I graduated in 1989 on the last of the three year courses, in the days when the Department of Engineering Science still had the hop on, hop off paternoster lifts. While I had been tempted to stay on to do a PhD in soil mechanics, the big wide world beckoned and there was the lure of a salary. However, having worked on construction sites, I was pretty sure I wanted to do something different to civil engineering so I trained as an accountant with Ernst & Young. Accountancy gave me a broad understanding of business, but after four years of audit, I was keen to get into industry.
I joined Trafalgar House Plc as the executive assistant to the Finance Director. I have no doubt that having an Oxford Engineering degree on my CV helped me get the job as at the interview he only asked me one question, which he promptly answered himself – at length – before offering me the role. It was a fantastic insight into the City, corporate finance and Mergers and Acquisitions. I ended up as the Finance Director of a French subsidiary that designed and installed equipment such as blast furnaces, rolling mills and galvanising lines to the Iron and Steel industry worldwide. The knowledge I had picked up in my mechanical engineering lectures proved invaluable when project managers were trying to pull the wool over my eyes (as was the ability to swear like a trooper in French – not something I learned at Oxford).
For the last 16 years I have been working at Osborne, my family’s construction and civil engineering contracting business, which I now chair. I get to see some fantastic projects being built from a 1,100 bed student accommodation block (big enough to take my old college nearly twice over) for the University of Southampton, to putting a new swing bridge over a tidal estuary of the River Adur. Before the Olympics we were involved in repairing a bridge carrying the M4 into London at Boston Manor. Cracks had been found in the steel beams of the structure and fears of a collapse resulted in a week long closure just before the athletes were due to arrive. It meant 24 hour a day working to stop the crack propagation and strengthen the steel members. We had to have daily conference calls with the Minister for Transport and we ended up using every 25mm-cobalt-tipped drill bit in all of Europe, but we got it open on time.
I am constantly amazed by what we, and the industry, manages to achieve, from replacing a central London rail bridge carrying four lines into Liverpool Street Station in only 99 hours (see the YouTube video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=geSwc5lN5-s ) to building circular staircases in-situ concrete for the London School of Economics’ iconic new Saw Swee Hock Student Centre. There is so much variety and the end product is so tangible and has a real impact on people’s lives.
It’s not just the intellectual rigour of an Oxford Engineering degree that has benefited me, but the breadth has been fantastically useful in the course of my career. The ability to talk to people and be able to engage them with some level of technical understanding has been unbelievably useful (although I’m afraid Power Engineering is as much of a mystery now as it was when I was an undergraduate).