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Clinton: the (other) great communicator

Colin Clinton next week becomes the youngest ever president of the ICE. Antony Oliver finds out what fresh ideas this appointment will bring.

Colin Clinton is defined by a passion to communicate. Vast reserves of energy propel him from idea to idea. Conversation with him is punctuated with a colour and expression that flows from a creative mind. His accent proudly reflects his Midland roots - roots that have shaped and guided his career in engineering.

'I see things in pictures not words, ' he explains. 'From a very early age I leaned towards creative things. But I am also a born organiser and a very tidy person. I like to plan well ahead.'

Frighteningly so. A quick audit shows, for instance, he knows exactly what is in his bank account and precisely how much he's paying on his mortgage.

He also regularly reviews his pension and investments and has a structured career plan.

He is a character never content with the status quo, always pushing at the boundaries and venturing outside his comfort zone.

At 48 years old Clinton's engineering career is arguably only just taking off. As a director of consulting giant Arup, Clinton has carved a niche as a very practical engineer who delivers the goods and inspires others to do likewise.

Too young, too idealistic for such a prestigious role then?

'I don't think that 48 is particularly young, ' he laughs, though he's clearly very proud to set the record of being the youngest ICE president so far. 'I hope that in the future there will be even younger people coming through as president.

'One of my strengths is that I love communicating with people. I love to listen to what people have to say, ' he explains. Any time spent with Clinton confirms this - his manner is very relaxed and he is genuinely good company.

Clinton is conscious that compared to many other recent ICE presidents his career has not included numerous grand projects around the world.

No matter, he has without question been a success in his field.

He was born and bred in Walsall.

His father was a baker who later became a rent collector.

Sadly his father died when Clinton was just 19, but 'he's where my people skills come from', says Clinton.

Clinton has developed his career in engineering through hard work, enthusiasm and commitment over 30 years in the public and private sector.

He left school at 15 and joined Walsall Borough Council, his local authority. During 11 years with the council he supplemented on the job training with night study for an ONC, and was then sponsored through a four year sandwich degree at Aston University.

By the time he left to join West Midlands County Council he had been transformed into a very competent engineer. Working under Stuart Mustow - later, in 1994, ICE president, and the first 'man of steel' that influenced his career - he blossomed and was quickly snapped up for Birmingham City Council by Derek Rawson.

Rawson was another huge influence on his thinking - for 'three exciting years of urban renaissance', a period that kickstarted the recent changes in Birmingham's infrastructure.

'I'm proud of where I started and where I've got to. I am proud of what I've done in Birmingham, ' he says, explaining that during his year as ICE president he will act as an ambassador for the West Midlands.

'I think I have a unique understanding of engineering in the public sector, ' he explains.

'I know first hand the pressures that it has to work under.'

Clinton was tempted to the private sector in 1988 by Arup.

There he came into contact with transport guru Mark Bostock.

'Mark has been a huge part of my success at Arup, ' he explains.

'He has been an inspiration with his entrepreneurial spirit, his energy and his charisma.'

Clinton's 16 year career at Arup was rewarded last year with a directorship. During this time he has been involved in a huge variety of transportation and infrastructure management projects based around his beloved Midlands and further afield.

Clinton's first big role was as senior project engineer on the Toyota factory in Derby in the early 1990s, the first time the Japanese car industry had invested in the UK. 'I had a marvellous time working with the Japanese on such a high profile project. I must have done something right because then they asked me to manage the construction of another plant in Turkey, ' he explains.

This foray abroad started a spell of working in continental Europe.

And management of the motorway network around Birmingham has also been close to his heart.

More recently he has been exporting these skills to counties such as Poland and Hungary - a task and a challenge of which he is particularly proud.

Clinton has no intention of giving up his day job during his presidential year. 'I will be a working president, driving the Arup desk for one or one and a half days a week, ' he says.

'I have got the full support of the company but to be honest, I don't want to lose contact with Arup.'

The fact is that Clinton's workaholic tendencies would have it no other way. He is a man with tremendous enthusiasm for all things. But he is also conscious of the need to limit himself to what is deliverable.

'I have had to learn to say no, ' he says. 'That means that when I say yes, I will see it through.

I'm known as someone who will always deliver and deliver at the highest quality.'

But he also promises to take some time to relax over the next year. Back injury long ago ruled out golf, but does not prevent Clinton's other passion, walking in the Lake District with his wife Linda.

'I think most of the important decisions in my life have been taken above 2,000 feet, ' he jokes.

'We have a base just outside Keswick and during my presidential year Linda and I will take the time to go up there to relax and re-energise my batteries.'

Being able to spend more time with his wife will be welcomed.

It is two years since their daughter Emma died, and Clinton says it now a bit like being newly wed as they get used to living as two again.

The experience of losing Emma, he says, was immense for them both. Emma was mentally and physically disabled, but despite all her health problems, her death still came as a massive shock.

There can never be a right time for such a tragedy.

But coming right in the middle of his busy ICE vice-presidency term and just as his career was starting to really take off at Arup, Clinton could only plough on.

Clinton accepts that Emma's life brought difficult and challenging times to the family. But, he explains, she also brought immense joy and in many ways shaped the way he now lives his life. 'We learned so much from Emma, ' he says. 'Although she was never able to speak to us, we learned so much about the power of communication.'

Two years on Clinton feels able to look forward. 'Throughout Emma's life it was very difficult to do things as a family.

But somehow we managed it.

I suppose her death allows us to move on but she will always be with us.'

To underline this fact, Emma's picture will feature in Clinton's presidential portrait as a constant reminder of the part she played, and will always play, in his life.

Also featured on a shelf behind him in this portrait is the History of the ICE by Garth Watson, a symbol of how large the Institution has featured in his life.

Presidency is the culmination of 25 years of Institution service.

In this time he has championed the regions - in particular the Midlands, for which he was secretary for a record nine years.

Putting engineering into the public consciousness is a passion, and during his time leading the Midlands region he pioneered the link between the ICE and the local Heart FM radio station - a task which regularly saw him present engineering issues on radio.

As a vice president he has also been instrumental in reforms at the ICE, including the widening of membership and the introduction of a business plan to prioritise activities. Most recently he has driven forward the devolution of power and provision of direct support in the regions.

'I'm a regional man through and through. I firmly believe the regions are the core of the ICE, ' he explains. 'Over the last few years the Institution had become too controlled from the centre. We have got to empower the regions - members want to feel that they are getting a service on a local basis.'

Over the last two years he has made a point of visiting all the regions to find out just what they want from the ICE.

This outreaching policy is not about to change in his year in office.

'I am not about shaking hands and kissing babies. My year will not be about going to visit sites for the sake of it, ' he says.

'I want to help the regions to link up with the business community and talk to the movers and shakers.'

Clinton knows, of course, that it has been raining change at the ICE for some time. He has been very much a leading force in this process over the years and is aware that positive results must follow. He says he is conscious of the expectations on him to deliver something genuinely different during his presidential year.

'I don't just want to be remembered as the bloke without a tie, ' he jokes, referring to his long term refusal to wear any such thing.

His perception, he says, is that in the past the president's role has been very London-based.

He plans to change this and has pledged to go into 100 companies during the year, not just to have lunch with the bosses, but to meet the staff, the engineers and give them the opportunity to question the ICE president.

'I want to be remembered in 12 months as the president that actually engaged with people, ' he says. 'I am going to be on the outside of the Institution - going to visit people rather than always hosting them at Great George Street.'

Over the last couple of years as a vice president, Clinton has been preparing the ground for what he hopes will be a year of positive change. 'I've reformed the role of the president. I want the role to be more valued and more understood by members in the future.'

He is adamant that members - his 'customers' - must get good value from the president's year.

'There are things that the president does that even I wouldn't want to change.

But there are certainly things that could easily be done by vice presidents or others. And there are also things the president is asked to do that simply add no value. I will stop doing these.

'Make no mistake, I firmly believe that being a learned society is a very important pillar of the ICE, as is being a qualifying body. But it is vital the ICE is also more business-like - we have to make it worth people's while turning up.

'Members are already asking what return they get for their membership fee. As many have these fees paid for by their employers it is only a matter of time before businesses also start to ask this question, ' he warns.

'We have got to continue to rejuvenate the ICE. I want members to see a higher profile for the ICE in the press. Our main audience, after all, is the public.'

His plan is to continue to empower the secretariat to run the Institution, thus freeing up the time of voluntary members.

Although Clinton admits to having an affinity with younger members, he has no desire to prioritise any grade or level of member. 'The young are the future but our senior members also have a part to play. I want to get them all more enthused and to help them get a better return on their time investment.'

Clinton's reorganisation will see, for example, the end of the annual dinner, which he explains has always been less well supported than the highly successful regional dinners.

The annual conference is also under review.

But in line with his theme of celebrating achievement Clinton has plans for a single Midlands-based event to bring together all the ICE's awards in a single celebration.

Getting away from London is another target. He plans to shift three of next year's five Council meetings to the regions, following his successful journey with the executive board last year.

The reason, he explains, is to underline the ICE's nationwide activity.

He presents his presidential address next Tuesday, a paper entitled Changing time, and for the first time the ICE has actively promoted this event as something members should attend.

As a result, a record breaking 500 people are already booked in.

His address will take the audience on a journey to 2052 to challenge them over the role of the civil engineer and the part the ICE will play in future.

'Are we fit for the future?' he asks. Clinton certainly is. And don't rule him out for a second term later in his career.

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