Dr Andrew Mackenzie

Doctor of ScienceAndrew Mackenzie

23 February 2011 - Orator: Professor James Maxwell

Madame Chancellor,

The home country of today’s Honorary Graduand has an expression - The Devil’s guide to his ain. Nowadays, it’s used lightly to indicate good luck. So, what relevance does it have for today‘s proceedings? Before I answer that, let me turn the clock back. Andrew Mackenzie was born in 1956, the son of a GP. His first alma mater was St Andrew’s University, where he preceded a certain William Wales and Kate Middleton, graduating as top student in Geology; he was also top in his subsidiary subject, Chemistry, which was to have relevance later. Seeking new pastures, he then wisely chose to pursue a PhD degree. As a result, I first met him in 1977, when he came for interview at the School of Chemistry. I well remember that day - not only did Andrew arrive from Scotland, but so did his wife Liz! At this point, all I can say is that, if you knew Liz and Andrew as I do,  you would realise that I was the one being interviewed by this formidable couple!

However,  I must have passed the test, because it was his PhD research which set the course for a remarkable career. So, what was it about? Well, you probably know that the remains of dead algae and bacteria in seas or lakes can be incorporated into the bottom mud and become deeply buried over geological time, the temperature rising with depth. Millions of years later, provided the time and temperature are just right, oil can be formed from these remains in the host mud, now a so-called source rock; from there, it can migrate to a so-called reservoir rock, where it can be trapped, waiting to be discovered. Now, it’s important in an exploration area not only to find a potential source rock but also to determine whether or not it could generate oil if buried more deeply, or has already generated oil - in other words to know the thermal history of the potential source rock. What Andrew did in his doctoral study was to use sophisticated chemical methods to devise a new way of determining source rock thermal history based on the changes in the chemical structures of tiny amounts of steroid molecules in sedimentary rocks and petroleum; yes, that’s correct - steroids!

The approach soon attracted attention from oil companies, especially when one publication led to the best paper award in 1980. However, after turning down an offer from Chevron California, he wisely chose to stay on here for a short period as a postdoctoral fellow before furthering his training by applying for a Humbolt Fellowship. These prestigious fellowships, almost as rare as hen’s teeth, allow recipients to pursue research in Germany at an establishment of their choice, in Andrew’s case in Jülich, where he built on his PhD research.

After two years or so and fluent in German, he joined BP around 1983 on a fast track appointment, initially extending his earlier research. This led to the 1986 President’s Award from the Geological Society, which is only given to outstanding young geoscientists. The Society also continued to keep an eye on his research progress, because in 2002 he received the Aberconway Medal. The citation says “…….. (he) has made extraordinary and long lasting contributions to our understanding of petroleum generation, migration and entrapment; his work has influenced geoscientists in every country and organisation where the business of oil and gas exploration is pursued.”

The BP appointment certainly was fast track; within 10 years he had become Chief Reservoir Engineer in 1993, essentially having overall responsibility for BP’s oil and gas reserves and production. So, where does one go from these dizzy heights? Well, one simply becomes in 1997 Chief Technology Officer, in other words Head of Science and Engineering. Four years later, he was moved to Chicago by the then Chief Executive, the redoubtable Lord Browne, to become Group Vice President, Chemicals, running  from Chicago BP’s chemical businesses  in the Americas. After four years of being in America and regularly away from his family, he returned to the UK to redress the balance of his personal life, as well as talk to Lord Browne about his future.

At this point, it is probably diplomatic to just say Andrew left BP, but not under a cloud I should add, to join the mining company, Rio Tinto. This is why I mentioned luck earlier. I personally believe that, if Andrew had not left BP when he did, it is not inconceivable that he might  have ended up in the same position as the hapless Tony Hayward, Lord Browne’s successor,  on the receiving end of a bunch of braying US Senators!

At Rio Tinto he was Chief Executive for Diamonds and Minerals. Four years later - things seem to go here in four year steps - he joined BHP Billiton, the sixth biggest company in the world. BHP is 60% traded on the Sydney Market and 40% on the London Stock Exchange. Andrew looks after the London part and most Northern Hemisphere and Latin America issues, plus non-ferrous materials and worldwide exploration for all minerals. Being Australian, the organisation is slightly different from UK companies. In Andrew‘s case, as  a Chief Operating Officer, he can be likened to a non-voting Board member.

So what else does this workaholic get up to? Well, in his spare time he is a non-executive director of Centrica (which incorporates British Gas); from 2005-7 he was chairman of the trustees of Demos. I must admit my ignorance here. I wasn’t sure what Demos is, except it was set up by Tony Blair, so I went to Google. What came back said: “An independent think tank and research institute believed to influence the policies of Tony Blair’s Government. Considered as a centre of ’Third Way’ ideas.” Make of that what you will - I guess it must have been Andrew‘s idea of relaxation!

He also manages to maintain academic connections. Universities, like schools, are externally assessed, but in a different way, via the Research Assessment Exercise. Not only has he been a member of the Panel ranking earth science departments, he also maintains a number of informal contacts with universities. Slightly more formally, he founded the BP Institute at Cambridge University, the institute being a beacon for how academe and industry can interact. It also serves to emphasise Andrew’s belief that the UK, and industry in particular, does not make enough of our academic strengths and that this is partly the fault of governments overemphasising  poor applied science (i.e. cheap) to the detriment of world class pure science.

This belief probably relates to the fact that he maintains that his time as a geology undergraduate and organic geochemistry PhD student and postdoctoral fellow, as well as the time learning French and German then, plus Spanish later, have been the foundation of his career. To quote him: “All the business stuff - accounting, etc. - is so easy in comparison; my science and language skills are my secret weapons”. It is exciting to think, Madame Chancellor, about all the new graduates in this Great Hall today who will be embarking on their own careers, equipped with their own set of secret weapons, and what they might go on to achieve.

In summary, Andrew was a brilliant academic research scientist who chose to leave the world of academe for the wider world, becoming not only a captain, but dare  I say admiral, of industry. Quite simply, he is one of the most distinguished graduates this University produced in the last half of the 20th century. It is fitting that the University recognises the achievements of this unassuming man via an award beyond the PhD degree he  received in 1980.

Madame Chancellor, I present to you  Andrew Stewart Mackenzie as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.