Cairns, who takes the job of director of infrastructure and regeneration, has previously worked in senior economic roles for Glasgow City Council, the Audit Commission in England and Wales, the global auditor and accountant Mazars, as well as doing a stint as chief executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce.
West Dumbartsonshire, a former industrial area which usually features in lists of the UK's most economically depressed areas, has won widespread praise in recent years for its council's creative and energetic approach to tackling high levels of worklessness and related social problems.
Cairns said: "This is a rare opportunity to shape the future of a council area that has lots of economic potential. Regenerating such key sites as Queens Quay in Clydebank and the riverside area of Dumbarton will create vital new jobs, additional housing and a growing local economy. There are also fantastic tourism opportunities.
"Developing business and investment is a wealth creator that can help to tackle difficult problems like worklessness and poverty. I will do everything I can to create an environment that supports and encourages business and economic growth."
Council leader Councillor Martin Rooney said: "Attracting someone of Richard's stature and experience is a significant achievement and demonstrates that West Dunbartonshire Council is recognised as an exciting and dynamic place to work."
With 91,000 residents from Loch Lomond to the Clyde, West Dumbartonshire includes Clydebank, Dumbarton and Alexandria.
Major firms include Aggreko and Pernod Ricard. In 2011-2012, claimants in the local authority area received £233.7 million in benefits, compared to £176m in East Dunbartsonshire, according to the Department for Work & Pensions.