Highs and lows of ex-Unilever manager’s controversial term in charge of council
By JOHN ROBERTSON & JIM TAIT
It is fitting that Morgan Goodlad used email to tell his councillors he was off. It was his favourite mode of communication and in recent years often the only sure-fire way local journalists could get access to him in time for deadlines. He would take days to return routine phone calls and it was clear that communicating with the media, to the people of Shetland, was a low priority, his voice featuring only rarely on local radio.
Despite the uneasy and at times unpleasant relationship with reporters he enjoyed the unstinting support of most councillors during successive councils, which has been crucial to his long tenure. His relationship with the media collapsed spectacularly in 2004 in the wake of the sinking of the local salmon farm consortium SSG Seafoods at a cost of over £7 million in community funds, which was followed by the collapse of related companies that had also enjoyed support from public funds. As the full horror story began to leak out tough questions were asked about the role the chief executive had played in advising Shetland Development Trust about large investments in the company, which was chaired and part-owned by his brother, Alastair Goodlad, the former SIC councillor.
It was the chief executive in the immediate aftermath of the disaster who explained to councillors what had gone wrong. Summoned to a press conference to help out the convener, he clashed with reporters from The Shetland Times and BBC Radio Shetland. They were particularly concerned about what they saw as Mr Goodlad’s disregard for the Nolan Principles which set out the ethical standards required of public servants. He denied knowledge of the principles. He has always denied wrongdoing on his part in relation to SSG Seafoods but was eventually censured in 2007 by the ombudsman who ruled him guilty of maladministration by failing to declare an interest when advising the development trust in March 2002. It had been considering a £1m investment in SSG Seafoods at a time when Alistair Goodlad was still a councillor. The chief executive told the ombudsman he did not know of his brother’s involvement in the company at the time.
After the ruling the chief executive was given an overwhelming vote of confidence by the 22 councillors who had been given a report on the matter from the council’s chief legal adviser, Jan Riise. Later in 2007, tired of critical stories and letters in the wake of the report, Mr Goodlad threatened legal action, aimed particularly in the direction of The Shetland Times and Shetland News. But the saga still raises its head from time to time.
Mr Goodlad showed a keen interest in economic development during the early part of his time as chief executive but he had become deeply involved even when he was principal of the North Atlantic Fisheries College in the 1990s. There he set up Shetland SeaFish, a fish processing and marketing company which also required substantial investment of community funds and ultimately failed in its aim of saving Shetland’s whitefish processing sector.
He was also Shetland’s director in Smyril Line for a period after the development trust controversially pumped £4.2m into the Faroese company to enable it to build the big passenger ferry Norröna.
His achievements over the years are harder to highlight than high-profile failures, particularly when the success may relate to dry subjects like reforming council management structures, attempting to curb excessive spending of council reserves and seeking a way around increasingly suffocating EU state aid rules which prevent community money being invested to aid local businesses. Internally, council staff also complained he was not a good communicator and sometimes hard to deal with. One former colleague said yesterday: “He was supremely confident in his own ability and that was a confidence that everybody didn’t share.”
He had been expected to go in 2007 after the new council was elected. The story at the time was that he had agreed to stay for six months until the new members were bedded in. But he continued in post and evaded questions about his plans. He asked councillors last year to prepare for his retirement by introducing succession planning. Privately some felt he should have gone years ago and that every chief executive has a short “sell-by” date.
It was rumoured some time ago that he was setting up a consultancy business to dedicate his time to after the council. But he was not giving away any of his plans yesterday.
His tenure at the top began in October 1999 when he beat SIC social work boss Bill Bennett, who had been acting chief executive since the departure of the short-lived Nick Reiter, and two other candidates to the £64,000 post.
The selection was seen as pretty ground-breaking at that time as Mr Goodlad, from a business background, was understood to be the first person with no prior experience of local government to be appointed as the highest paid official in any of Scotland’s 32 local authorities.
The interviewing sessions which led to Mr Goodlad’s appointment were described as “highly protracted”, with councillors eventually voting 10-7 in his favour. Councillor Drew Ratter was one of those who welcomed the appointment, saying: “It was four first-rate candidates. There was no question of Morgan coming through a weak field at all. Any of the four candidates could have done the job. Somebody coming from a totally different background with a totally different perspective is really quite refreshing.”
Originally from Scalloway, Mr Goodlad spent 16 years with business giant Unilever, working in management positions in Holland, Korea, Turkey and Taiwan. In 1994 he returned to Shetland after being appointed principal of the North Atlantic Fisheries College, now the NAFC Marine Centre.
After his SIC appointment Mr Goodlad said he did not believe his lack of local government experience would be a problem. He described his time with Unilever as “basically running companies” and not dissimilar from the role of chief executive.
One of the first statements Mr Goodlad made was to give fulsome praise to the council’s relatively new three-committee structure, which replaced the previous eight, all of which were liked to the main council departments. He described it as “much more inclusive, in terms of getting grass roots opinion through”.
Mr Goodlad later succeeded in pressing through his personal plan for a “senior executive team”, with three executive directors mirroring the new committee system. Councillors voted to endorse his proposal, which also included the creation of a raft of “service heads” below the executive directors, along with a new, inflated salary structure. That decision triggered an angry response from union leaders over what they saw as a breach of council policy on employment.
Some years later Mr Goodlad promised to try and cut council staff by up to 500, a move which, apart from a few senior officials taking early retirement, never came to fruition.
One of Mr Goodlad’s first run-ins with elected members came in April 2001, when a review of council budgets by himself and finance chief Andrew Matthews was thrown out by the Full Council.
The report had sought permission to tighten the purse-strings on general fund, reserve fund and support service spending in a bid to achieve across-the-board savings of £6.9 million. Mr Goodlad had been asked to identify ways of cutting annual general fund spending to free up money for the recently overhauled development trust.