All posts by smf_fms

From Engineer to Entrepreneur: How an MBA Helped Change My Career Trajectory – SMF Chris Hughes, Founder of Wilfred’s Aperitif

SMF Chris Hughes has always been an engineer at heart. As a child he spent many happy hours in his parents’ basement workshop designing and building things – he enjoyed the process of creating solutions to problems. At just 11 years old, he built a ping pong pick-up device from wood and a levy system to avoid having to manually pick up the ping pong balls himself. One of his creative inspirations was Leonardo da Vinci (he was an avid reader of comics featuring da Vinci), which gave him an early understanding that engineers are innovators, people who create rather than fix things. Chris said, “The idea of innovation excited me. Looking back, I guess engineering was always a natural path for me.” Chris takes up his story…

Becoming a student of engineering
“I did Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College London with an Erasmus year in Lyon, France. After graduation, I wasn’t sure how I was going to use my engineering degree because there are many different routes you can pursue with an engineering degree. My third-year project at Imperial was designing an artificial heart valve, but my internship in France was working in R&D on high-speed trains. These are such different aspects of engineering, yet both interested me greatly. When I graduated, I took a year out and travelled to Argentina where I worked for a charity and learned to speak Spanish. It was a great time to reflect and think about my future and I decided that I would like to do a job that allowed me to travel and to build on my experience in the rail industry. I started applying for engineering jobs in the UK and abroad and a golden opportunity presented itself at the Japanese company, Hitachi, inventors of the high-speed bullet train. I couldn’t pass up the chance to work for such an innovative company and, possibly, the chance to work in Japan.

Starting a career as an engineer
“The Japan dream would have to wait for a little while. When I started my 5-year stint at Hitachi, the company had just expanded into the UK and had a 30-strong team in Ashford in the UK. This provided excellent experience and knowledge of how Hitachi was run. Because the UK team was small at the time, I shared an office with key decision-makers including the MD and even brushed shoulders with the CEO. I was entrusted with assignments that would normally be out of reach for someone of my level of experience at that time. I always had a hankering to work where the trains were being built and persuaded my superiors to post me to Hitachi in Japan. I was the first UK engineer to move to the Japanese business on a semi-permanent basis and it was fantastic.

“In just under a year, I was back in the UK managing the coordination between Hitachi Japan and Hitachi UK. It was around this time I started to take a keen interest in the business operation, rather than focusing purely on the engineering side of things. Being so close to the team in the UK, and then mediating between the UK and Japan while helping to handle customers, gave me a real insight into how to nurture and develop a business. I started to think about whether I could I have a bigger impact in an engineering company if I had a stronger business background to help make big decisions. This is when the prospect of doing an MBA entered my mind.

The Move to an MBA
“By that time, I had also become a Chartered Engineer, an important career milestone for me. I felt like I had achieved so much, and it would be a good a time to explore other possibilities. I first heard about MBA courses through some of my friends who were studying MBAs at the time. It sounded like something that could open doors for me and get me more involved in the world of business. Hitachi kindly offered to support me through a part-time MBA, but I wanted to make a huge leap, transitioning from a pure engineering role into a management one. I felt it was best to get a formal business school education, so I started researching schools and the application process. The only real concern I had was how to fund the MBA. I couldn’t believe my luck when I got speaking to a stranger on a train who also happened to be an engineer. She worked for the Royal Academy of Engineering and mentioned the SMF scholarship and the generous MBA grant. Getting the scholarship wasn’t a given, but if I could get the grant it would remove the financial worry of doing an MBA. I got through the scholarship application process and not long after that, in 2015, I was awarded a £30,000 SMF scholarship and I was on my way to INSEAD.

Doing an MBA at INSEAD
“My time at INSEAD was enlightening. I learned the basics of good business acumen, from marketing and strategy right through to finance and accounting. It gave me real insight into how business works, how people think and how organisations behave as a collective enterprise. I learned that business is about more than numbers; it’s very much about people.

“As an engineer, you tend to want to fix every individual problem you encounter. But business is different and managing people can be unpredictable. There’s a discipline I learned about at INSEAD called ‘Design Thinking’ which takes a human-centred approach to business. You start with a human problem, and then you work back to find a solution to fix it. This approach works well with engineering, once you identify the human need and establish problems and barriers, you can apply an engineering solution.

“During my MBA, my passion for innovation was reinforced. I went into my studies thinking I would do a management role in an engineering business when I graduated, but I met so many amazing people and saw so many different perspectives. It felt like another world of opportunity was opening up to me. Instead of going back to engineering after graduation, I went to work with an innovation company called What If, something I might never have had the confidence to do without the MBA.

How Wilfred’s Non-Alcohol Aperitif was Founded

“I worked at What If for two and a half years following my MBA, which allowed me to hone my innovation, prototype testing and business skills. Armed with this knowledge and my MBA skills, I had the confidence to branch out on my own and create Wilfred’s Non-Alcoholic Aperitif, my first business venture.

“Like most young people, I enjoyed the occasional alcoholic drink with friends. But as I got older, I became less interested in alcohol, to the point where I barely drank and would rather have alcohol-free drinks. It frustrated me that, aside from one or two instances of clever branding, no interesting non-alcoholic drinks had really made it into the mainstream. I decided to try and change that, which began with prototype testing.

“I started making drinks from scratch for my friends to try using ingredients from all over the world, such as English Rose, Japanese Hibiscus, Mate from Argentina. Increasingly though, I ended up using ingredients that were closer to home – rosemary, strawberries, raspberries – many from my mother’s garden. I had a formula to describe how I wanted the drink to taste, which is typical of an engineer or mathematician – that’s the way my mind works now. I would say making a drink is part science and part art; I’ve taken a very scientific approach to making Wilfred’s. Without a doubt, engineering has helped in ways you would not expect. Just three and a half months into the launch, Wilfred’s won the award for Britain’s Number One Non-Alcoholic Drink, as judged by the 2020 Great British Food Awards.

“There are many ways in which my business education, the innovation courses and experience have helped me in developing and launching Wilfred’s, ranging from understanding the intricacies of finance to marketing and scaling-up the business. Like most entrepreneurial ventures we had challenges along the way, for example, scaling from home batch to production batch involved trial and error to find the right production partner, and many months of work went into creating exactly the right brand. Even though I had adopted a “bootstrapping” strategy to finance the business in the early stages ultimately I decided to engage a branding specialist to perfect the design. The drinks industry is complex and highly competitive and getting the branding wrong would have set me back months. Understanding when to make these big decisions is vital and having a business education helps.

“Likewise, deciding on the channels to market is critical to success. Before the COVID-19 pandemic I had ambitious plans to sell to restaurants, bars and pubs and had some success, for example, Wilfred’s is available at the Hilton Lexington Rooftop Bar, but once lockdown came, I had to completely pivot to online sales via the website. Because I now have a good grasp of sales and marketing planning, I had already established a strong network of partners, for example, a reputable and cost-effective distribution centre which ensures that everything from the packaging to the delivery are perfect. I had also implemented a communications strategy, including traditional advertising and social media, to build a brand reputation, long before the product hit the market.

“I am at the start of an exciting journey. I am already looking at selling the product via channels like Not on the High Street and Yumbles, and the long-term goal is to get Wilfred’s into major supermarket chains, a goal that requires considerable work and relationship building with buyers. In a year or so, I will be looking at fundraising, something I would not have embarked on without the knowledge I gained through the MBA and working for What If. External investment will enable me to start bringing team members on board.

Value of the MBA
“The MBA has given me a much more strategic and structured approach to launching my business and has helped me make critical decisions at the right time, for example, changing from the original production company to a new one. Likewise, my engineering background helped me to deal with production issues we encountered with the first company. Having this knowledge allowed me to understand what the problems were, probably better than the people who were bulk producing the drink! I have been able to speak with people on an equal footing when it comes to technical areas such as pasteurisation and sterile filtration. In this respect having an engineering background has been so helpful.

Advice for Young Engineers Considering an MBA
“Doing an MBA was one of the best decisions I ever made, but it’s not necessarily the route for everyone. Think long and hard before making this decision, as MBAs are expensive. That said, even the process of considering it (or applying) can be extremely helpful in terms of thinking about your career. Just exploring the benefits of an MBA will focus your mind on what you want to do with your future, as well as the things you might want to steer clear of. If you really do want to open doors and take a sideways, upwards or altogether different step, an MBA is definitely worth doing. If I had not been awarded the SMF scholarship and done the MBA, I would not be where I am now – with my own business, winning awards and looking forward to a strong future for Wilfred’s.”

The SMF MBA Scholarship
If you are a professional engineer considering an MBA as one of the stepping-stones towards a business leadership career, visit our MBA scholarship application page, you could become one of our successful awardees – today the individual scholarship is £50,000.

MBA Scholarship Awardees Share their Experiences

£300,000 of SMF Scholarship Awards Help 10 Talented Engineers Attend Top Business Schools

Wharton, INSEAD, Kellogg, Stanford and LBS are welcoming 10 awardees of the Sainsbury Management Fellows MBA scholarship.

The awardees each received £30,000 towards their study costs.  They are Kofoworola Agbaje who chose Wharton; Nicholas Asselin-Miller, Qiang Fu and Andrew Glykys are attending INSEAD; Mukunth Kovaichelvan is studying at Kellogg; Imogen Rye is at Stanford, and the other four awardees – Benjamin Banks, James Diaz-Sokoloff, Matthew Dixon and David MacGeehan – all chose to study at London Business School.

The SMF Scholarship scheme is run by Engineers in Business Fellowship (EIBF) which helps young engineers fulfil their aspirations to become business leaders by supporting them financially in gaining business skills including leadership, strategic thinking, marketing, economics and finance.

The value of Sainsbury Management Fellows awarded now totals £9 million.  During this time the scholarship has helped over 300 engineers forge outstanding careers in diverse areas including the corporate sector, social enterprise, charity, healthcare and education.

The success of the scholarship scheme is measured not only in terms of the career achievements of the SMFs but in their contribution to society.  For example, 153 SMFs have founded or co-founded businesses valued at £4.6 billion, creating 18,000 jobs; 265 SMFs support and mentor young engineers, helping them with career or entrepreneurial goals and 122 SMFs are actively involved with charitable organisations.  Several SMFs teach business and innovation as visiting professors at universities, including the EIBF President, David Falzani.

After graduation, the scholarship awardees become Sainsbury Management Fellows and become SMF Alumni.  Many say that the Alumni is, perhaps, the most rewarding part of winning a scholarship, because of the lifelong support. The Fellows benefit from ongoing career and entrepreneurship mentoring which can often lead to important collaborations and high-level networking via SMF, the Royal Academy of Engineering and other leading institutions.

Commenting on the purpose of the SMF Scholarship David Falzani said, “The world is changing at an unprecedented rate, creating new challenges for UK businesses, these include globalisation, cross-culturalism, the rise of the Asian markets and flux in international politics, the economy, technology and environmentalism.  The need for multi-skilled engineers is actually increasing.  The SMF scholarship expands the pool of business-minded engineers available to employers.  The more SMFs we nurture, the more they can help boards make sound strategic decisions and deal with the challenges arising from new paradigm shifts.”

New Applications Invited
The SMF scholarship is open to engineers with the potential to gain leadership roles early in their careers, who have a clear vision for their MBA study and career aspirations.  Candidates submit a written application and shortlisted candidates undergo a panel interview with members of the Royal Academy of Engineering and Sainsbury Management Fellows.    Find out more about making an application.

To learn directly from 8 of the successful awardees, click the grey panels on the right and read their Q&As.

Preparing the Business for Sale


In previous blogs, I’ve discussed how you can prepare to leave a business you’ve built using various exit strategies and preparation methods, such as appointing a corporate finance advisory; stabilising finances over a period of five years; and setting personal objectives for the future. Continuing this theme, then, I want to get down to brass tacks regarding the actual sale preparation by focusing on three key themes: selling the future, balancing negotiations, and knowing your buyer. Hopefully, this help to build up a better picture of what needs to be done by the seller in the ‘legal’ stages of selling a business.

Sell the future, not just the past
You might have heard that when selling your business, it’s important to provide a detailed five year financial history (including audited financial statements) to potential buyers. This isn’t wrong, and a lot of preparation activities take place in light of this; you must stabilise profitability over five years, you should hire a corporate finance advisory with the final sale, etc. It may feel slightly underwhelming, as if you are only building the company for its retrospective value at the point of sale.

However, you aren’t just selling the past.  Buyers see businesses as valuable because of what their pasts signify about their potential futures. It might feel demoralising to be building a stronger company for different future owners, but, actually, you will reap the benefits as well, because a bright future is obviously much more marketable.

That’s why, alongside a detailed financial history, it’s vital to establish a two to three year sales forecast for your company. Gilmore Lewis suggests the most accurate forecasts utilise an array of data from multiple sources, not just data from a financial history. These sources frequently include: the business’ current sales pipeline; its historic run rate; its field forecast; and sales management discretion. The aim is to build up as accurate a forecast as possible based on past data in order to establish a marketable future for the company. That’s why he suggests:

Accuracy of forecasts can be measured by providing actual results side by side with previous time period forecasts. This can provide a level of visibility into the accuracy of the forecast as well as the individual contributors.” For more information on developing accurate forecasts, read Gilmore Lewis’ excellent article How to Develop an Effective Sales Forecast.

So, to return to preparing the business for sale, it’s good practice to develop regular quarterly or annual forecasts for the business, and this is hopefully something your company has already been doing. This allows you to judge the accuracy of past forecasts by comparing them with the actual financial history of outcomes. Now, fast-forward to the sale itself.  This information will ultimately strengthen your negotiating position, as you are now able to present not just a financial history and a forecast for the future, but also evidence to verify just how accurate your forecasting methodology is. Working with the future in mind in your medium-term sales prep will therefore make your short term preparation much easier – in fact, stronger.

Integrative negotiation
This brings us to the issue of negotiation, as forecasts and financial histories are ultimately what will support your negotiating position with any potential buyers. Negotiating tactics are frequently presented in popular media as almost back-handed or otherwise ‘hard and fast’ ‘moves’ aimed at more or less manipulating the other party into accepting your position.

However, I want to dispel this myth, as negotiating is rarely this simple – plus, sticking to such methods can seriously damage not only your professional relationship with a potential buyer, but your negotiating position itself. For example, saying something is “non-negotiable” is more likely to scare a buyer off than convince them of your terms. The end goal of a negotiation is, ultimately, to maximise outcomes for both parties involved. Although a negotiation may only confront you from one angle, the other party is seeking to benefit from buying the business just as much as you are seeking to benefit from its sale. Therefore, a little empathy with the other’s position (their angles, goals, and value) can go a long way. You want to aim for a deal that will benefit the other party as well as your own – a negotiation should not be seen as adversarial.

This raises two important issues that you should focus on in the early stages of integrative negotiation.

Reservation point
First, you need to have a clear position on what your objectives are within the sale. This will includes personal profit or recompense of some kind, but also things like the speed of transition between owners (eg for the benefit of employees and managers who will stay on afterwards) and various legal or contractual terms.  It is especially your terms – rather than price – which can come to make or break a negotiation.  It is here that you firmly establish a reservation point, or limits of your party’s terms beyond which you will not go.   Between your reservation point and theirs lies the space in which negotiation and bargaining takes place.

You can think of your reservation point as your “walk-away” point – the stage at which you know a buyer will not meet your terms or needs. This isn’t something you want to use as a ‘threat’, but you need to demonstrate that you are prepared to walk away if necessary. From here, you can properly negotiate and deploy tactics such as ‘expanding the pie’ – giving away small losses that the other party will receive as a boon, in order to make your terms more appealing to theirs (read more on the MIT site about these terms here).

Full information
Second, as we’ve already discussed, you need to provide any potential buyer with complete and transparent information about:

  • what it is you seek to gain from the sale, and
  • the specifics of the business’ financial history, statements, and projections

Knowing your buyer
The flipside of this is knowing your buyer. You should establish profiles of their histories and angles (whether the buyers are a group or individual); you want to try and build up as clear a picture of the other party as possible in order to understand their terms and where they will (or won’t) accommodate yours. This puts you on stronger ground when laying down your terms and negotiating the details.

Although the negotiation process can be hard, it should take place within a collaborative environment to include both your own team as well as the potential buying party. It’s worth considering adding an intermediary or business broker to your team, which might already include a corporate finance advisor and a legal team.  Their role is to support you by facilitating the sale; by helping to build your selling package; and by maintaining a well-researched awareness of potential buyers. They can also help with the legal aspect of negotiations, having the ability to draw up confidentiality agreements and being involved in due diligence.

By preparing your business for sale in a way that is transparent, collaborative, and forward-looking, you will already be well on the way to getting the best deal possible out of a future sale. Although an intermediary can help a smooth business sale in myriad ways, it is ultimately down to you as the head of the business to pull the whole thing off.

Preparing for your SMF scholarship interview

Interview Candidate

Over 300 engineers have succeeded in winning an SMF scholarship to study for an MBA at a world-class business school. You could be about to join this group of talented individuals who, once qualified, forge outstanding careers in major companies or develop their own thriving enterprises, thus helping our economy.

We asked SMFs and candidates currently studying for their MBA to think back on their application and assessment experience and share their thoughts and tips on making a strong case for a scholarship. Here they tell us what things to consider and how to impress the panel while being true to yourself.

There is bound to be something here to inspire your application, so do dip into to this valuable source of advice throughout your application process – good luck!

Are you really ready?

  • Ensure you have completed your professional engineering registration and are close to reaching Chartered status.
  • Be very clear about why you want to go to business school, and how you see it accelerating your career. Ideally, you should have a 3-year and 10-year plan.

Don’t be shy – sell your capabilities and achievements

  • Make sure your application tells a story about you, about the capabilities you think are important and about the way you have demonstrated them to colleagues. Learn how to tell that story using illustrations of successes and failures in words and for your presentation.
  • When filling in the online form, think about the various skills and qualities you are being asked to demonstrate, and also show how you expect these will be supplemented by your MBA. Don’t limit yourself to your professional experience – extracurricular activity is useful too, particularly if it demonstrates leadership potential.

A winning application form

  • Don’t waste space in your application on unnecessary filler words. Every sentence should, if possible, say something meaningful and interesting about you and demand a follow-up question. Don’t forget, it’s not just work and career that is your ammunition to enrich the picture. Your leadership, communication and innovation skills will be evident in many other areas of your experience.
  • Demonstrate your professional achievements as well as your contribution to the broader society. Include details of extracurricular activities such as charity work, competitions, committee work, training workshops for students and professionals, working for professional institutions and writing research papers. Detail these activities, their impacts and any awards received.

Engage your audience

  • Consider your presentation opportunity very carefully. It’s your unique chance to dictate what the selection panel hear and see. It’s your best opportunity to sell yourself. Think about your preparation as well as technical and commercial content.
  • In your presentation know that your message is not what you did or how you did it but why you did it and how you impacted people around you.  A historical or technical review means nothing if you can’t integrate it with what you are trying to say about you. Remember, technology is only a very small component of engineering leadership. People are by far the largest factor.
  • Don’t just present to the panel. Engage them in drawing out the questions you want them to ask. Your Q&A session should never be regarded as a passive exercise.

Winning interview – the devil’s in the detail

  • Your interview will fly by so make the most of it.
  • Be prepared to talk about your achievements when you were 7 years old! You can be asked questions about your very early life and travel experiences – things that may not feature on your CV. Also, be prepared to discuss technical details of your projects as well as your leadership experience.
  • The interview panel is looking for colour around what you’ve put in your application and get an understanding of you and what you’re hoping to get from your MBA.
  • As the panel may be interviewing candidates back-to-back, they may not have remembered all the detail in your application, so it’s up to you to cover all the areas you want to highlight.
  • Don’t be afraid to use your time at the end of the interview to mention one or two aspects of your candidacy if you haven’t been able to discuss them during the main part of the interview.

Let your personality shine

  • Be natural and genuine during the interview. The interviewers are your future SMF colleagues and are looking for individuals that bring richness and diversity to the Fellowship.

Good luck with your panel interview!


Marrying Engineering and Business Skills for an Exciting Career

David Falzani, President of Sainsbury Management Fellows
CEO, Polaris Associates
Visiting Professor at the Nottingham University Business School

“One could say that my career as an engineer was destined – as a youngster I was fascinated by technology and the complexity of how things work. I was drawn to engineering because it had both a reputation for being difficult but also, because I would be able to apply the knowledge and skills I learned to solve problems in the real world,” said David.

Now a chartered engineer, David did an MBA at Wharton/SDA Bocconi and started several businesses, including one of the first internet companies, before setting up a consultancy, Polaris Associates. He has formulated and launched FMCG brands as well as helped better market and communicate professional qualifications standards for various organisations. As an entrepreneur and visiting professor David specialises in the customer decision-making process, modern manufacturing and the economic value of hi-tech industries.

David continued, “Like many engineers, I am inspired by the achievements of giants like Brunel. But what interests me most, was Brunel’s considerable entrepreneurial and commercial skill in raising funds for ground-breaking ideas. Similarly, world-changing projects like the completion of America’s Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 and the Panama Canal built between 1881 and 1914, were at least as challenging to organise and finance as they were to execute technically.”

This admiration for combing engineering, entrepreneurial and commercial skills traveled with David and is evident in his career today. After seven years in engineering roles, one of which saw him project manage the design and implementation of a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility for a high growth Silicon Valley company, he reached a crossroads. That role had increasingly exposed him to ever-widening business and commercial issues and he was being asked to interact with wider business problems. He had to decide how best to gain the additional knowledge and understanding needed to tackle bigger business challenges.

“I could either acquire my next level of skills organically through the workplace or through an intensive MBA. My personal learning style strongly favours a crucible high-intensity environment, so it was an easy decision to study for a full-time MBA at a top school.

“With the aid of a Sainsbury Management Fellows scholarship, I studied for my MBA at SDA Bocconi in Milan and The Wharton School in Pennsylvania. It was as testing as I imagined, but the rewards more than made up for the 60 hours per week schedules! Imagine studying in an environment filled with über bright people from all over the world, being surrounded by world-class faculty, being set continually stretching tasks; having a learning machine wrapped all around you to whet your appetite and then satisfy it, and an addictive growing sense that anything is possible. I flourished in this environment and came away from my MBA with a toolbox of functional business skills, an enduring network of friends and contacts, and the school’s renowned brand name to augment my own.

“A more surprising by-product of the MBA was a rewiring of my brain, to think differently about my career. My first job post-MBA was with a leading strategy consulting firm where I consolidated my skills. After that, I plunged into an exciting new tech venture with some former MBA classmates, having gained the confidence to raise venture capital funds during the MBA. After that, I was involved in a tech turnaround. I used my engineering, commercial and entrepreneurial skills in both businesses.

“Sainsbury Management Fellows played a big role in my career transition. The financial support is, of course, very helpful, but for me becoming part of the network of Fellows upon graduation holds the greatest value. Fellows have given me advice, inspiration and have been a useful reference point throughout my career, and I have secured at least one job through the network.

“SMFs’ raison d’être is to equip ambitious engineers with business skills that will enable them to secure senior and board positions in blue-chip companies that would otherwise be unattainable. They are then in a position to use their combined engineering and business skills to enhance commercial performance. SMF also supports engineers with entrepreneurial ambitions, as entrepreneurs innovate and commercialise products and services that create jobs and wealth for our economy.

“Innovation and productivity growth are essential if we are to retain our quality of life in the global economy. Although we are good at inventing new ideas we, in Britain, have a notoriously poor record of translating these into commercial value. Also, productivity is a key success factor for mature economies like ours to compete and continue to grow in value.

“A key causal factor in both of these areas of growth is the development, integration and commercialisation of technology. Engineering sits on the interface of technology and commerce, and in this way, engineers are uniquely placed to understand ‘the tech’ and also bring a business brain to deliver more successful enterprises. I hope that we can bring this issue forward in the country’s agenda and better use our considerable resources to inspire people to prioritise activities that assist in developing promising technologies and then better commercialise these.”

Case studies correct at the time of publication.  SMFs may have moved to new posts since publication.  For the latest career information on our Fellows visit our SMF Profile Page.

Innovative online project fosters understanding and appreciation of different cultures

KArim El-HAmelSMF Karim El Hamel, General Manager of Ficosa International in Turkey, a leading automotive parts supplier and Co-founder of PocketCultures

Who inspires you?
I’m inspired by people who are motivated by innovation rather than money and influence; by those who invest in motivated people and contribute positively to the world.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I was fascinated by flight and dreamt of being a pilot. Even as a child, I was amazed that only 70 years after having discovered flight, man was able to go to the moon. It was my first awareness of the impact of technology and engineering. Those childhood dreams of being a pilot did have some bearing on my career- I went on to study aeronautical engineering, which enabled me to play a part in the process of converting ideas into real-world products and solutions.

How has your engineering background helped your career?
Engineering has armed me with a logical, investigative approach to tackling complex problems. I soon learned that one plus one doesn’t always equal two! Sometimes the best decisions for shaping the future come about from ‘back of the envelope calculations’ – it’s easy to drown creativity in too much detail. Other times, particularly where small factors have a big influence, decisions need to follow a detailed technical study. An engineering background helps identify the best approach to take in the decision-making process and has been of real benefit to me at Ficosa and PocketCultures, my entrepreneurial venture. Reverse engineering is also important when analysing your own and other companies in order to make improvements.

What has been the greatest influence on your business life?
Recognising that, despite cultural differences, people are essentially the same the world over and that we need to try harder to understand the differences and similarities if we want successful relationships and businesses.

I’m Libyan/Italian and have worked internationally, including in Turkey, where I am Country General Manager for automotive parts supplier, Ficosa (engineering is relatively standard across different territories which facilitates geographical moves). This international experience and my multi-cultural background have shown me that many of the problems in the world stem from misunderstandings caused by a lack of intercultural awareness.
I’m passionate about demystifying cultural differences and highlight areas of common ground. By inspiring a culture of learning, and providing a platform to facilitate learning, I believe it’s possible to address this issue.

That’s why I and my co-founders set up PocketCultures in 2006, a non-political, non-profit online resource where people can learn what life is really like in different countries from contributors across the globe. PocketCultures’ content covers science, language, food, music, personal stories and interviews with people living across cultures or in cross-cultural relationships.

This online project provides a platform for learning, connects people across the globe, improving cultural awareness and understanding between members. We aim to do our bit to make the world a fairer, more tolerant place. The media has a powerful influence on how cultures are presented, and there is a responsibility that goes with that. PocketCultures is committed to providing an accurate picture of the cultural side of people’s lives by featuring those with first-hand experience of life in the country in question.

Cultural differences influence our approach to engineering. In Europe, for example, we tend to plan everything out and ‘do all the maths’ first because we want the engineering to be perfect before production takes place. But in places like China and America, engineers tend to produce physical products for trial and adapt and perfect. If it works then they scale up. In my opinion, this more adventurous approach can result in these countries gaining an economic advantage and perhaps Europe needs to take a lesson from other countries.

What’s Next for PocketCultures?
Since PocketCultures was launched, the number of visitors has grown exponentially – we now have 25,000 unique visitors each month, 30 regional contributors and the list is growing; so much so we’ve employed three professional editors to support contributors.
The site has been reported in the Lonely Planet, has started topping Google free searches and is becoming a familiar sight on Flickr, Facebook and Twitter.

We recently released a free, downloadable eBook for children, Games for Kids of the World, produced with contributions from supporters around the world. We’ve also just launched, PocketButiks, the e-commerce element of the site which allows craftspeople from around the world to sell goods. The revenue will help to offset the cost of running PocketCultures.

What’s your greatest achievement?
During my time at Rolls-Royce and while studying for my SMF-sponsored MBA, I embraced the idea of a ‘learning organisation’ being the ultimate sustainable advantage for a business.


management control for a learning organisation nov 2012

The process, illustrated here, needs to be supported by having a psychologically safe and interactive environment. It is an integral part of the development of PocketCultures too. As Country General Manager at Ficosa, I’m responsible for delivering sustainable employment and development of young colleagues through fresh challenges, training and dreaming.

My greatest professional achievement has been working with my team at Ficosa, to develop and implement ‘learning organisation’ activities. I believe this has helped Ficosa grow and thrive even in this tough economy. Click here to enlarge image Achieving a ‘learning organisation culture has been enhanced by working in partnership with one of our major clients, Toyota, which lives and breathes this philosophy.

Why add business education to your engineering degree and experience?
Engineering can help you design and build things, but to take an invention forward as a business requires a whole new skills set. I saw an MBA as the route to gaining a fuller appreciation of business processes. I saw it as the path to make more of a positive impact on society.

The business degree has given me a keener understanding of how to target customers and has taught me how to read between the lines when it comes to interacting with and understanding the needs of stakeholders. What’s more, the combination of professional engineering and business skills affords unlimited success across both business and geographical borders. The natural route would have been to become an engineering manager, but the experience of the MBA – and a supportive wife – allowed me to shift into general management and also to set up PocketCultures.The MBA has also enabled me to adopt a learning approach within business.

Has the MBA made you more of an entrepreneur?
Definitely. In addition to learning entrepreneurial techniques, and gaining insight from the experience of others, I met people – who like me – were motivated by social responsibility and philanthropy. It gave me the confidence to set-up a not-for-profit business. The MBA helped me develop a sound business plan for PocketCultures, and has now proven invaluable in developing and bringing PocketButiks to market using purely theoretical projections and mutual trust.

The entrepreneurship route is not for the faint-hearted. It’s a risky one, especially for work/family life balance so I’m fortunate that PocketCultures’ managing editor, Lucy Chatburn, is my wife! We work long hours on the site during weekends, but we’re doing it together, so family life doesn’t suffer and the rewards are great.

Lucy and Karim – co-founders of PocketCultures

Learning entrepreneurial techniques is proving valuable in my role at Ficosa, as it helps to create a supportive environment for intrapreneurship. It also helps to define the system to control new project evolution and maintain them aligned with the company vision and business practices.

What benefits have you gained from being part of the SMF community?
SMF gave me the financial support to study for the MBA, allowing me to concentrate on my studies rather than worry about how I was going to pay off a bank loan! This has helped me follow a path towards a job that I feel passionate about.

Being a leader can be a lonely business, with few counterparts to use as a sounding board. SMF provides a network of professionals to benchmark myself against. Like many Sainsbury Management Fellows, I was initially attracted by the financial support to do the MBA, but I soon realised that the benefit extends way beyond money. One of the greatest benefits is the network of SMF colleagues from many industries with whom I can discuss challenges and get objective feedback. The advice and feedback offered by our network is a key ingredient in releasing entrepreneurial talent and has played a big part in my career.

Do engineers make good board directors?
I’m bound to say Yes. Seriously, research conducted by EngineeringUK for SMF revealed that almost 60% of FTSE100 companies have a professional engineer on the board. By combining their risk analysis skills with their ability to identify and focus on critical success factors, they can help reduce the potential for failure. A strong grounding in project management also helps business to apply technology more rapidly.

I believe it is the mix that brings the sustainable advantage, so a board would benefit from including women and men from different backgrounds, including engineering. The company would link vision and delivery more rapidly to the benefit of all stakeholders including society.

Case studies correct at the time of publication.  SMFs may have moved to new posts since publication.  For the latest career information on our Fellows visit our SMF Profile Page.

Key questions when you’re getting ready for an MBA

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If you’re looking to advance to a senior management role either in your current career path or an alternative one, a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) from an internationally renowned business school is an invaluable qualification to attain.

The MBA provides a sound background in key business areas that help aspiring managers and business leaders take on new challenges, including setting up their own enterprises. MBA candidates gain an understanding and appreciation of the science of management, HR and organisational behaviour, entrepreneurship, leadership, strategy, international business, economics, accounting, finance, operations management, marketing and project management.

Full-time students will also usually undertake a placement within a business where they will be responsible for managing a real project.
As with most things worth having, it is not a course of action to be taken lightly – don’t underestimate the commitment required to complete the MBA successfully. MBA courses at the leading institutions are rigorous and the shorter the course the more taxing it is likely to be.

Here are some key things to think about as part of your planning and preparation.

  • What are your goals and aims in undertaking the MBA? Do you have a short and medium term career plan? How does the MBA fit into this plan?
  • Is it a logical stepping stone towards your goals? Conduct thorough research to find the type of MBA programme that best matches your career goals, lifestyle and financial status.
  • Are you and your family aware of the impact your study time will have on your family life? For example, you may be studying abroad; possibly away from your family.
  • Studying part-time and combining this with a job will help with finances but you need to take into account between 15-20 hours study per week, in addition to your preparatory work and participating in study groups. You need to be very organised and driven to succeed.
  • Can you commit for the period of time required? Most full-time MBA courses run for anything between 10 months and two years; part-time students can expect to do course work for at least five years over weekends and evenings. Some MBAs can be tailored to specific roles and business sectors and this may determine the length of the study time.
  • If you’re thinking about enrolling in a fulltime course, how will you finance your study as well as your normal household expenses while studying? Increasingly employers are willing to fund or part-fund the cost of MBA study because they are looking to promote from within the organisation and keen to develop talent and harness new skills. Support ranges from paying for course materials to full funding. Even if your organisation does not promote support for MBA study, it is worth speaking with your line manager and/or HR department to see if the organisation will consider sponsoring you.
  • If your employer is willing to sponsor your study, will this support be tied to a guarantee that you will return to the company after gaining your MBA? If so, how does this fit into your career master plan?
  • If you are self-funding your study, look into scholarship opportunities, as well as loans. Traditionally MBAs have been funded through loans. Banks have been willing to lend to post-graduates in the knowledge that once the MBA has been attained there would be a substantial increase in expected salary.
  • Also, look into financial support from the business schools you are considering – some provide lending schemes to help with costs.

If you are a young engineer looking to develop your management knowledge and skills and considering an MBA, please look at the rest of the SMF Scholarship sections of this website applications for a £30,000 scholarship are considered on an ongoing basis, with up to ten awards made each year.

You may also be interested in reading interviews with the winners of the SMF MBA Scholarship.

Are you Ready for an MBA?

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The MBA qualification is designed to develop strategic thinking and empower you to reach career goals required for a role in senior management.

If you are in full time employment, or ready to leave university you may want to consider the opportunities that acquiring an MBA may offer you and the career doors that it will open.

Here are the top ten signals that may indicate that you are ready to dedicate the next one or two years of your life and studying for an MBA:

  • You already have some experience in real world business, have a reasonable idea about business practice and want to take this experience to the next level.
  • You are in a middle management position and feel that you have the ambition and drive to progress through your existing company.
  • You are a university student who is dead set on going straight into business school and have a compelling reason for getting an MBA before gaining work experience.
  • If you are looking for a complete career change, an MBA provides you with the skills set to do this and make you more attractive to a wider range of potential employers.
  • In certain industries very few people hired straight from university gain promotion to advanced positions, for example, in the banking or consultancy sectors. An MBA is necessary in most firms in these sectors.
  • If you are planning to become an entrepreneur running a business, an MBA will give you the business and marketing exposure and grounding needed to maximise the potential growth of your company.
  • You are planning on expanding a business idea and become an employer and need to know effective ways to manage a team and human resources guidelines and regulations.
  • Although an MBA is not essential for a leadership role, if you aspire to leadership, it is a valuable set of skills to have at your disposal.
  • If you are struggling to communicate with people in a more senior role than yourself, an MBA will give you the business language you need to converse more effectively and to influence others.
  • If your current employer wants you to become a more resourceful and better qualified employee and is willing to invest both time and money into furthering your skills set.

If so, how does this fit into your career master plan?
If you are self-funding your study, look into scholarship opportunities, as well as loans. Traditionally MBAs have been funded through loans. Banks have been willing to lend to post-graduates in the knowledge that once the MBA has been attained there would be a substantial increase in expected salary.
Also, look into financial support from the business schools you are considering – some provide lending schemes to help with costs.

An MBA is a very useful qualification to have under your belt whether you’re in engineering, finance technology, consultancy, the sciences or an entrepreneur with great business ideas to pitch to potential investors. Furthermore, the contacts you meet during your MBA study will often become useful allies in the future.

You may also be interested in reading interviews with the winners of the SMF MBA Scholarship.