After graduation I joined Foster Wheeler on their civil engineering training programme. I worked on many projects designing and building, or maintaining oil refineries. The one that sticks in my mind the most was the repair of a cooling tower on the Port Sudan refinery. It was 1985 and at the age of 26 I found myself in Sudan leading a team of two Scotsmen, a dozen Irishmen and around fifty locals to repair the cooling tower. It was the height of the famine, there were millions of people living and dying all around us, and a convoy of Band Aid trucks stretched as far as the eye could see. They were waiting for diesel, and our cooling tower was on the critical path of the refinery shut down. I will probably never do anything as important again. We got it done, and I got to meet Bob Geldof.
After achieving chartered engineer status I moved to Bovis Lend Lease. I also supplemented my engineering degree with an MBA through distance learning with the Open University. This helped me considerably when I was seconded into Railtrack (now Network Rail) where I became involved in developing a project to upgrade the Great Western Main Line. I established the business case and promoted the project to internal and external stakeholders, the most memorable episode of which was a presentation to MPs in the House of Commons. I’m delighted to see the project now being built with the redevelopment of Reading Station and the electrification of the route. I then moved on to become Head of Risk Management for WSP, a major engineering consultancy, where I help clients identify and manage the risk to their projects.
When I was in the sixth form a rather pompous friend of my father said that there were only two universities worth attending, you can guess which two. I railed against this, because I wanted to study civil engineering. Luckily for me my school encouraged me to try for Oxford, persuading me that engineering science would provide a much broader knowledge base than civil engineering alone. Through my work on projects I can testify that managing electrical and mechanical engineers is made much easier when you know almost as much about their subjects as they do.
The value of studying at Oxford is priceless. It seems like only yesterday that I was punting on the Cherwell, discussing a tricky problem over tea with a fellow student, playing golf on some of the finest courses with the Divots or having my understanding probed in a tutorial with Joe Todd or Basil Kouvaritakis. I think studying in such a venerable place, and walking in the footsteps of so many great people, inspires you to believe anything is possible. It also made me think of the continuity of learning and of legacy. I’m pleased to say that a couple of years ago I was approached to write a book on Project Sponsorship and that, in some small way, the lessons from my working life may help others in the future.