Bill Ray, BSc, Barrister at Law

Doctor of Laws

Tuesday 19 July 2016 at 1.30 pm - Orator: The Rt Hon. the Baroness Hale of Richmond

Mr Vice-Chancellor

It was 2009. We were looking for a new Chairman of the alumni body of graduates of the University of Bristol, constitutionally known as Convocation. As with many such bodies, built on ‘old boy’ traditions, the previous practice had been for the retiring Chairman to pick his own successor. But this time we decided to do things differently, to invite expressions of interest and to hold interviews. So there we were in my room in the House of Lords, myself as Chancellor and ex officio President of Convocation, the Deputy Chair of the Convocation Committee, and the outgoing Chairman. There were two candidates: one who had played a prominent part in Convocation and would undoubtedly be a very safe pair of hands; and another who was a completely unknown quantity, a Bristol graduate only recently returned to live in Bristol. Surely it would be a no-brainer we thought.

Enter the commanding figure of one Bill Ray and our minds were changed.

Bill would, I think, be the first to acknowledge that he had not had a particularly impressive career as a Bristol undergraduate. He read chemistry, graduating in 1975, but very soon after that, he switched to law and qualified as a barrister in 1977. But the combination of chemistry and law was no doubt to stand him in good stead in his future career.

After three years in the law, he joined the Dow Chemical Company, the largest manufacturer of chemicals and plastics in the world. He began in sales in England, but then progressed through increasingly senior management positions in Switzerland, the United States, back again to Switzerland, and finally in the Middle East, as Chief Executive Officer of a joint venture between Dow Chemical and the government of the Sultanate of Oman, to design, build and operate a three billion dollar gas to petrochemicals complex in Oman.

But despite his heavy responsibilities in management, he also found time for public service. As a trustee on the Board of the International School in Zurich, he gained experience which was also useful when he reconnected with the University of Bristol – chairing the committee responsible for appointing the school’s trustees and Chair, improving the effectiveness and diversity of the Board, and leading the team which oversaw a large new high school building project.  He continues his educational connections as a governor of Badminton School.

In 2008, he and his wife Karen and their three children, Stephanie, James and Alexander, returned to the United Kingdom and made the wise decision to settle in Bristol. We are delighted to welcome Karen and the rest of the family here today. Karen owns and runs ‘Alfie and Belle’, a pet care store, where Bill is a stalwart helper, not afraid to get his hands dirty moving the stock about. Bill did not, of course, decide to retire. He decided to stay in the manufacturing industry, but making something rather different from plastics and chemicals. He became Group Managing Director of a specialist engineering company which makes parts for racing cars down in the West Country, although he did not claim to know anything much about racing cars before he did so.  He has recently negotiated a successful sale of the business and moved on once more to something completely different.

Fortunately for the University, Bill decided to reconnect with his alma mater.  He was Chair of Convocation from 2009 to 2015. He was also the Convocation representative on the University Council during that time. These are two very different bodies.

All graduates of the University, including those of you graduating here today, are automatically members of Convocation. Convocation has a role in the Constitution of the University. It has 100 representatives on the University Court, to which the Vice-Chancellor and Chair of Council report annually. But the term ‘Convocation’ is little understood, whereas these days everyone knows what an alumni association is. So Bill gracefully steered through the change of name. Now it is Convocation and the Alumni Association, and for most purposes just the Alumni Association. 

Council, on the other hand, is the governing body of the University, where all the big strategic and spending decisions are made. It has recently changed its name to the Board of Trustees, in line with practice in other Universities, and to emphasise the fiduciary nature of its role. It consists entirely of volunteers who give generously of their time and expertise to make this University the world-class institution which it now is and of which we can all be so proud.  

Bill has devoted an enormous amount of time and energy to both roles. He spearheaded the modernisation of the Alumni Association – not only by the change of name but also by the introduction of distance voting for the officers, committee and Convocation members of Court. This enabled far more members to feel involved in the Association even if they could not come to the annual general meeting. He made it more business-like, by introducing annual goals and objectives for the committee.  He built a strong support base for our alumni branches and local networks, not only in this country but abroad, principally in North America and the Far East. Your predecessor,Mr Vice-Chancellor, cannot think of any funny stories about Bill, but he can confirm that Bill is a very agreeable travelling companion. I can confirm that the only thing that he and I have ever disagreed about is the correct height of the microphones at speaking engagements!

He also forged a close relationship with the University’s Development and Alumni Relations Office – so much so that when he took part in interviewing for a new Deputy Head an applicant from the other side of the world was so impressed with his commitment, presence and sense of affiliation to Bristol, that she relocated all that way to take up the post.

In short, Bill has played a major role in building up the relations between the University and its alumni – today we are in touch with around 112,000 of our 116,000 alumni and the proportion who make some sort of contribution to the University is the highest outside Oxford and Cambridge.

His business acumen and skills have also been a significant asset to the Board of Trustees, for example on its nominations and appointments committee and on the Council Effectiveness Review – again a moderniser but a moderniser who likes to build consensus rather than confrontation.

There can be no better example of this than the Convocation mace which you see before you. A predecessor as Chairman of Convocation, the late Dr Derek Zutschi, left a seven figure sum of money to the University in his will, mostly to spend how it thought fit. But he stipulated that just under a six figure sum should go to Convocation. He earnestly desired that part of this sum should be used to commission a mace. This was the only capital project for which the money could be used – otherwise Convocation was only entitled to the income. But of course spending a large sum of money on another expensive piece of silverware was not uncontroversial. But in the end, Bill and the Convocation Committee, supported by the Chancellor, prevailed.

Of course it did not stop there – the design had to be agreed. Once again it is a tribute to Bill’s tact and diplomacy that eventually a very fine design, incorporating many symbols of the University and its history, was agreed. Today we are proud to be able to tell new graduates that the University thinks so much of you that you have your very own mace to represent your enduring membership of the University community. 

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