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Man for all seasons

Quentin Leiper - 'Q' to many - becomes president of the Institution of Civil Engineers this week. Antony Oliver talks to him about his year ahead.

If there's one thing that Quentin Leiper wants to do during his year in office, it is turn the profession on to sustainability. This is his passion.

And we are not just talking about being kinder to the planet - 'environment plus' as he puts it - although this week's Stern report suggests that this is rather urgent.

No. Leiper's goal is to fundamentally reshape the way that the industry organises business, its people and its activities to achieve a lower social - and nancial - cost.

'I want to make a difference to people's understanding of what sustainability is and how it can be of benet to business and to society, ' he says.

'People don't really understand what it's about - and what they can do about it. In a year's time I hope that people will say that 'he's made a difference with the sustainability agenda'.' Leiper - more usually known to friends and colleagues simply as 'Q' - has spent the last few years making just that difference for his employer Carillion. During this time, working alongside sustainability guru Jonathon Porritt, he has not just developed the sustainability strategy but has also integrated it from the board level down into the business strategy.

Getting the big picture right to start with is, he says, fundamental. His ability to take theory and turn it into something practical is perhaps born from a career working in contracting - albeit in a very technical, design-led capacity.

Leiper's 30 year career is rooted in geotechnical engineering and has seen him working on the design and construction of some the biggest projects around. For the last 15 years this has been with Tarmac and its successor Carillion.

Projects have included the Medway tunnel, Tees Barrage, the Jubilee Line Extension and more recently the Glasgow Science Centre.

His experiences before Tarmac were typical for an ambitious contractor. After starting with Nuttall Geotechnical Services in 1975 working on, among other projects, the Thames Barrier, Dinorwic Power Station and the Coulter Dam in Scotland, he moved to Abu Dhabi with Soil Mechanics.

He then headed back to the UK, managing contracts for Terresearch, GKN Keller Foundations, Westpile and Lilley Construction.

Yet he maintains that his greatest professional achievement has been to drive the sustainability agenda into Carillion over the last ve years.

'I've built a few good jobs and I'm very proud of some of the engineering I've done, ' he explains.

'But if you are saying have I made a real difference, I think that with this I've made a difference to my organisation and I think that I'm making a difference at the UK business level.' According to his often evangelical explanations (a complement to his passion and conviction but also to his authority on the subject) the sustainability agenda cannot be met with a single solution. Rather it requires wholesale refocusing of personal and corporate priorities to put people, health and safety, materials use and the local community at the forefront of planning.

The important thing, he points out, is to recognise that sustainability adds to the bottom line. Cost of waste to a construction business is 15 to 20 times the landfill tax, he says; recruitment costs far outweigh those of retention; money saved through energy efficient offices goes straight to the bottom line; and the value of zero accidents is almost beyond measure.

'I used to stand up five years ago and say sustainability was all in the heart - for our children's children, ' he says.

'It took me about a year to realise that I could actually say that it is all really about the business. It is vital for all the people that we employ; to stay in business sustainability is fundamental.

'Success for me this year would be that a large number of organisations put sustainability at the top of their own objectives, ' he says.

'If you have it as one of your corporate objectives then you can measure it and see where the improvements come.' He has already made a start through his involvement in Carillion chairman Sir Neville Simms' government backed Sustainability Task Force, of which he is a member. Its report, published in June, is expected to have an influence on the government's £150bn public procurement process.

'I'm very proud that my strategy diagram is in that report and also in the Mayor of London's advice note for planning in London, ' he says.

'I think that I've started a ball rolling down the hill. I hope that during my presidency we can whistle it along a bit faster.' Of course 2007 is the 250th anniversary of Thomas Telford's birth, and Leiper intends to take full advantage of this fact.

Telford, he points out, was the county engineer for Shropshire and since Leiper lives in Bridgenorth - a 10 minute walk from Telford's first church and 12 minutes from one of his first bridges - he has a developed an affinity with the great engineer.

In particular he is passionate about the need to enthuse, inspire and train the next generation and says that Telford's anniversary presents a great opportunity to make this point.

Such has been the case throughout Leiper's career, beginning at Glasgow University where he studied civil engineering under the great Hugh Sutherland, who he says 'steered me into soil mechanics and geotechnical engineering - and I'm very thankful for that'.

He also names engineers such as Ken Fleming from Cementation as one of a number of engineers who really helped and inspired him in his early career.

'One of the things that Telford did that Brunel didn't do was to train, develop and mentor young engineers constantly, ' he explains.

'He built up a whole pyramid of people that he could send out to do a job. The reason why he delivered thousands of miles of roads was that he cascaded all the workload to people he could trust - he let them get on and do things.' Leiper feels that we need to be doing this far more today - to identify the potential leaders, give them enough tools and training, then trust them to make their own decisions.

In particular, he is adamant that universities bring practitioners into the lab and classroom more often, a mantra that he practises in his role as a visiting professor at Edinburgh University, where he teaches design.

But his heart lies with Glasgow University, not least because his family has history there. He is very proud that his grandmother was the first woman to qualify as a dentist and that his grandfather was a doctor there and the acknowledged father of helminthology - the study of parasites.

His grandfather's claim to fame was to solve the problem of Bilharzia for the British Army in Egypt during the First World War. He also founded a journal on helminthology - one of the reasons Leiper says he leapt at the chance of launching the ICE's environment and sustainability journal four years ago.

Leiper's family is very important to him and a huge part of his life. His wife Dorothy is an architect and now runs the City of Wolverhampton Buildings Preservation Trust identifying and repairing buildings at risk and encouraging owners to save them.

She has also masterminded the various renovation jobs at their current home - 'we're just about to put a new roof on the barn' - and at previous homes, some of which were quite major undertakings.

They have three children: Edward, 20, who has been reading computer studies at Edinburgh since he was 17, Alice, 18, who has just left school and 'is going to be a writer', and John, 15, who is just going into his GCSEs - 'a very skilled artist'.

All have had to endure the development of Leiper's passion forjazz, and in particular the saxophone and clarinet work of Norwegian Jan Garbaric, which saw him take up the instruments from scratch two and a half years ago.

He reckons that since his first lesson on 9 January 2004 he's logged on average 32 minutes of practice a day. 'I have no musical talent - I struggle with melody and am a very slow learner, ' he says. 'It's very frustrating but satisfying when you get it right.' Finding time to practise is a challenge, not least when you consider that it sits alongside a number of other demanding hobbies.

For example, every Saturday Leiper, now 55 years old, will be found racing around the hockey pitch as 'one of three geriatrics in a team of youngsters' playing for Bridgenorth.

Normally a right half, he switched to left wing last month and notched five goals in a 6-0 victory.

He plans to continue playing next year, as well as maintaining his interest in kite flying, something that developed out of his original love for dinghy sailing. Leiper captained the Glasgow university team and was awarded a blue.

But when his children showed little interest in sailing he took up kites. 'I've got 20 different types from one line fighting kites to four line traction kites and a little buggy that I tear up and down the beach on at great speed, ' he says. 'And kite surfing - I'm going to try that next.' Next year he intends to spend 50% of his time on his job at Carillion, but he strongly believes in making time for the young apprentice engineers who will shadow him over the next year.

Coming from contracting, where he acknowledges that there is less emphasis on young engineers becoming chartered, he is also acutely aware of the need to shout loud about the value of ICE membership.

'Clients want competent people - we deliver a competency standard, ' he explains.

'We give people an opportunity to develop learning in their careers as well as to network. ICE membership really is the best way to get that if you are a civil engineer - world wide.' Like most presidents, Leiper has an overseas visit programme lined up to emphasise the global nature of the ICE.

It is perhaps ironic that he will be visiting South Africa and New Zealand with a stop over in Australia next year. He admits doing this will be 'difficult from a sustainability point of view'.

He will clearly be planting a few trees in 12 months time if he's to properly offset his carbon deficit.

But wherever he is next Leiper is also intent on highlighting and celebrating success.

To this end, Leiper has invented the Spirit of Telford Awards which will recognise examples of engineering achievement worthy of the great man's name.

Three theme areas will be rewarded next year - delivery of the sustainability agenda, delivery of engineering knowledge and developing engineers for the future.

This latter theme is of particular interest to Leiper as he has genuine concern over the number and quality of young people entering the profession.

He is especially concerned that universities now spend much time teaching students maths to get them up to the right level.

'I'm not sure that crisis is the right word but there are definitely skill shortages.

'There not enough kids at school doing maths and physics, ' he says.

He is clear that teaching methods in the UK need to change and cites the example set by the Thomas Telford School in Telford as a model he'd like to see spread across the UK.

It consistently takes in pupils with a range of abilities and delivers excellence.

'They use the older kids to mentor the younger ones and they get them into school at 8am in the morning and kick them out at 6pm. And they have some extremely good teaching techniques.' He also bemoans the recent trend by universities to cut costs by shutting down their laboratories.

'Engineering needs people to get their hands on something and do something in a laboratory, ' he says. 'Somehow you need to see when a soil fails or what a piece of concrete looks like.' As president, his fi rst challenge will be to steer a path through the ongoing discussions with the IMechE. It is a subject on which Leiper's powder remains dry.

'I maintain the same position that I have maintained for the last 18 months. 'One plus one should equal three and not one and a half, ' he says. 'It is appropriate for me to do some listening first.' Besides, he is clear that this issue will not be allowed to overshadow his main agenda, namely leveraging engineering knowledge, energising young engineers and driving sustainability in the business of civil engineering.

'We must celebrate our successes. People will then realise what can be done, ' he says.

'The perception is that engineers are part of the problem not the solution. Our task is to show that we are the solution providers. We have a massive opportunity to lead.'

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