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Passion or profession?

Who should be running civils businesses, and does it matter if they are engineers or from other fields? Seán Flynn reports.

Last week, NCE reported on the cool – some might even say frosty – reception given to the appointment of Nirmal Kotecha as major projects director for the Highways Agency.

It would appear that many contractors felt Kotecha's lack of expertise in the construction industry would prove a handicap in his new role.

Kotecha will join the Highways Agency from Anglian Water, where he was alliance director and head of supply chain management. Before that he had worked in retail.

His appointment drew sceptical comments from contractors, who were less than complementary about his apparent lack of construction expertise.

But Kotecha is well respected in the water industry, where one source described his approach to capital programme delivery as "visionary".

The debate continued on the NCE website with one posting even suggesting that the appointment was yet "another failure to get an engineer into a position of influence".

But just how relevant is an engineering qualification for the top job at a client body, consultant or contractor?

Clearly it is still very important if the company is a consulting engineer: three out of the top five consultants listed in the NCE Consultants File 2007 have civil engineers at the helm.

The exceptions that proves the rule is Atkins, also the top fee-earning consultancy and WSP. Atkins chief executive Keith Clarke is an architect and Atkins has in fact been run by non-engineers since its flotation in 1996. WSP's chief executive Chris Cole has a background in mechanical and electrical engineering.

Among the top end contractors it is a different story. Of the top five contractors listed in the NCE Contractors File 2007, only one, Skanska chief executive David Fison is an engineer.

Fison has experience ranging from tunnels and power plants to road and rail projects while the backgrounds of the bosses at other companies tend to be in financial management, albeit largely in the construction industry.

Crossover from other sectors appears to be rare and again, this issue was raised by the readers on the NCE website when responding to Kotecha's appointment to the Highways Agency.

"The engineering fraternity needs to wake up to the real world of business management skills needed to achieve such positions of influence and place their support behind promoting these skills alongside technical competencies," wrote one website correspondent.

"At these levels, leadership and capability to contribute to the strategic management of the business far outweigh engineering competence.

If you want your engineering credentials to be the first and last lines on your CV then be content with being an engineer," they said.


4,500km
The length of highways and A-roads on which Kotecha is responsible for improvements and renewals at HA

£1bn
Capital expenditure programme overseen by Kotecha at Anglian Water services

These strong words are to some extent echoed by the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA).

"An industry as diverse as construction and civil engineering will require a range of talents at executive level," says a CECA spokesman.

The idea of management in the civil engineering sector being "a local shop for local people" is not therefore one that finds favour in the industry's representative bodies.

It certainly butters no parsnips with Association for Consultancy & Engineering (ACE) chief executive Nelson Ogunshakin.

"While it is ideal for engineers to be leading companies and organisations that are concerned with engineering and construction, this should be seen as an aspiration and not a fundamental requirement," he says.

"At a time of skills shortages in our industry, if we can attract talent from other sectors or professions, that has to be a good thing, as long as those people have a passion for what we do, want to see our industry succeed and have a commitment to developing the business and the people who work in it."

Undoubtedly, the idea of construction and civil engineering companies being headed up by engineers has some obvious advantages. This view was certainly held by several contractors but this is hardly a precept to be carved in stone.

Contractors, and major consultants like Atkins demonstrate that non-engineers can run engineering business. Indeed the biggest construction firms recognise the need to utilise a range of disciplines at board level, as they attempt to marshall a range of disciplines.

But, while Ogunshakin advocates embracing experience from other areas, he to stresses the need to encourage young engineers to take leadership positions.

CONTRACTORS

Organisation Position Name Background
Balfour Beatty Chief executive Ian Tyler Accountant
Laing O'Rourke Chief executive Ray O'Rourke Manager
Skanska Chief executive David Fison Engineer
Galliford Try Chief executive Greg Fitzgerald Builder
Carillion Chief executive John McDonough Won't say


CONSULTANTS

Atkins Chief executive Keith Clarke Architect
Mott McDonald Chairman Peter Wickens Civil Engineer
Arup Chairman Terry Hill Civil Engineer
WSP Chief executive Christopher Cole M&E engineer
Mouchel Chief executive Richard Cuthbert Civil Engineer

CLIENT BODIES

Highways Agency Chief executive Archie Robertson Chemist
Network Rail Chief executive Iain Coucher Aeronautical Engineer
Environment Agency Chief executive Barbara Young Public Relations

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