Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

PETE'S PASSION

He's sold 500 million records and had more Number Ones than The Beatles and Elvis. But Pete Waterman would rather talk about Bob the Builder and the skills shortage than music. John McKenna reports.

It is the morning after the night before. Yesterday evening was the Brit Awards, where the great and the (not so) good of the British music industry gather to celebrate another year of achievement. Hosted by the Osbournes with performances from artists including Amy Winehouse and Paul McCartney, the bash is supposedly the pinnacle of the UK pop music calendar.

But Pete Waterman, the music mogul who as one third of the production team Stock, Aitken & Waterman shaped the sound of pop music in the 1980s and 1990s, was not there.

"I can't stand the Brits, I haven't been in years," says Waterman. In truth, Waterman has only recently begun to make his first tentative steps back into the recording business after a self-enforced absence following the death of his son, Paul in January 2005.

During this time Waterman has focused all of his business skills on his greatest passion – the railways. He owns model railway manufacturer Just Like the Real Thing and rail maintenance firm London & North Western Railway which, from a depot in Crewe, services West Coast Main Line freight and passenger trains, and restores old locomotives.

His rejection of the Brit Awards is not the first instance of Waterman falling out of love with the music business: in 1977, after 15 years in the industry and scoring several hits with Michael Levy's (now Lord Levy) Magnet record label, Waterman quit the business with the intention of becoming a coal miner.

"I just couldn't stand the record industry anymore," says Waterman.

"I had a number one in America and just hated the record industry – this was when I was working for other companies, before I went out on my own. Literally I thought the most honest job at that time was a coal miner, so I went to the National Coal Board (NCB)."

When he arrived at the NCB, however, rather than becoming a miner he was instead handed the job of mixing concrete as a construction labourer. It was here that Waterman's childhood love of railways blossomed into a passion for civil engineering in all its guises.

He worked on projects that developed the use of no-fines concrete. This is where crushed rock or gravel aggregate measuring just 20mm in diameter is coated in a cement slurry with a no-fine aggregate addition. This low-density material has good drainage properties due to its open texture, and it was these qualities that so excited Waterman.

"I now look at concrete in a completely different way," he says. "With no-fines, you covered the aggregate like an Aero bar, so that the water ran through on to a membrane and went down the drains. After the Second World War in a lot of city centres, car parks were built where the highest point was the drain, so of course the water was going through the concrete and blowing [rusting] the steel.

"So they invented this new system of putting a bitumen membrane down with a plastic membrane on top so they formed a ditch and laid the concrete on top so the water went through and down the drains.

"It was bloody hard work but I have to say I look back at it now and it was very satisfying when you saw the water running down the drains. People say to me 'yeah but that's not as exciting as having a number one'. I'm sorry, but it was for me."

Despite this excitement, Waterman's stint at the NCB only lasted a year. While working on site back in his hometown of Coventry, he still regularly attended gigs and decided to quit his labouring role to manage a local band he had found playing the city's pubs and clubs. That band was Ska group The Specials, who went on to have seven top 10 hits, including two number one singles.

However, he still looks fondly back on those days and whenever he is in the Midlands will take his children to car parks to say: "I built that."
It is this enduring, tangible nature of achievement in construction and engineering that Waterman says should be the rallying call of the industry if it wants to be attractive to young people.

"You don't get that as a pop star," he says. "You have a hit once and, yeah, a few people remember it, but nobody drives through it every day, or parks their boat there, or goes through it on a train."

And there is no better time to be a civil engineer than now, says Waterman. In January, he used his column in the Daily Mail to defend Network Rail's overrunning engineering works at Rugby and Liverpool Street during the New Year period. He said that the level of improvements to the network being carried out, made it the most exciting time to be in the railway industry.

Add this to projects like the London Olympics, and there is every opportunity for civil engineering to present itself in a positive light to the general public, and in particular the potential engineers of tomorrow.

"You've just got to shout about it, and say look at all the great things we're doing here," he says.

But, as every reader who has tried to raise awareness of civil engineering among young people will testify, the construction industry is far
from being on a level footing with the music business as far as media presence and popular awareness is concerned.

But, if you can't beat them, join them, says Waterman.

There are lessons that construction and civil engineering could learn from the pop industry in how to capture young people's imaginations – how to get as many people applying for civil engineering jobs as entering X Factor.

Using Bob the Builder, he believes, is the key to raising the game. The problem is though, that while the cartoon character has a huge impact on children at a very young age, they lose interest in him, and therefore construction, after the age of about five. The next time they might possibly think again about construction is when it confronts them as a career option in their mid teens. But by then, their interest in the industry has faded.

"Every young kid has got a Bob the Builder set. What is Bob the Builder? He's a civil engineer. So already we've got something that works, but we leave them [the children]; there's no link with Bob the Builder to the [construction] industry.""If you do a programme like Bob the Builder and there's nothing after it, you sow the seeds in those kids' brains about building and being civil engineers, but then there's nothing for them to aspire to after that," says Waterman.

He says the solution is to get school parties of children on to working construction sites so that they can make the connection between Bob the Builder the TV character and the Bob the Builders of the real world –the ones that they could aspire to be like.

"If we exclude children from sites on health and safety grounds when they are under 16, then where are we going to get the next generation from?" he appeals.

"You cannot exclude people because they're under 16 then expect them suddenly when they're 16 to take an interest.
It's too late. They play Bob the Builder, so you've then got to show them a big Bob the Builder, working on a thing called the Olympics site. We need to take a more practical approach to the next generation."

Satisfied that he has found a solution to the UK's construction skills crisis, Waterman is off to tackle his next big challenge: concocting something edible on the TV show Ready, Steady, Cook.

ROLLING STOCK, ENGINEERING AND WATERMAN

Waterman founded his rail maintenance firm, London & North Western Railway (LNWR), in 1995.

He took the name for his company, based at Crewe, from the Victorian rail operator that ran trains until 1922 along what is effectively today's West Coast Main Line.

LNWR maintains both passenger and freight fleets, with services including fuelling of diesel locomotives, refurbishment and regrinding on a wheel lathe.

Clients include Freightliner, for which LNWR maintains the electric fleet operating out of Crewe, and Virgin Trains. LNWR is also sub-contracted by Bombardier Transportation to provide overnight servicing and maintenance for all Virgin Voyager trains serving the Euston-Holyhead and Birmingham-Glasgow routes.


I SHOULD BE SO LUCKY

Looking at the wall of gold discs in his office in the former County Hall, London, Waterman says:

"There's a lot of hours on that wall; a lot of years of frustration and hard work. Some of these records were easy to make like [Kylie Minogue's] I Should be so Lucky, some of them took years.

"I Should Be So Lucky was just one of those things that fell into place. By the time we found Kylie the team was honed, we knew exactly what we were doing, we didn't experiment, and we had lots of ideas already in the pipeline that we could use.

"Just like some engineers might say, well that's an ordinary bridge. Well for us, at that point, we knew it was an ordinary pop record. We knew all the structural points, we knew exactly what we had to do and we had just three hours to do it."

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.