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Interview: Alan McCormick CEO, Mission Direct

23 May 2014

'I saw 203 children in one classroom'

I'm not much of a reader, but I have read Max Lucado's Facing Your Giants probably the most times in my life. It's the story of David, and usually I read it when I need to get my priorities sorted out, and get my life centred on God again rather than myself. 

I was born in Inverness, in a Christian home. I was the youngest of three children, and attended the gospel hall. I gave my heart to Jesus at the age of 12, and was baptised when I was 15. In 1987, I married my wife, Rona. 

If you look at David, a shepherd boy who ended up as a king, he had two ways of operating: God-centred - like in the Goliath meeting - and times when he was self-reliant and made a mess of things. He was a great king and warrior, wrote the Psalms, was known as a man after God's own heart, and had eight wives, 19 sons, and a daughter - yet on his deathbed, he was all alone. That struck me in the last six months. If he'd stopped and looked back at his life, did he invest it well? Did he live wisely? And I asked myself what I was doing with my life. 

I was 50 when I was made redundant, and we asked each other at home, do we want to do the same things again? We prayed, and . . . you have to be careful what you pray for.

I wasn't sure I wanted to go back to industry, but rather invest my energy in practical Christianity. I've ended up in Mission Direct in a role that directly helps those less fortunate than ourselves. 

Mission Direct is a Christian charity. Its vision is to free people from physical and spiritual poverty. It runs relays of two-week, self-funded volunteer mission trips in 13 of the world's poorest countries, and assists in providing clean water and building new homes, classrooms, and medical clinics. Over ten years, 3000 people aged between seven and 89 have volunteered. It's had a massive positive impact on the lives of thousands of people around the world.

I joined this incredible organisation as the new chief executive, responsible for growing the number of people we serve, delivering and sustaining support, and being a good steward on behalf of our supporters.

If you were going to go on a trip, you'd meet the team before for an orientation day. When you got there, you'd typically spend the mornings on a building project. In the afternoons, we'd take you to see some of the partners - orphanages or clinics - and also we'd have a time of relaxation: going on safari, for instance. We want you to meet the communities and do some work, but you also need some holiday as well.

This is practical Christianity with its sleeves rolled up, helping those in need with the minimum of bureaucracy. It has a double impact: a huge, positive impact on people that are helped overseas with homes, health, water, and education; and also on those that help. It opens their eyes to a world-view. So the more people we can get involved in volunteering, the more people will benefit. 

One thing that changes lives and cultures is education. We do a lot of work in building classrooms overseas. We also take teachers out to help train teachers there. I visited two schools in Uganda, and asked the local government people who look after education what help they need. They sent us to a new school we hadn't worked with before. I saw 203 children in one classroom - and 42 happened to be absent that day. 

I'd never seen anything like that. That means education by rote, because there's no space for books. The children could only listen. They were hugely well-behaved: they always stand up for visitors and say: "You are welcome." In Primary 5, there were 275 kids. The headmistress said she needs staff accommodation, because "it's a rural school, and there's no point giving me classrooms if I have no teachers." Termites had eaten the beams holding the teachers' house roof up. There are 1400 children there, and no water in the school either; so this summer we're going to build her some staff accommodation, and dig a well. 

I bring my engineering and business skills to the organisation. I was the vice-president and managing director of Lockheed Martin's business in Ampthill. 

I read electronic engineering for eight years at university, and intended to go into industry for ten years, and then back to academia. But I went to the Isle of Wight for my first job, where I started work as an antenna-design engineer, and I loved it. My career broadened, and I took on management responsibility. 

It's about ten years since I've done hands-on engineering work. In 1997, we moved to Essex, where I worked for both Marconi and Raytheon Engineering. We moved back to Edinburgh for a year, and then back south again to St Neots, where I worked for both CurtissWright and Lockheed Martin, running their respective businesses. 

I did most of my school education in Inverness and Edinburgh, and had the privilege of Scottish university for eight years. I'd urge anyone to get a good education. I've also reinvested back in education, creating visiting professorships in my companies.

I worked in the defence and aerospace industry since I started my engineering career, 25-plus years ago. I guess it was natural to want to run a company that provided great equipment to our Armed Forces. 

When I look at the men and women who are willing to risk their lives for their country, I'm proud to give them the best equipment I possibly can. We've seen so much about the First World War on TV recently, when nearly a million UK citizens were killed. In Afghanistan, where our forces have been for ten years, it's less than 500 UK citizens, and a lot of that is down to equipment. 

We live in a democratic country, where our Government makes the decision to send our forces to fight, of course. The defence industry has no say in that. 

A variety of business and Chris-tian leaders have influenced me throughout my life. It is hard to pick just one, but the Bible character that has a big impact on me is King David. 

I like the sound of the sea and the waves breaking. It reminds me that we are not in control, and that God is. Yes, I guess CEOs are in control of things. As human beings, we like to think we're in control - but when I stop, I know that God's in control.

We've moved away from believing in God - look at the debates over Cameron's comments about being a Christian society. But I also believe that God is a God of order, and expects us to work, to make plans, and get on with things.

I've travelled a lot. I like visiting new places and new cultures. 

I don't get angry often. Usually it will be associated with someone being bullied.

Yes, I pray regularly. Asking me what I pray for most is a hard question: it's like asking, "What do you talk to your dad about most?" But probably requesting wisdom and guidance. 

I'd choose to be locked in a church with King David, and I'd ask him what advice he would give about how to live. He lived a colourful life.

Alan McCormick was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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