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The boy Dunn good

Working lives - Making a success of civil engineering has required Peter Dunn to be a serial entrepreneur.

On Monday evening Peter Dunn and colleagues from Screwfast Foundations came within inches of a Queen's Award for Innovation.

The name of the firm Dunn chairs 'says all you need to know' about what Screwfast does, Dunn boasts. Instead of driving or boring piled foundations, Dunn's outfi t twists giant steel corkscrews into the ground. The beauty of the system, he says, is that screwed foundations have impressive tensile as well as bearing strength.

Dunn, 60, is a civil engineering consultant and entrepreneur by background, but a chat with him leaves you in no doubt about his skills as a salesman.

When he lectures on foundation design Dunn likes to produce a bucket of sand.

Into this he will nonchalantly insert a scaled down screwed foundation, 'twiddling it in with my thumb and forefinger'.

He then attempts to yank it out of the bucket. 'It won't budge, ' he says.

Dunn will then brandish a section of broomstick, 'representing a driven pile', and bash it into the bucket of sand with a hammer. It 'involves a lot of noise and effort'. He then delights in whipping the broomstick pile out of the sand with an easy flourish.

The performance says more than words could ever do, he reflects.

And it is performance of Screwfast's product that has propelled it to the point where it is expected within the next couple of weeks to gain Highways Agency preferred supplier status. Its foundations are already well established on the railway and in the telecommunications sector.

Civil and structural engineering only crashed into Dunn's consciousness when he left school at 16 and happened on a job with WS Atkins as a trainee draughtsman - 'because I liked art and could draw'.

A growing interest in the way structures worked, combined with encouragement from his employer, led Dunn to Salford Tech, where he completed a day-release and night-school BSc degree in civil engineering.

This launched him into design work with Manchester-based consultant Cooper Beal & Ross.

Getting on for 17 years later, Dunn was banging against a glass ceiling and left to set up on his own, doing a bit of anything he could get his hands on until 1976, when the very hot summer produced a surge in subsidence investigation jobs.

'I found I couldn't get a decent borehole investigation at a decent price with a machine that would get into the back yard of Mrs Bloggs' house.' Until, that is, he happened on Dave Scott, inventor of an extremely compact, car battery-powered borehole rig.

'It was exactly what the market needed.' Scott was looking for a partner to help take his idea from infancy to commercial maturity, and Dunn lent his support, helping to form Mini Soil Surveys, 'my other firm'.

'As a consultant - as a user - I understood the value of what Dave had developed, and I could relay that to other consultants.' Dunn and Scott developed the business by providing the equipment, training staff, and franchising the Mini Soil Surveys name - 'at the time franchising was something associated with beefburgers'. There are now 11 franchised offices.

It was through two Mini Soil Surveys franchisees, Duncan McGregor and Rod Ward Able, that Screwfast Foundations was born five years ago.

Although invented in the UK in 1833, screwed foundations were all but forgotten following introduction of piles driven by steam hammer. Only with the invention of power hydraulics in the late 1940s did the system catch on again - and then only really in the US and Australia.

McGregor nd Ward ble had used screwed foundations and could not understand why they had never been rediscovered in Britain.

Dunn was again roped in as partner to get the attention of designers.

'It's not been easy - there is a lot of resistance to new ideas, even when they're as good as this, ' he says.

But you can't keep a good thing down, Dunn reckons.

'I just wish I'd got started on this project 10 years sooner, or that I was 10 years younger.'

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