie, who would you be?
Bruce Willis. We have the same hair style.
What do you drive and dream of driving?
After years of family-friendly estates I now drive an Audi TTS. I dream of trying out a Formula 1 car.
What would your children (or partner) say about you?
That my mind is often somewhere else, usually work.
Which charity do you support and why?
Organisations like Cancer Research UK and Marie Curie for the outstanding work they do; and UCAN, which is our adopted charity as their work has a strong correlation with our workforce demographics.
What’s on your bucket list – the things you still want to accomplish?
To convert an old ruin in the heart of rural Deeside, with a picture view of the hills, a wood-burning stove, a road that fills with snow, good wi-fi connection and outstanding wine cellar. That would do me.