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Obituary - Alec Sandberg OBE

Alec Sandberg, who led the transformation of his family-run consultancy Sandberg from rail specialists to testing specialists, died on Friday, aged 85.

Speaking to NCE, Sandberg managing partner and Alec’s son, Neil, described his father’s commitment to engineering, and his gentle sense of humour.

Neil Sandberg describes how his father rescued the family business from decline in the 1950s, joining the company in 1950, rising to senior partner in 1955.

“We were previously heavily into rail engineering, in China, what was then Siam, and the US. The company was really made-up from scientists, and we patented technology to reduce problems with rail.

“One example is a job in the US, to reduce the number of rails failing due to heat expansion. 11,000 failed every year, and we developed a cooling system to reduce this number to just 7,” he said.

“He was the third generation of Sandberg to take control of the business, and he realised that rail had become a mature sector, and was moving from expansion towards maintenance, and our work would be squeezed,” said Sandberg.

Alec Sandberg saw that as rail was no longer expanding, it would be better to move to another sector. Techniques developed in the rail sector focused heavily on materials, and materials testing proved to be a logical progression.

“He took us into materials testing, and developed a relationship with the then Department of Transport (DOT) for the construction of the new motorway network.

“They had problems early on, and my father proposed setting up testing labs on-site. The DOT jumped at it. My father proposed that we operate with an ‘open book’ and the DOT would then pay what they deemed to be fair,” he said.

“The relationship lasted for 20 years until fee competition was introduced in the 1970s,” he said. In that time, Sandberg had provided testing services to half the motorway network.

Alec Sandberg was known for his gentle sense of humour. He once sourced elephant hair from London Zoo to satisfy a client’s insistence that cracks in a building were indeed ‘hairline’, despite being 4-5mm thick - an elephant’s hair at least.

Neil recounts another anecdote:

“As chairman of the ‘French Civils’ group of Francophiles, my father went ahead to make the arrangements, for 20 or so couples to follow on a trip to Normandy.

“My father had arranged with the coach driver to pick him up from the side of the road, posing as a Breton onion seller, complete with striped shirt, onions and false moustache, just to see how long it would take for everyone to notice.

“His humour was never at the expense of anyone, which is what made it funny,” he said.

Sandberg received an OBE in 1998 for his services to civil engineering both at home and abroad, and he retired two years later.

He is survived by his wife, Aline, and sons Michael, Christopher and Neil.

A service to remember Alec will be held at St Michael’s church, Chester Square, in London’s Victoria on 2 October.

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