He's not quite James Bond, but many call him 'Q' and he's just taken up a glamorous post as president of the Institution of Civil Engineers. Geotechnical engineer Quentin Leiper tells Antony Oliver about his commitment to sustainability, mentoring. . . and why he's taken up flying kites.
If there is one thing that Quentin Leiper wants to do during his year of office at the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) it is to turn the profession on to sustainability. It is his passion.
He is not talking about just being kinder to the planet - 'environment plus' as he puts it - although November's Stern report suggests that is rather urgent. Leiper's goal is to fundamentally reshape the way that the industry organises its business, its people and its activities so as to achieve a lower social - and financial - cost.
'I want to make a difference about people's understanding of what sustainability is and how it can be of benefi t 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 I hope that people will say '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 integrated it from the board level down into the business strategy.
Getting the strategy 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.
His career is rooted in geotechnical engineering and over the last 30 years he has worked on the design and construction of vital yet usually unseen parts of some of the biggest projects around. For the last 15 years this has been with Tarmac and its demerged successor, Carillion, with projects including the Medway tunnel, Tees Barrage, the Jubilee Line Extension and more recently the Glasgow Science Centre; plus many more around the world.
His experiences before Tarmac were typical for an ambitious contractor. Having started with Nuttall Geotechnical Services in 1975 as a geotechnical engineer, 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. On returning to the UK he managed contracts for Terresearch and GKN Keller Foundations, as chief engineer at Westpile, and then moved to Lilley Construction as piling operations manager.
Yet he maintains that his greatest professional achievement has been to drive the sustainability agenda at Carillion over the past five 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 issue cannot be solved with a single solution. It requires wholesale refocusing of personal and corporate priorities to put people, staff training and retention, health and safety, effective use of materials, and the local community at the forefront of planning.
The important thing, he points out, is to recognise that sustainability actually 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 offi ces goes straight to the bottom line; and the value of zero accidents is almost beyond measure.
'I used to stand up fi ve 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 adds.
'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 former Tarmac boss Sir Neville Sims' government backed Sustainability Task Force of which he is a member. Its report was published in June and should infl uence 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.
I hope that during my presidency we can whistle it along a bit faster.'
Leiper is totally focused on using his year as ICE president to help businesses to better share and use their knowledge and ideas on sustainability across the board. 'I'm going to spend quite a bit of time promoting the value of engineering knowledge, ' he explains. 'Many companies don't fully understand the engineering knowledge that they have and the value that it adds to their organisations.'
Of course, 2007 is the 250th anniversary of Thomas Telford's birth and Leiper also intends to take full advantage of this fact. Telford, he points out, was the county engineer for Shropshire and since Leiper lives in Bridgnorth, a 10 minute walk from Telford's fi rst church and 12 minutes from one of his first bridges, he has a developed an affinity for 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 that really helped and inspired him early on in his career. 'When I was a young engineer I'd come along to a meeting here at the ICE and someone like Ken Fleming would do a talk and I'd have a few questions afterwards. He was very busy but very happy to share his knowledge. I was enthused by Ken.
'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 to be getting on with it then trust them to make their own decisions. In particular, he is adamant that universities should bring practitioners into the lab and classroom more often: a philosophy he actively adheres to in his role teaching design as a visiting professor at Edinburgh University.
However, his heart lies with Glasgow University, not least because his family has history there. He is very proud that not only was his grandmother the fi rst female to qualify as a dentist but that his grandfather was a doctor there and the acknowledged father of helmenthology, the study of parasites.
Leiper's family - his wife Dorothy and three children - is very important to him. But all have had to endure the development of Leiper's passion for traditional jazz, and in particular the saxophone and clarinet work of Norwegian Jan Garbarek, which moved him to take up the instruments from scratch two and a half years ago. 'I have no musical talent, I struggle with melody and am a very slow learner, ' he admits. 'It's very frustrating but satisfying when you get it right.'
Finding time to practise is a challenge, not least because it sits alongside a number of other demanding hobbies. For example, every Saturday Leiper, now 55 years old, will be found on the hockey eld as 'one of three geriatrics in a team of youngsters' playing for Bridgnorth.
This will continue next year, as will his kite ying, something that developed out of his original love for dinghy sailing: he captained the Glasgow University team and was awarded a blue.
However, when his children showed little interest in sailing he turned to kites. 'I've got 20 different types of kite, from one-line ghting 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 sur ng, 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 membership. 'Clients want competent people and 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.'
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 which he admits will be 'dif cult from a sustainability point of view'.
He is taking in Poland and Spain next year as well, so he will clearly have to plant a few trees in 12 months if he is to properly offset his carbon decit.
But wherever he is next Leiper is also intent on highlighting and celebrating success. To this end, he has created 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 energising and developing engineers for the future.
This last theme is of particular interest to Leiper as he has genuine concern over the number and quality of young people entering the profession, in particular the fact the 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 de nitely skill shortages. There are not enough kids at school doing maths and physics, ' he says.
However, 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 would like to see rolled out across the UK because it consistently takes in pupils with a range of abilities and delivers excellence. 'The way that they teach at this school is the way that all schools should do it, ' he says. '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 shut down their laboratories to cut costs. 'Engineering needs people to get their hands on and do something in a laboratory, ' he says. 'If the funding is cut and you do it all in a classroom then you are not going to get the same product - somehow you need to see when a soil fails or what a piece of concrete looks like.'
His rst challenge, of course, will be to steer a path through the ongoing discussions between the ICE and the IMechE. It is a subject on which Leiper's powder remains very 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 rst.'
Besides, he is clear that this issue will not be allowed to overshadow his main agenda items, namely the leveraging of 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.'