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Tom Foulkes: The Brigadier rides out

Tom Foulkes steps down next month after a decade as director general and secretary of the Institution of Civil Engineers. Antony Oliver reviews his time in office.

When Tom Foulkes hands over his desk and office keys to new ICE director general Nick Baveystock at the end of the year, he will do so in the clear knowledge that the ICE has changed as an organisation during his time in charge.

Interviewed by NCE on arrival in post in June 2002, his objectives for reform were clear. “Expect to see benchmarking, expect to see issue specific alliances with other institutions and expect to see an introduction of many other modern business practices at the ICE” we wrote at the time.

Work in progress

And to be fair, the result has been pretty much to the plan. While Foulkes would be the first to accept that, even after ten years, it is still very much a work in progress, the ICE is now more aware of how it is performing, has updated its administration systems and now regularly works in partnership with a range of other organisations.

“The cost of our people is rising but the cost of our subscriptions is not going up at that same rate”

“I hope that members have noticed the way that we have modernised the ICE,” he explains. “Behind the scenes the back office has been transformed - it is infinitely better. I feel very proud that now we are so much more effective because there was a period when the ICE was not moving at the pace of the outside world.”

Strategy event

The process of change began with a three day staff and executive committee strategy event Cambridge in 2003 which set the course, with the so-called Project Bailey, towards creating a more modern outward looking organisation. That strategy has remained largely intact.

Of course he accepts that for some the pace of change has been too slow. But just like the garden he will soon have more time to tend, Foulkes points out that “you have to have patience and allow what you are cultivating to grow before harvesting the fruit”.

“I see a fantastically professional team throughout the ICE - from the chefs in the kitchen to the reviewers in the regions”

Pruning the ICE of its past traditional ways and replacing them with more efficient practices has, he says, been one of the biggest challenges. Whether switching to electronic subscriptions collection, reforming governance or devolving power to the regions, Foulkes points out that vested interests often meant his ideas were not always universally embraced at first.

Of course some of the tradition remains. Foulkes hands over not just a desk but a gigantic office suite the like of which most modern executives could only dream of. With its leather Chesterfield sofas, board table, work station and grand mantle piece decorated with engineering antiques, it will certainly be a much missed working environment.

Key task

Yet that piece of tradition belies the fact that one of the key tasks for Foulkes over his time in office has been to reorganise and update the Institution’s office property portfolio which was historically spread between the labyrinth of floors at One Great George Street and the Heron Quay office 16km away in Canary Wharf.

Culmination of this plan was the recent £7.75M purchase and current £5.2M renovation of 8 Storeys Gate which, Foulkes explains, will bring the ICE and Thomas Telford staff together for the first time in a modern office environment.

Aside from being pleased to have sold the Heron Quay office at the top of the market and bought Storeys Gate at the bottom, he points out that in the longer term the move will underpin the on-going work to invest in the ICE’s staff and boost efficiency.

Fortunes transformed

With reference to the footballing analogies quoted in that first NCE article, Foulkes points out that, rather like his beloved Newcastle United, which in the last decade has suffered indifferent performances to now sit third in the Premier League today, the ICE has seen its fortunes transformed.

“I see a fantastically professional team throughout - from the chefs in the kitchen through to the reviewers in the regions,” he says. “If there’s a legacy that I’ll look back on it will be that I built a great team here.”

But critically, he explains, the team now includes not just the staff members but also a huge number of unpaid members from across the globe keen to contribute to their profession.

“We have created a team that people want to play for,” he explains. “The better that the ICE does, the more that members come out of the woodwork and say ‘I want to involved’. We now see people at the top of their careers and companies saying ‘excuse me - you need to have me involved’. That is fantastic.”


Many senior figures are, of course, encouraged in by the fact that the ICE now has credibility with key government departments, not least with the Treasury and Infrastructure UK. This has changed radically over the decade, explains Foulkes, and is the result of concerted effort to ensure senior mandarins understand the role of the ICE.

The fact that much of this work is necessarily kept confidential means that, to Foulkes’ clear frustration, members are often not aware that it happens. However, the big picture, he says, is that as a result the ICE’s influence on policy is greater than other perhaps more vocal organisations.

“Some organisations just like to get in the media for “sticking one on the government” and it is often appreciated by their membership,” he says. “We have a deliberately insider strategy with government and much of the work is confidential - sometimes they give us credit for it and sometimes they don’t. But the outcome we are looking for is well informed government policy.”

Communication frustration

Foulkes says that the failure to really communicate more of the ICE successes to the members has been one of his greatest frustrations. And too many members, he says, still wrongly believe that ICE’s role is to lobby on behalf of members and industry.

“I’ll be frank - I have learnt some big lessons during my time here and the biggest is that you cannot please all of the people all of the time,” he says. “When I arrived I thought that if we made an effort to understand what ICE members wanted then did it then they would say great. I have learnt that that is too simplistic. The members that are engaged respond in that way but those that are not actively engaged are very difficult to influence.”

Foulkes’ media highlight

For many members, the lasting memory of Tom Foulkes’ time in office could be his arrest in 2006 by the British Transport Police as he attempted to board a Eurostar train to Paris from Waterloo carrying a small travel knife.

“I suspect that the greatest joy for members will have been reading in the pages of NCE that the DG had been arrested,” he jokes, remembering his arrest for carrying a travel tool kit containing a small knife.
“However, it enabled me to make a very good and influential friend in the form of chief constable Ian Johnson who is now in charge of security for the Olympics,” he adds. “The (arresting) constable had in fact made a few mistakes - mistakes that the chief constable was able to correct.”

He accepts that the annual membership satisfaction survey has failed to really demonstrate a significant increase in approval from the membership at large. As a result the ICE should probably think hard about whether to continue to invest in it, he says, adding out that this was just one of many decisions about future investment that he will be pleased to hand over to his successor after he steps down from the plate. That said, Foulkes isn’t exactly about to move into the garden shed full time when he completes his one month handover period with new director general Nick Baveystock at the end of the year. Though keen that his wife doesn’t find out, he already has a number of non-executive roles in the pipeline to sit alongside his existing role at social housing procurement specialist Cyntra.

Teaching work

He also plans to continue his work teaching at Surrey University and at Cambridge where he advises a research group into the development of innovation and he will continue as a governor of Clifton College in Bristol.

However, back at the ICE, the challenge for the Baveystock will be to resource the Institution’s ambition, he explains. There is no shortage of ideas about what it should be doing in the UK and around the world but they all cost money - money which is increasingly now not available.

Regional costs

Around half of the ICE’s expenditure is now on staff -related costs both at the centre but increasingly around the regions where the amount spent has risen dramatically. Foulkes accepts that in many ways he benefited from a decade of strong economic growth in the industry, a growth which has recently ground to a halt.

“In the early years that I was here we were certainly riding a tide of strong markets, strong income and phased increases in subscriptions. That gave us the resources to do things,” he says. “We have seen a considerable downturn in our income over the last two years due to market conditions. The cost of our people is rising but the cost of our subscriptions is not going up at that same rate.”

The ICE has already cut back expenditure significantly to meet its reduced income. The challenge going forward will be to ensure that the progress made over the last decade can be maintained during this period of austerity.

“You can’t do everything - so you have to decide what are you going to do,” he explains. “The ICE is in good shape now so the challenge for my successor is to ask what it is going to do in future to make a significant difference - and what other sources of revenue it should be seeking to provide the fuel.”

Foulkes merger lament

The failure of merger talks in 2007 which could have united the main institutions as a single powerful body to represent UK engineering remains one of Foulkes biggest disappointments from his term of office.

In particular, despite a considerable amount of work by Foulkes, the failure to reunite the IMechE and the ICE following the breakdown of tripartite talks involving the Institution of Electrical Engineers, was perhaps, he says, one that got away.
“I have mixed feelings because it was a great opportunity to bring our institutions together in a way that would have been extremely powerful,” he says, highlighting that he remains a Fellow of both. “But the institutions are owned by their members and not enough of our members bought into the idea.”





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