FOR Dundee-born Rick Clark, the opportunity to help build a home-grown success story that continues the city’s legacy of invention was not to be missed.

“Part of the appeal for me was trying to make a difference back here in Dundee,” says Mr Clark, who was invited by private equity backers to join Dundee-based Safehouse Habitats as chief financial officer in a 2014 management buy-in.

“The opportunity we assessed at the time was significant – to take what had been built here in the North Sea and internationalise its footprint to a greater extent so that we could create something more substantial.”

Set up in 2001 by Mike Garty and Graham Watters, the company had patented an engineered enclosure to allow ‘hot work’ like welding, soldering, cutting or grinding to be carried out safely in high risk environments like oil and gas assets.

“The problem that needs to be solved on a production platform in the North Sea is that, if you need to do a bit of welding, there’s a naked flame and also a flammable hydrocarbon environment,” Mr Clark explains. “So it’s looking at how you remove any risk that the blow torch is going to blow up the platform.”

In the past, either production would have to be shut down before work like this was carried out – potentially costing the operator millions of dollars a day, or a rigid wooden box would have to be built around the work area, a lengthy process involving carpenters and cutting around pipework. Mr Garty, an industrial scaffolding specialist, had witnessed this process while working offshore on power maintenance contracts and thought there must be an easier way.

His solution was essentially a sealed, non-porous, modular tent inside a scaffolding frame that could be filled with air to pressurise it and was fitted with gas detection equipment, alarms and shutdown systems. Garty coined the term ‘habitat’ for this unit and a new market was born.

“The flexible habitat that he designed was over-pressured – in other words the pressure inside the habitat was higher than atmospheric pressure, meaning any hydrocarbons in the air wouldn’t come inside, because the pressure was higher– so it keeps you safe,” Mr Clark says.

When the owners decided to exit the business in 2014, it had been growing rapidly and was named Scotland’s fastest growing small and medium enterprise in a national awards scheme. The company currently has six patents, 100 staff and turnover of around £20 million.

“[The founders] successfully either rented or sold habitats into over 30 countries before we bought the business,” Mr Clark says. “Although most of the turnover was still very much North Sea focused, they had begun to internationalise the business. So for example they’d created subsidiaries in Australia and the Middle East and partnered with companies in Malaysia, Brazil and the US. They would also be selling into other parts of the world like Canada, Africa and Europe.”

First Reserve Momentum, a London-based private equity fund specialising in oil and gas investments, and Aberdeen-based Simmons Private Equity funded a management buy-in in 2014 and asked Mr Clark to join the board. He had met the Simmons team while helping to build another private equity-backed oilfield services business, Reservoir Group, from 100 employees and £25m turnover to 1,000 employees and revenues approaching £200m.

“We made a number of deals in building Reservoir Group,” Mr Clark says. “We purchased 21 other companies, and in the course of that you meet a lot of advisers and investors on the other side. They knew that I’d be available since Reserve Group was sold.”

The vision for Safehouse is to make similar bolt-on acquisitions in complementary areas, develop new markets and build ‘global hubs’ so that key geographies can be serviced locally rather than shipping goods and people from Dundee for every contract. With the slowdown in the sector, these plans are less advanced than expected. But progress is continuing on developing new applications and markets. These include air-conditioned habitats for very hot or cold climates and work environments. The company has also just completed its first job in Kazakhstan where the habitat was used to surround the dangerous part of the plant, protecting workers on the outside.

Mr Clark studied accountancy and economics at Dundee University and qualified as a chartered accountant with Big Four accountancy firm KPMG, where he became a partner in 1991. He was involved extensively in the privatisation of the electricity industry in England and Scotland, before moving to the Aberdeen office in 2000 – when the oil price was around $12 a barrel.

“It gradually moved up to $20, which we thought was fantastic, and then $30. It was the beginning of the rise and rise.”

After 25 years with KPMG, Mr Clark decided to “take a leap into the unknown” and was approached to join Aberdeen-based Reservoir Group as group finance director. Could Safehouse grow to the same size as this business?

“Reservoir Group exceeded our expectations by at least a margin of two,” Mr Clark says. “I don’t think there was ever the view that Safehouse would achieve the same scale. But we certainly expect that this will be a growth story. It has to be about return for the private equity investors. But from my point of view it’s about stewardship and building a company that has a very positive and sustainable future.”