Published: 06:00, 07 January 2020
The business leader who spearheaded the transformation in fortunes of the Chatham Historic Dockyard is to step down.
Bill Ferris, 61, has been chief executive of the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, which manages the site of the former naval dockyard, for the last 19 years but has confirmed he is to retire later this year.
During that time he has seen its financial fortunes dramatically improved and overseen tens of millions of pounds of investment.
Appointed chief executive of the charitable trust in December 2000, when he arrived the dockyard's reputation was "at an all-time low" and was sinking under "significant" financial challenges.
He replaced the original 'living museum' concept of the dockyard with a more 'serious' museum/heritage approach and spearheaded the 'preservation through re-use' strategy - a strategy that would ultimately lead to the long-term financial sustainability of the trust.
It has since gone on to become one of the county's top tourist attractions, a regular location for film crews and a vibrant boost to the local economy. It has also won a slew of top awards.
Mr Ferris, who received an OBE in the 2011 Queen's Birthday Honours List for services to heritage, said: “After nearly two decades commanding the bridge of the world’s most complete dockyard from the Age of Sail, I leave the organisation with an extraordinary sense of accomplishment and a confidence the trust is in a strong position to flourish under new leadership.
"I take incredible memories and unforgettable experiences with me as I hand over the reins to the next generation and allow them the opportunity to lead the trust into its next chapter.
"I consider my time with Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust to have been a privilege.
"It is a fact that it’s the people involved with this great place, along with the spirit of partnership and mutual support that has led to the success we see today."
He has been involved in the operational management side of the heritage sector since 1988 when he became the first commercial manager of what is now known as the National Museum of Coalmining for England, in Yorkshire.
He went on to run a series of commercial projects for Heritage Projects Ltd and became operations director responsible for seven national projects.
He explained: "Over the last 19 years, the Historic Dockyard site has changed beyond recognition and one of my proudest achievements has been developing our business strategy of 'preservation through re-use'.
"This has been delivered by the wonderfully dedicated team of staff and volunteers that I have had the honour of leading. The result is that we are now a leader in the field of heritage-led regeneration and education within a superbly restored heritage environment back in its rightful place at the heart of Medway.”
Over the past two decades Mr Ferris has led capital development projects totalling £47m and has secured more than £40m investment from external sources to support major projects.
This has included the multi-award winning and runner up for the RIBA Stirling Prize for Architecture, Command of the Oceans project; No.1 Smithery – an 'at risk' 19th century scheduled ancient monument now converted into a state of the art building and exhibition hall and most recently the Fitted Rigging House project, the last “challenging” building, which was officially opened in October 2018.
With £8.2m investment, the completion of the Fitted Rigging House project has played a significant role in unlocking the long-term financial sustainability of the wider Historic Dockyard site.
Through a careful balance of commercial tenancy, tourism and residential, today the dockyard is home to a community of 115 houses; over 110 businesses and organisations, including the University of Kent; attracts 190,000 visitors annually and supports over 500 jobs.
These combined activities generate in excess of £29m to the local economy each year.
Sir Trevor Soar, chairman of the trust said: “Bill has steered the trust through a period of great change. The charity has benefitted significantly from the continuity and stability Bill has provided over so many years. We have faced enormous challenges and Bill has never been afraid to make key decisions.
"His drive for excellence and entrepreneurial thinking, underpinned by carefully considered charitable choices, has been central to our development. He has played an instrumental role in making the trust the financially sustainable charity that it is today.”
The trust's new five-year corporate plan will be unveiled next month while the search for a new chief executive has already begun.