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Sunday, 23 November 2014

Wylam: Philanthropist was engineering great

AN engineering entrepreneur and philanthropist, whose charitable foundation stepped in to save Wylam Post Office from closure, has died, aged 85.

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Engineering genius and philanthropist Dr Alan Reece, who has died, aged 85.

Dr Alan Reece, who lived in the village himself, was responsible for creating several engineering companies on Tyneside, with a combined turnover of over £300m and 700 employees.

His ideas enabled the safe installation of cables and pipelines under the sea bed and, through his work in counter-mine and counter-IED equipment, he helped save the lives of hundreds of soldiers involved in conflicts in the Middle East.

The son of a Guards soldier, Dr Reece was brought up in London and educated at Harrow County School for Boys.

He came to Newcastle aged 17 to study for a BSc in mechanical engineering at Newcastle University, where he met his wife-to-be Doreen, with whom he went on to have three children.

Dr Reece’s love for engineering grew during an apprenticeship at Vickers Armstrong, which he undertook before rejoining the university to study for an MSc.

A spell further south then saw him honing his skills at Dagenham’s Ford Tractor Plant and at International Harvester in Doncaster.

Putting his already considerable experience to use, Dr Reece later went on to become lecturer in agricultural engineering at Newcastle University.

He proved himself an innovative researcher and gifted teacher during 28 years of service, and the post allowed him enough free time to pursue other interests like walking, mountaineering and family life.

Dr Reece’s engineering brilliance lay in pioneering the application of soil mechanics principles to the design of earth moving equipment and, in 1983, he was given a multi-million pound contract to design and build a sub-sea trenching machine for US company Brown and Root.

This slashed the costs of safely installing cables and pipelines below the seabed, and boosted the reliability of international telephone calls.

Dr Reece resigned from his lecturing position in 1984 and, at the age of 57, embarked on a second career as a businessman, launching Soil Machine Dynamics, which became a world leader in the field of sub-sea vehicles.

He then acquired Pearson Engineering, which focused on the design and development of counter-mine and counter-IED equipment to increase the capability of armoured fighting vehicles.

Pearson’s became one of the region’s greatest manufacturing success stories, winning the 2012 Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Innovation for its SPARK mine rollers, which, used in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been responsible for saving hundreds of soldiers from death and injury.

In 2011, Dr Reece created The Reece Group as a holding company for Pearson Engineering Limited, Pearson Engineering Services, Velocity UK and the recently acquired Responsive Engineering Group.

The Reece Group, of which Dr Reece’s son John is chairman, has a turnover in excess of £211m and more than 450 employees.

Such success allowed Dr Reece to set up a charitable fund in 2008 with the objective of supporting engineering, technical education, and countryside and local initiatives.

He went on to give £30m to The Reece Foundation – leading the Sunday Times to name him as the UK’s third biggest philanthropist in 2011.

When then Wylam postmaster Fred Voase and his wife Rosa contemplated permanent closure of the village post office following an armed robbery in February last year, the charity stepped in with a £500,000 grant so Wylam Parish Council could buy the building, cover its legal fees and support community activities with the surplus.

The root cause of Dr Reece’s death was damage to his heart caused by rheumatic fever he contracted aged five – a problem that failed to hold him back from many years of Munro-bagging, skiing and mountaineering.

Dr Reece, who died on December 31, 2012, leaves his partner Margaret, two sons, John and Simon, a daughter, Anne, and seven grandchildren.

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