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A model professional

Presidential profile Douglas Oakervee

Douglas Oakervee is proud never to have had a job. 'My career in engineering has just been a way of life, ' explains the ICE's new president. Antony Oliver finds out what drives the man's passion for engineering, model trains and getting things done.

Douglas Oakervee is without question a proper engineer. An engineer's engineer, fuelled always with desire to grasp a problem, find a solution and get things built.

He started at the bottom with nothing but a practical mind, the desire to learn and the passion to become an engineer.

Forty years later he retired, having led the construction of Hong Kong's giant Chek Lap Kok airport.

That's not bad for a lad who thought he would end up a carpenter, as he would say. Not bad for a man who freely admits that his career has been driven not by money or power but solely by engineering passion.

Now in 'semi-retirement', Oakervee is set to go back to the passion that started it all.

He is returning to his father's workshop at home in Newmarket to indulge again his passion for model steam engines.

'My father was a very able model maker and I was brought up in his workshop, ' he explains.

'I still have two of his five inch locomotives at home.'

And these engines are no miniatures. Best described as the 'sit-on' type, they are easily capable of pulling eight passengers around his garden track.

'I haven't had time to work on them for years, ' he admits.

'When I left the UK in 1971 I mothballed the workshop at home. I've two lathes, a milling machine and drilling machine.

I'm now still in the throws of setting it up again. I'm hoping that once I get through the presidency I will be able to get back into it.'

Whether he will ever actually retire sufficiently to create this time is open for debate. His track record indicates not.

For while Hong Kong airport may be his greatest professional achievement - the one that most will know him for and the one for which he was awarded the OBE - it is only his latest 'greatest achievement' in a career marked by regular contenders for the title. And there could always be another around the corner.

This career started as a carpenter and joiner working in the late 1950s rush to rebuild post-war London. He was eager to learn and took the bold step of putting himself through night school to earn two degree equivalent qualifications.

He was quickly singled out as skill shortages bit. 'Deep down I always wanted to be an engineer, ' he says. 'The boss knew I was going to night school so he said I must therefore be able to use a level - so off I went to site.'

He joined Charles Brand and Sons in 1963 and trained under the late James Rennie, an experience that, he says, had a major influence on the rest of his career. 'He was a gentleman contractor - things were sorted out on the golf course. Yet he had two guiding principles - that a good design is a constructable design and that you never compromise safety.'

But Rennie's over-riding pride was in training his pupils, explains Oakervee, highlighting that it is a philosophy to which he remains committed.

'I'm an absolute believer in young engineers being the custodians of the future, ' he says. 'We must stand aside and let them come through. We must recognise the best and give them responsibilities.'

The number of very talented engineers that the profession loses each year to the city worries Oakervee and he has pledged to tackle this issue.

'It concerns me that we spend a lot of time and money trying to persuade youngsters to go into science but we are not doing anything at the other end of the scale to try to keep these engineers.'

His training in the 1960s saw him work on the design and construction of major tunnelling projects including the London Underground Victoria Line and then the Grand Canal Drainage Tunnel in Dublin - the project that started his 28 year long overseas working stint.

Of course, he is the first to accept that times were different when he started his career. The UK was recovering from the war and rapidly trying to rebuild itself. This workload combined with the skills shortages caused by the war meant young engineers like Oakervee were handed responsibility and opportunity.

Yet the engineer in Oakervee means that he longs for a return to the 'bumper workload, anything is possible' environment that also greeted him when he arrived in Hong Kong in 1975.

It clearly will not happen in quite the same way, but he does recognise some similarities today, in terms of skill shortages and the amount that there is to do. 'There is a recognition in this country, at long last I'm pleased to say, that our entire infrastructure is decaying, ' he says.

'And unless governments are prepared to let it completely grind to a halt we have got to start redesigning and rebuilding very rapidly. I think that process has already started but there is an enormous amount of engineering to be done over the next 25 years.'

Such was the case when his stint in Hong Kong started. Having initially been given a three month posting with the Mass Transit Railway Corporation, he was offered a job and spent the next seven years working on the tunnelling for the first two lines.

This of course meant moving the entire Oakervee family to live in Hong Kong. A trip that started with his wife Olive and six year old daughter finished 24 years and four more children later.

Oakervee worked under MTRC chairman Norman Sinclair Thompson, and managing director - later ICE president - Tony Ridley. Both had an influence on Oakervee's career, particularly the 'old man Thompson'.

'He was a great believer in giving engineers the authority to allow them to get on with the job, ' he explains. 'I was a young engineer of 34 and I looked after all the tunnelling work in North Kowloon - at US$102M it was a very large a large chunk.'

The intensity of the work meant that the young engineer blossomed quickly and by 1983 he was ready to leave the corporation and set up on his own. Oakervee immediately pulled together and led an international consortium that conceived, designed, constructed then operated 'his pet' - the Eastern Harbour Tunnel beneath Victoria Harbour.

Thompson's style of ensuring that his project management team had absolute control and absolute access to all information was quickly adopted by Oakervee. 'That was the way we did the Eastern Harbour Crossing and that was the way we did the airport, ' he says, explaining the benefits of the designers knowing first hand the commercial implications of decisions. 'We never engaged consultants other than as a design resource and in that case they were brought into the team.'

Some may see this style as verging on megalomania. Certainly on the airport he was well known for his need to be in control and for his hardball tactics with contractors and contracts as he battled to bring the project in on time and to budget.

'On the airport, yes, I did have very onerous contracts, primarily because we had a fixed budget, ' he explains. 'I put the onus on the contractor, well knowing that I would get a higher price as a result. But we were trying to contain the overall cost - not trying to hide risk but trying to contain it.'

But the key to successful projects, he maintains, is the chemistry created between different people. Contracts, he says, are there to be used if necessary but he feels there is no absolute need to work in that way.

That said, he was once described during a television interview as a bulldozer and a bully. 'I can't think of a better description for a project manager, ' he laughs. 'And I've never asked anyone to do anything that I wasn't prepared to do myself. The airport was one of the few projects that had the same project director for eight and a half years.

Others went but I seemed to stay.'

It is three years since his return to the UK, but Hong Kong will always be a major part of Oakervee's life, a point underlined by his regular sporting of a tie or cuff-links with a far eastern association. He made many life-long friends there, many business connections, a good living and, of course, raised his family.

Three of his five children - now aged between 34 and 22 - were born in Hong Kong, although for his last three years on the airport they all returned home to Newmarket with his wife.

'It was probably fortuitous because it allowed me to spend 20 hours a day on the airport, ' he says, pointing out that even now, four to five hours sleep a night is enough. 'Certainly I missed them but the airport project was so demanding in the last three years that it was probably as well they weren't there.'

But is he as tough as a father as he is as a project manager?

'They probably think I'm a bit firm and old fashioned, ' he admits. 'But there are hand outs - between mother and father they work us well.'

While life in Hong Kong was good for Oakervee he stresses that it was not without its tough times. And it is these tough times that perhaps highlight the man's character.

When, for example, Oakervee left the MTRC to start his own consulting firm, he quickly won a US$2bn foundation and geotechnical gasworks project.

Great news, except that having put together, mobilised and financed his international team, the project was put on hold. 'I didn't get any fees for nine months, ' he laughs. 'And in Hong Kong there was no welfare state and no fall back situation.

You have to make it work or die.'

His entrepreneurial spirit, and willingness to regularly put his money where his mouth was, showed again when he took on the Eastern Harbour Crossing.

'I'm always drawn by an engineering challenge, ' he says, explaining how he put together a team, financed a pre-emptive bid for the road and rail tunnel and with it beat off eight other consortia to win the job.

'The whole consortium was committed to the risk on this job. If things went wrong I was going down the tubes for large sums as well!' he says.

He describes work in Hong Kong in the 1970s as 'not for the faint of heart, adding: 'Certainly things are very different today and particularly in the UK. But I always take a lot of heart from the youngsters. Young engineers who are on the threshold of their careers see things very differently. Engineering is still a very exciting career.'

Oakervee's next challenge, as president of the ICE, should give him the opportunity to champion these future stars.

But it is a role which perhaps fills him with more trepidation than any engineering project.

'When I was first asked to be a succeeding president I was a bit taken aback. I was highly honoured. It was not something that I aspired to or ever dreamt of.'

But now retired - well, semiretired as he still does some consulting work - he has had the time and energy to commit to the ICE. Lately he has been driving Project Nova to investigate the formation of a single institution for engineers.

But he insists that his Project Nova work will not overshadow his presidency. Getting this institution right, he says, is just as important as forming a new single institution.

'I believe this institution has done itself a great injustice over the years by denying entry to properly qualified people who don't perhaps have a civil engineering degree but who contribute and could enhance and enrich the learned society of this institution, ' he explains.

'It's a nonsense. We need to explore how we can allow these people to become members.

After all, what is an engineer of the 21st century?'

Oakervee intends to promote this theme as a vital part of driving forward the ICE's five year business plan this year.

He fears that unless the ICE addresses the needs of the modern profession it will do 'great disservice to its founders'.

Put simply this means broadening the institution's reach among the engineering disciplines.

'Competence is what we are looking for. We must make sure that we don't hinder engineers by being too prescriptive about their training.'

He is confident that this agenda fits well with the aspirations of Project Nova and the Council's wish to be part of a single institution for engineering. 'The broader we are the more ready we will be to join a single institution, ' he explains.

'Standards must never be lowered. But are we right to limit ourselves to this narrow band of disciplines?' he asks.

'We have to make sure that we prepare engineers for the complex challenges they will face. And I think engineers will have to face some huge challenges in the future.

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