Tag Archives: Careers

How 4 professional engineers used an MBA to change their careers

The MBA is a highly desired qualification by both young professionals and employers.  Not only does an MBA equip the student with a wealth of business and leadership skills, it  shows clear signs of an individual’s focus and ambition as well as an adventurous spirit – leaving a secure job to study for an MBA requires not only funds but courage.

MBAs benefit individuals, employers, and the economy. Although it is essential to hone skills in specialist areas, businesses are keen on hiring MBA graduates because they have a deeper understanding of a range of business practices that enable them to be more strategic and agile in their thinking and problem solving.

The MBA opens new career opportunities, helps students to gain better insight into their motivations and goals, and connects them with inspiring professionals who can support their career ambitions long term.  Taking an MBA is a major financial commitment and because of their prestige, the cost of attending the top international schools is high.  Consequently many students seek scholarships to support their studies.  For over 30 years, the Sainsbury Management Fellows (SMF) scholarships have been awarded to professional engineers who have clear leadership potential.   Today, there are 365 SMFs who, collectively, have been awarded £11 million in scholarships to enable them to acquire skills that help UK businesses succeed and the economy growth.

In this blog we introduce four Sainsbury Management Fellows who have used their MBA skills and experiences to steer their careers in new and exciting directions.

Engineering a Finance Career in Green Energy:  SMF Chris Gifford, Senior Risk Consultant, Chief Credit Officer, Vancity Community Investment Bank, Canada

After gaining his engineering degree at Oxford University, SMF Chris Gifford started his fulltime career in the power generation sector. He worked throughout the UK and internationally helping to operate and maintain the control and instrumentation systems of fossil-fuelled power stations.  He progressed into a commercial role, analysing the financial performance of the power stations, which gave him a deeper understanding of business and a desire to pursue his career in a business direction.

Chris decided that he wanted to work in the cutting-edge transition from fossil-fuel to green technology in a business and finance capacity, but he realised that he needed additional business skills to secure a top-level position in a leading company.  Because of his engineering background, prospective employers tended to pigeon-hole him as a techie. Chris knew that gaining an MBA would enhance his skills and make him more marketable.  The MBA, which he undertook at INSEAD, provided not only the vital business skills needed for a career shift, but accelerated an improvement in his interpersonal and leadership skills.

Today, Chris is the Senior Risk Consultant, Chief Credit Officer at Vancity Community Investment Bank in  Ontario, Canada where he uses his combined engineering and business skills to assess the viability and robustness of complex renewable energy proposals from businesses seeking finance, eliminating the need for the bank to use external professionals to carry out additional assessments.  In addition to identifying potential problems, Chris recommends improvements and efficiencies that allow important renewable energy projects to be funded.

Chris’ engineering background is a major asset in his role.  He explained: “My engineering skills are typically applied to evaluate whether businesses trying to access financing have fully understood the complexities for themselves.  There is a bias for optimism and sometimes blind spots when it comes to risk assessment; I provide an objective and pragmatic view on how likely a project is to succeed.”

Switching from a Technical to Management Role:  SMF Dere Ogbe, Shell Corporate Strategy and Portfolio Consultant, UK

SMF Dere Ogbe was appointed Senior Strategy and Portfolio Consultant at Shell after graduating from London Business School with an SMF-sponsored MBA.   He credits his MBA for galvanising his career in this new direction and says he now has the ability to lead both technical and commercial strategy projects.

Before taking his MBA, Dere was a Senior Operations Excellence Engineer at BP Exploration. This was a technical role which involved implementing best practices to drive continuous improvement across joint ventures in Europe, Middle East, and North Africa. This involved cascading business decisions into technical requirements and this gave Dere an insight into how commercial choices drive project design and operational requirements.  This awareness, coupled with the knowledge from courses such as Managing Engineering Projects, sparked his interest in business management.

Dere sites a number of ways that the MBA has helped to transform his career: “It has given me the necessary financial, strategic, and commercial skills to quickly analyse problems and propose possible solutions. The programme also enhanced my data analytical and leadership skills. Also, I feel very comfortable leading a wider range of people with different technical and commercial expertise.  With these additional skills, I can jump into projects and get up to speed quickly.  The part of my job I especially love is the challenge of thinking on my feet, rapidly uncovering the critical factors and, with the team, creating a roadmap to solve the problem.  The MBA has had a transformative effect on my career and leadership skills.” 

Billy Comes to Life Through Engineering and Business Talent: SMF Rob Deering, CEO, Billy, Australia

Before business school, SMF Rob Deeming gained a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Nottingham. After graduation, he spent five years as a consultant at Bain & Company where he developed practical skills such as problem-solving and collaborative working.  This role gave him the time and freedom to decide what he wanted to do longer term.  He said: “It was an incredible place to start a career. The level of learning, skills development and personal support available in consulting is second-to-none.”

Rob took his MBA at Harvard and says that it gave him both personal and professional perspective: “It opened my eyes to new career pathways, in particular, those which combined his engineering and business skills.”  Since graduating, Rob has lived in both New York and Sydney where he has built several tech-driven businesses, including three start-ups.

The most recent entrepreneurial venture is a technology company, Billy, which addresses the fundamental challenges of caring for seniors, while allowing them to remain in their own homes as independently as possible, on their own terms. Billy uses a series of Internet of Things sensors to identify patterns of behavioural routine for seniors, and shares this information through an app, in real time, with family members and professional carers. Billy can read all the activities of daily living using smart analytics to determine patterns in routine and identify changes before they result in medical emergency.

The future is exciting for both Rob and the company; Billy is growing in size and reputation and is now in 1,000 homes across Australia and the USA. Initial feedback shows that customer confidence is high and there has been a reduction in hospitalisations in the households where Billy is installed.

Winning an SMF scholarship enabled Rob to undertake his prestigious MBA, which gave him the skills to follow his entrepreneurial dreams.

Engineers with Business Skills Transform UK Industry: SMF Ian Peerless, Operations Director, ExRobotics, UK

SMF Ian Peerless and ExRobotics Colleagues

Ian Peerless’ route to an engineering career began at the University of Southampton, where he graduated with a First in Civil Engineering, after which he spent a year with British Leyland in a mechanical engineering role.  The hydrocarbon industry in the North Sea was booming and he was keen to move into that sector, so gained a Petroleum Engineering Masters at Heriot-Watt University and shortly after graduating joined Shell as a Petroleum Engineer and enjoyed an international career for five years.

However, he reached a ‘crunch point’ in his career, as is often the case with young engineers.  At this point there is a choice; to work up through the ranks of a company as a pure engineer or to diversify and move upwards in a different direction.  Ian chose the latter. His interest in business management led him to the MBA, with a scholarship from SMF to attend IMD in Switzerland.

The MBA gave Ian the credibility required to step into a management role; a role that would otherwise been out of his reach. He was one of the first engineers to benefit from the SMF scholarship programme, and proved that having engineers in management roles throughout industrial companies is extremely valuable.

After the MBA he joined British Steel, where he gained a wealth of management experience. He worked in Business Development, Sales, Operations, and finished as the number two in the Business Strategy department reporting to the main board.   After 15 years with British Steel, Ian was enticed back to Shell, where he was a key member of an internal consultancy group.  He travelled the world advising, coaching and facilitating leadership teams on project management and contract strategy.   When that project was completed, he set up an independent consultancy, IPKA where he continued to perform a similar role to the Shell position, but with different oil and gas companies.

In 2010, Ian took on a Shell contract to develop an oilfield robot. He gained extensive knowledge of this specialist robotic niche which led him to form ExRobotics, a company that is tackling the problem of oil and gas operators being sent into hazardous, harsh, and remote locations. The robots can be permanently stationed at those locations, removing people from harm’s way as well as cutting costs and reducing lost production.

Summing up the benefits of the MBA, Ian said: “The MBA gave me skills that I still use in my work. In particular, the ability to understand a business, its markets, its competitive position, and to turn that into an action plan for success.  Furthermore, the MBA made me understand that if you combine the strengths of individuals and create a motivated team, wonderful things happen. The MBA not only changed the direction of my career it also changed my industry.  The combination of my life before the MBA (technical) has been combined with my life after the MBA (management) to create ExRobotics.”

How to Apply for the Sainsbury Management Fellows 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 –the individual scholarship is £50,000 and we award ten of these every year.

AI: A threat or opportunity for UK businesses?


SMF President, David Falzani,  explores the challenge AI poses to business and wider society.

The hypothetical outcomes of AI for business have ranged from utopian to hysterical among commentators, with many focusing in particular on the implications of AI and automation for work – and the risk of redundancies. The Bank of England estimates that 48% of human workers will eventually be replaced by robotics and software automation.  ArkInvest meanwhile predicts that 76 million US jobs will disappear in the next two decades.

Daniel J. Arbess, writing for Fortune magazine, goes as far as to argue that “the accelerating penetration of job-displacing software presents maybe the most serious (and still underappreciated) socio-economic challenge to market economies in generations, both in our own country and abroad.” Jobs, it seems, are the biggest worry. “Applied software technology reduces costs and prices, taking fewer consumption dollars a longer way. We’re starting to hear a lot about this, because entrepreneurs, investors and shareholders of companies will be enjoying epic financial rewards from the AI economy–but what about everyone else?  People still need jobs.”

Meanwhile, Professor Stephen Hawking raised the stakes somewhat in 2014 saying “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” whilst Elon Musk warned that AI is “our biggest existential threat”.

AI is, then, conveyed as a threat to business, employment, and even existence, sometimes by people who don’t understand how the technology is currently being used, sometimes by the science and technology community. At the same time, it’s floated as the basis for a universal basic income and the new Industrial Revolution, as well as massively increased efficiencies across all industries. So is AI a threat or an opportunity for UK businesses?

Blake Irving, the CEO of GoDaddy, a global web hosting company, explains that “the AI that’s real today is known as ‘Narrow AI’.” Rather than worrying about super intelligent Skynets wiping humanity off the face of the earth, Blake argues we should instead focus on narrow AI as “what’s actually changing everything.” Citing Rand Hindi, who defines narrow AI as “the ability for a machine to reproduce a specific human behaviour, without consciousness… a powerful tool to automate narrow tasks, like an algorithm would”, Irving argues that narrow AI will replace or transform any job where information gathering and pattern recognition drive a volume business. “That’s not just labourers. That’s accountants, traders, estate agents, lawyers, software developers, and on and on.”

A good example of this ‘narrow AI’ can be seen in eBay’s introduction of personalised homepages and a ‘ShopBot’ for its users. “Using structured data – a transformative step to drive discoverability of our vast inventory, insights into supply and demand, pricing trends, among other things – and artificial intelligence, we’re creating a shopping experience that is tailored to each eBay user’s interests, passions and shopping history,” CEO Devin Weing explains. “With more than one billion items … we’re making shopping on eBay all about you, instead of a one-size-fits-all approach.” This is massively increasing sales conversions for the company and its traders.

Irving goes on to examine three categories of ‘AI insulated jobs’: those which require meaningful creative interactions with other people; those that won’t be replaced due to the limitations of robotics but will be transformed side-by-side with Narrow AI tools; finally, entrepreneurial roles, which can encompass such a diversity of work as to be difficult to automate. Irving uses these categories to argue that the ‘end result’ of AI displacing jobs will be the need for a population better educated to manage or interface with AI. It will, in other words, incentivise skills-based specialist technology education and ultimately spur a demand for creative thinking and skills, the things that narrow AI cannot provide.

The structuring of data that narrow AI affords us isn’t so much abolishing old skills and roles, then, as it is creating a demand for integrating new capabilities into the modern business plan. If anything, it is actually increasing the demand for creative entrepreneurs, whose skill sets are more valuable than ever while productivity and efficiency shoots up across the board thanks to AI. A similar increase in productivity was seen in the 1990s due to the implementation of MRP and MRP2 that saw skilled and semi skilled roles replaced with algorithms.

It might be worth considering that every threat is an opportunity because it forces change. The exploding volume of literature on the so-called AI revolution suggests that these technological developments may offer massive efficiency improvements, and radical changes to how businesses get things done. Are you able and willing to turn AI into an opportunity to radically overhaul skill sets and workplace practices to keep ahead of the curve, or are you not in a position to invest in this fledgling technology yet, and at risk of falling behind? The answer depends largely on the kind of organisation you run, to what extent it has information gathering and pattern recognition centred tasks, and how open it is to change, as well as how well you grapple with the reality of AI technology as it currently stands.

Boosting Your Job Search with Social Media – David Falzani, SMF President

Job Search Blog iStock_000015879404_Large Edited
The way we hire, work, and organise has fundamentally changed in the last ten years. The rise of mobile data and social networking, spurred on by corporate involvement and investment, has resulted in a situation where many of the old rules and concepts we used to understand in the world of work are becoming less and less relevant.

This is particularly true when it comes to recruitment. With 94% of recruiters now using, or planning to use social media for recruiting (2014, Source: Jobvite), the web is fast becoming the primary location for new opportunities, connections and networking.

Whether you’re looking for a new opportunity on LinkedIn, search engines, or other social media, it’s important to make the most of these platforms. The game may have changed dramatically, but the same old principles still apply when it comes to actually nailing contact-making, that job application, or getting an interview.

Let’s discuss some of the ways you can make the most out of these platforms, and find your dream job in today’s social media-driven world. Today, we’re going to be discussing how you can align with a company’s values and vision while still projecting a unique personal brand to recruiters.

Aligning your aspirations with the company’s brand, ethos, or vision
One of the major advantages of the social media age for recruitment is that your potential employers have a presence online—and often more than just a Wikipedia or LinkedIn page. While LinkedIn is great for finding new opportunities, many companies and corporations now operate a comprehensive social media presence, which offer valuable insights into what they might be all about. This will ultimately strengthen any application or interview you may be invited to complete.

Social media recruiters are actively trying to give the best candidates a very clear idea of why you should work with certain companies. If we’re talking about the challenge of aligning your aspirations with a potential employer’s vision, then social media can be a major help in a number of ways.

Firstly, many brands’ careers pages on social media offer a glimpse into workplace culture and brand ethos. Take the example of Nestlé’s UK careers page, many of their posts are focused on new work opportunities and facts about the company, but some also show light-hearted, fun moments from around the workplace – such as Christmas decorations or brownie recipes using their products. Use this – you’re looking to find out what they’re all about. Look at your potential employer’s Facebook pages (both the brand and career pages) and review the content.

Pay particular attention to their social media ‘voice’, as it may give you clues on the workplace culture. Find as many of their Twitter feeds as you can (including those of senior figures within the company directed at staff) to get an idea of the direction the company is moving in.  It goes without saying, of course, that their LinkedIn company page will provide a wealth of information on initiatives and news, as well as employee testimonials.

Using all you have learned on social media, see if you can produce a list of the company’s core values.  Does their social media profile live up to what they say about themselves on their website, marketing material and how they are portrayed in the media?

Promoting your personal brand
After researching the company’s output on the different social platforms, it’s time to start thinking about where you might fit in.

Think carefully about the image you are projecting of yourself on social media. Read your own Facebook, your own professional Twitter, or your own LinkedIn profile. What are the similarities and differences? If a recruiter were to examine your social presence as you have the employers’ profiles, what would they list as the top five values being projected? What does your voice tell them about you? Compare these to the list you made for the company to see the parallels.

It’s here that you can start developing a strategy for how you’re going to present your personal brand to the recruiter. Think of your brand and the employers’ brands as being part of the same social media dialogue. You want to be part of the discussion; you want what you say to fit coherently with what they say, but – as in a physical conversation – you don’t just want to be a yes-man who agrees or mimics everything said by the other.

Recruiters are looking for someone who can move ‘the conversation’, and therefore their clients’ companies, forward.  By promoting yourself as someone with certain personal and business values, recruiters and companies are able to clearly see where you might fit into their own vision – and if you have a place among them.

Building stronger networks and finding your path
You’ve got to grips with your potential employer, you know what they want to see in a candidate, and you can already see a place for yourself in their organisation. However, that’s just one job. How can you use social media to get not just a job for today, but also help build a career for tomorrow? In an age where many argue that the traditional career ladder no longer exists, the answer lies in building bigger, stronger networks and developing a goal-oriented career path.

Developing your career path
In order to develop the right strategy for achieving this, you first need to become goal-oriented. These should initially focus on what you’re currently doing (ie your current and immediate goals at work and at home), what position you’d like to get next, and what you’d like to be doing in five years’ time.

Consider where you were five years ago and the progression you’ve taken. Now, think about how your employment history fits with where you want to go. Building up a strong idea of the trajectory you want to be on is key. When you finally get to that big interview for the job you’ve dreamed of for years, you need to be able to demonstrate that all your previous work has been leading up to this moment and this interview – that you know where this opportunity is going to take you and how you’re going to make the most of it.

Again, you can use social platforms to your advantage here. Many companies manage and operate careers pages on LinkedIn (the Deloitte page is a good example), which are well worth a browse if you want to find out more about not just its current opportunities, but also the company’s structure and where others’ experience has taken them. It will also give you further insight into the different groups of jobs (rather than specific roles) available. This can help inform your strategy and broaden your options further down the line.

Building stronger networks
After you’ve got a fairly comprehensive idea of your goals and planned trajectory, you need to work out who you need to know to help get you there. There is a lot of literature on working out who these people are (this Forbes article is an excellent example), so assuming you have a list of the types of people you need to know, let’s get down to the business of using social platforms to build strong(er) networks based on that information.

The connections that will jumpstart a new opportunity are very rare finds, so it’s important to be proactive – especially on social media. Let’s take Facebook as an in-depth example.

Facebook has spent the last few years making its services more professional and career-oriented. You might be thinking of brand pages or profiles, but it’s also true of individuals. Many people have professional Facebook profiles as well as personal pages.

Regardless of what your formal presence is on the site, there are a number of ways you can optimise your Facebook profile in a technical way for networking. As this helpful guide outlines, these are some of the ways you can ‘clean up’ your social media image:

  • Set a custom URL for your page
  • Optimise your privacy settings
  • Get a professional profile picture and complete your professional information
  • Create useful status content and share your blog posts

These principles don’t just apply to Facebook, but also to Twitter and other social networks you use.

Once you have a work-friendly profile optimised for networking, it’s time to start using it. One great facility on Facebook is the search bar, which has a tab entitled “People I may know.” You can use this to find people of interest who fit with your goals – and, best of all, they’re picked from your friends’ friend lists, meaning you have a mutual contact who can introduce the two of you if you don’t feel comfortable approaching them directly. (Again, the same goes for LinkedIn connections).

You can also ‘follow’ people not on your friends list, which allows you to see their content and engage with their public posts (either on a personal or business page). By making small, thoughtful contributions in the comments section (or through Twitter retweets), you can build a rapport and lay the groundwork for approaching the person in a professional context. This is also true of Facebook groups, which can be used as a very quick and efficient way of social networking.

Don’t forget about the interconnectivity of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Once you have someone on Facebook, you can automatically connect with them on LinkedIn or Twitter, and vice versa. By managing your network of new contacts across multiple platforms, you’re maximising the reach of your personal brand, thereby helping to ensure you’re getting the most out of social media.

Social media is a hotbed of recruiters and companies looking for new talent – make sure that key platforms are part and parcel of your job search; both from the perspective of you exploring prospective employers online and ensuring that your online presence and profile are a magnate for recruiters and employers.

Photo: iStock.com/opera3d

Sky’s the Limit for Careers in Africa

Ernie Edited

“The opportunities to go all the way to the top of your career in Africa are unlimited, but if you want to be successful two things are essential; go with an open mind and try to understand the cultural context in which you are working.  Second, if you are going independently rather than being posted by a UK parent company, you must have sufficient resources to cover your social needs, especially housing and healthcare. Preparation will ensure that your dreams are fulfilled,” said Ernest Poku, Asset Manager at Ophir Energy, who has held two senior roles in Ghana.

Ernest graduated from Bristol University with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and initially worked as a drilling engineer for British Gas Exploration and Production. He then formed a consultancy offering technical and commercial services to oil exploration companies Shell and BP.  In 2001 he won a Sainsbury Management Fellows MBA scholarship and took his MBA at Erasmus. This gave him the business skills to become an entrepreneur and set to up Crescent Diagnostics, a medical diagnostic company that invented award winning devices that predict fracture risk.

The chance to work in Africa came via Ernest’s connections on LinkedIn. “I was considering my career options when a headhunter contacted me through a group focusing on Africa.   The headhunter thought my background was a good fit to run a subsidiary of a British-owned engineering company based in Ghana.  After extensive interviews in the UK, and a visit to Ghana to meet customers, I was delighted to be hired – it had never occurred to me that I could work in a senior post in Ghana in my chosen field.  Apart from the attraction of working in a fast-growing economy, having Ghanaian parents meant there was a strong pull towards the country.

“I worked for the Ghana-based engineering firm for one year where I managed 25 staff.  We supplied mechanical engineering products to the upstream oil and gas industry and I regularly travelled to Ivory Coast, Togo and Nigeria to meet customers and discuss their needs.  I didn’t realise just how much I would have to travel by plane to visit different cities – the road network is poor in West Africa; motorways between cities are rare.  A key part of my job was demonstrating to customers that the products and services they required could be sourced in the region rather than ordering from the EU or USA.  When that contract ended, my original headhunter helped me secure the role of Country General Manager at Ophir Energy, an oil exploration company based in Accra, the capital of Ghana.

“My transition from the UK to Ghana was very smooth because I, my wife and baby son went on a full expatriate package which covered everything from flights to housing and healthcare.  If you’re going it alone, it’s vital to have a long-term plan, to research the job market, cost of living and accommodation because western-style accommodation in Ghana is as expensive as living in London, and there is no free healthcare or free schooling.  I met expats who were trying to establish themselves independently and they found it difficult, especially competing in the local job market.

“It’s better to get a placement via a UK-based company with interests in Africa.  Even at graduate level this is do-able. While I was in Ghana a number of UK financial services companies sent graduates to set up local offices and provided them with expat packages.

“Working in West Africa has its pleasures and issues.  Operating a company in Ghana requires a more vertically integrated approach than in Europe.  We had to develop our own water and electricity supply, construct buildings and develop good logistics infrastructure to secure the materials we needed to run the facility.

“I was surprised by the large number of local university graduates and the relative lack of skilled technicians.  We found it challenging to recruit high quality skilled builders, masons, carpenters, machinists and mechanics and implemented our own in-house training programmes.  The Ghanaian government is keen to encourage local involvement to ensure that the oil companies operating in Ghana do not solely use expatriate labour. Landmark legislation aims to have 90% local participation in the oil industry within a decade.

“In terms of acclimatising to the new business culture, I encountered two other key differences.  Running a highly unionised company was testing, with tense industrial relations and negotiations, especially on pay.  The other revelation was that a strong focus on team building and collaborative approaches is necessary to ensure everyone works towards a common goal.

“Although there are challenges, if you have a passion to work in Africa, I’d say do it. It is well worth any trade off you might make and I have gained a great deal from the experience, both personally; getting closer to my heritage, and acquiring new professional skills. The quality of life is great; locals and the expat community are welcoming so you soon make friends.  Social life is great, with lots of outdoor leisure pursuits and the weather is warm all year round.”

Ernest has since relocated to Ophir Energy UK HQ where he is Asset Manager in charge of all operations in Gabon, Central Africa.  He spends three weeks per month in the UK, working with a team of finance, legal and commercial staff to manage assets, and one week per month in Gabon working alongside his European manager (an expat) and local staff.  The experience in Ghana equipped Ernest with a range of skills that enables him to deal effectively and efficiently with complex government bureaucracies, a task he believes would be a struggle had he not gained invaluable experience in Ghana.

Ernest is featured in a new careers case study book, Engineering New Horizons, which is free to careers advisors and job seekers – to obtain a copy email cathy.breeze@smf.org.uk

 

From Oil Rig to Board Room

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SMF Richard Kluth, Managing Director Pulse Structural Monitoring

Richard Kluth’s journey to becoming managing director of Pulse Structural Monitoring, a fast growing structural monitoring company for the offshore industry, took some interesting turns, including a job in offshore drilling, an MBA programme at Spain’s IESE Business School and a stint in asset management at Morgan Stanley.  Richard shares his experience and his views on the need to promote engineering as an exciting career choice.

Like many young lads, I had an idealistic notion of becoming a musician, but as our band members drifted off in different directions, reality hit I started thinking about a proper job!  My maths was strong, so I studied physics and after graduating travelled throughout Asia and Australia and caught the travel bug.  This motivated me to find a job that would allow me to travel the world.  I joined my father’s pioneering fibre optic business, Sensor Dynamics, the first to install fibre optics in the oil industry.

It was a very exciting time, as I went from developing demonstration products for clients to creating prototypes and then travelled to California to oversee production and implementation of the products.  I received great development and mentoring at Sensor Dynamics and it gave me a passion for working in the oil industry.  I particularly enjoyed the service side and being out on the rigs.

After a fantastic grounding at Sensor Dynamics  it was time to spread my wings.  I landed a job as a field engineer on a fast-track management programme at Schlumberger, a leading oilfield services provider.  Schlumberger satisfied my thirst for getting in the thick of a job and travelling.  As a field engineer, I moved to a new country every 12 to 18 months, working as the second or third hand in a 2-3 man crew.  Drilling is a very complicated and complex function which requires absolute precision.  Initially I was responsible for providing the technical information that enabled the crew to drill safely, but by the end of my training I was also drilling wells.  I worked in Germany, Canada, America and the Middle East and at the end of that three year period I was head of the team, leading on the rigs.

By then the wing-fluttering had started again, and I realised that I didn’t want to pursue a structured career path that would lead me into managing logistical projects; I was after more intellectual rigor and wanted to join one of the big operators.  So I left Schlumberger.  This was back in the 1980s when oil prices were at rock bottom and hiring in that sector was not high on the agenda.  Rather than see it as a set-back, I decided it was the ideal time to do an MBA to develop my management skills.

Funding an MBA can be a challenge, so I was very fortunate to learn about the Sainsbury Management Fellows scholarship through a university brochure and even luckier to get through the stiff assessment panel and be awarded the £30,000 bursary.

Learning a new language was a big factor in where I did my MBA.  In all the years I had worked abroad I still hadn’t learned a second language, a source of great embarrassment, so I decided to learn either Italian or Spanish.  I fell in love with Barcelona when doing my recce, so chose IESE Business School in Navarra to do my MBA and learned to speak Spanish into the bargain.

The MBA rounded-off my commercial knowledge and improved my confidence in conducting commercial discussions.  It also enabled me to see that it was possible to make the leap from a technical function to a management/commercial role at a plc.

The MBA work placement was another big experience and confidence boost – I joined a global growth equity team at Morgan Stanley. They needed someone with an engineering background who understood fibre optic technology to help with the stocks they were managing in this field.  This was intellectually challenging and I learned more about the economy.  I must have done something right as they offered me a full-time position which I took after I graduated from IESE.  I received great training and worked with very bright people in a less structured career model than Schlumberger.  For example, if we wanted to create new products around what was happening in the industry, we could.

After working in asset management, I plunged straight back into the oil industry, taking up the role of business development manager at the VC-backed start-up, Sensornet, which specialises in fibre optic sensors and monitoring systems.  Its growth was rapid and I progressed quickly into a sales and marketing role, and then became sales & marketing director.  When the original investors decided to sell Sensornet, I was elevated to chief operating officer and ran the company freeing the CEO to focus on the sale. Tendeka acquired Sensornet and I made a bid for COO but they needed someone with both oil and gas experience, plus mergers and acquisitions expertise.

After seven years with Sensornet, I was at another career crossroads, and the SMF network – you become a Fellow when you graduate – was incredibly helpful at this point.  I put out feelers to Fellows who were very willing to talk and share ideas and contacts.  I even started discussing an entrepreneurial venture with another Fellow. The SMF network will always be there to support the Fellows and it certainly inspires you to take the next step in your career.

While thinking about my next move, I did what I love most – I went travelling with my wife and young child assuming that we would have a six months’ adventure.  But no sooner hand we landed in Australia, a head-hunter called with the exciting prospect of joining Pulse Structural Monitoring, a dynamic young company with a lot of promise.  The long distance interviews were followed by a personal one when I returned to the UK.  I was drawn to the role because Pulse is a strong company, with highly skilled engineers with a fantastic work ethic.  They needed a senior manager with both commercial and technical skills to consolidate and help grow the business.

Managing growth is our biggest challenge.  When I joined we were 17 staff and we’ve tripled in size in three years, with 60 people working in Aberdeen, Woking, Rio, Houston and soon Singapore.  We have had to adapt quickly to manage the growth.  Previously, we operated more like a project management company, where all the expertise was concentrated within project groups.  We have now developed new production and procurement departments so that key knowledge and expertise is centralised.  Likewise, we have introduced new systems in areas like quality and training to ensure that we capture the expertise of existing professionals to train the next generation of young engineers joining Pulse straight from university.

Engineers are critical to Pulse and wider industry and I don’t think the UK takes engineering as seriously as countries such as Germany.  When companies are growing as fast as Pulse, it’s frustrating to be faced with the struggle of finding engineers at the entry level.  The UK needs to produce engineers to tackle the big problems in society now and in the future.  More needs to be done to highlight the diversity and excitement of careers in engineering.

People tend to think of engineers as a bit nerdy, but engineers change the world – take energy – without it the world cannot grow and prosper.  Today, we all have to think about renewable energy and who will deliver the technology to make that a reality?  It is engineers who will provide the solution to cleaner energy.  We need to change the perception that engineering does not offer an attractive career path.  We need to communicate that engineering skills and experience can catapult you into different careers, especially when complemented with commercial and people management training.

Sainsbury Management Fellows helps to equip engineers with the business skills and experience needed to broaden their career opportunities and move into senior management positions, as in my case.  Engineers have a diversity of skills that are valuable at board level, a key one being logical, analytical thinking.  We bring a good structured analysis and approach to key issues in a business, which helps companies to grow and prosper.

From Marine Engineer to Online Publishing

Lee Cowles
SMF Lee Cowles, MD of Europe, Blurb

Lee Cowles has enjoyed a varied and challenging career, starting as a marine engineer in the Royal Navy before jumping ship into bespoke manufacturing. He then made a major turn in career direction by studying for his MBA and moved into the world of business and worked his way up to director at Betfair, the phenomenally successful online gaming company. Today Lee is leading another exciting internet business, the fast-growing online publishing company, Blurb.

As a youngster, what were your career aspirations?
As a teenager I couldn’t possibly have imagined that I would be running an online publishing business as it was pre-Internet days! Back then, I was instinctively drawn to engineering because I saw myself as a problem-solver; I liked the idea of ‘making things work well’ though at that point, I had no idea what I might make work.

Why did you study engineering?
My first job was a marine engineer in the Royal Navy where I had ample opportunity to make things work! I resurrected damaged equipment, bringing things back to peak performance. That experience led me into a manufacturing job. When I left the Navy, I joined an unusual manufacturing business in Huddersfield – it produced customised winches and gearboxes. Yes, I know this doesn’t sound terribly exciting, but imagine selling a concept to every new customer and then having to go away and make the product? It was quite a challenge, as each product was a turnkey solution. No off-the shelf products, meant no standard price list, yet it was essential to get the price right to make a profit and keep the customer satisfied. Sometimes I had to take a leap of faith or we would have missed out on brilliant business opportunities.

Why study for an MBA?
My employer at the manufacturing firm was keen for me to develop in the business and offered to sponsor me to study for an MSc at Warwick University, but I already knew engineering. I had been so involved in product development and sales at the firm, I started hankering after learning more about business. When you’re in the Armed Forces you know exactly why people do the things they do – everyone has a shared understanding otherwise things can go horribly wrong. But in business it’s different – there are lots of stakeholders with competing or hidden agenda. I felt that an MBA would help me to learn what I needed or at least get me started.

How did SMF help you?
Realising that I would be unlikely to return to the firm after studying for an MBA, my employer understandably didn’t want to sponsor my MBA study. I was fortunate to discover the SMF scholarship and to get through the selection process. Without the funding, it would have been a struggle financing my MBA and I would have had a larger debt at the end, which might have influenced the job I took at the end of the course.

By providing the funding, SMF gave me the opportunity to start a different career and explore different options. SMF doesn’t look for people based on the particular career they want to go into so you get a very mixed set of people. SMF is about getting people into senior jobs across the board. This helps Fellows to stretch their careers in different directions.

And the biggest benefit of your MBA?
The real revelation – and benefit – for me was studying with such a diverse and vibrant group of people; there were students from many different backgrounds and cultures. The university places students in very mixed groups to maximise friction and learning!

Has the SMF Network been useful?
You make lasting friendships and, because everyone takes different career paths and are not competing in the same arena, you can contact them and ask their views and advice without any conflict of interest.

How has business education changed your life?
My first job after graduation was with Ford, where I worked on the accelerated Manufacturing Leadership Programme. I also undertook a government research project into adult education for the workforce. The project brought together civil servants and the private sector to explore how business might help to tackle adult illiteracy. While this project was intellectually stimulating, working in a very large corporation wasn’t for me. I wanted to be in a more entrepreneurial environment.

The game-changer for me came in 2003 when I become Head of Operations at the innovative online gaming company, Betfair. Betfair has a great business model – it allows customers to choose their own odds, matches all the bets and charges a small commission on winning bets.

Moving money around is a bit like logistics and works like an engineering business; that’s how I positioned it at my interview and they liked my pitch! Betfair was a small business when I joined, but it grew rapidly. In a small business you take on many different jobs and build very quickly. My division went from two to 50 people in 18 months and I must have hired 200 staff during my time with the company.

Initially, I set up the back-office systems and then progressed into other roles. I professionalised processes and systems in one area, and then moved onto the next. This included product management, product development and even the software development area. By the time I left in 2011, I was Director of UK running half the business. When the business floated it was valued at £1 billion and today it employs around 2,000 people. In a small growing business you do many different things which may not be your area of expertise. The MBA prepares you to deal with unexpected challenges.

What are you doing now?
Scaling up the business at Betfair prepared me for my current role as MD of Europe at Blurb, a venture capital backed online publishing business, which allows customers to produce everything from personalised e-books to professional books on demand. Blurb publishes around 2 million books a year, the same as a medium size offline publisher. In the online publishing world, authors can create demand for their books through social media.

What is the biggest challenge in your business sector?
The Internet has increased the speed of every aspect of business. It’s imperative to keep your eyes on the ball – on everything from systems and processes to sales and marketing – otherwise you will be outflanked by new competitors, trends and customer behaviour.

How can engineers help the UK economy to grow?
We need to embed flexibility and skills into the economy. Engineers have valuable skills, for example, analysis and problem-solving; bundle these with business education and they have a big role to play in growing the economy.

What advice would you give budding entrepreneurs?
People who start a career in engineering are pretty risk averse. That’s probably why we don’t see many traditional engineers, compared to software engineers in Silicon Valley, become entrepreneurs. My tip is to ‘just do it’ – don’t let fear hold back a great idea. Often the risk is not as great as you think it will be.

Which engineering pioneer do you admire and why?
Brunel – he was audacious! He was a hands-on engineer, who was never put off by failure. He achieved so much and left us some wonderful structures. In Brunel’s time engineers had the advantage of being able to over-engineer and learn from their experiences. There’s no room for that in modern engineering!

Running an Engineering Business in West Africa

Ernie Edited
SMF Ernest Poku is currently working in Accra, Ghana as the Country General Manager and Director for an oil services company servicing the regional oil industry.

I manage 25 staff at our Ghana operations base and hold full profit and loss responsibility for the operations.

Most of our products are mechanical engineering focused supplies to the upstream oil and gas industry in the region.  I regularly travel to Ivory Coast, Togo and Nigeria in addition to my work in Ghana.  I travel to meet with customers and discuss their needs in terms of engineering services, often I need to demonstrate that these services can be effectively sourced in the region rather than ordered from the EU or USA.  I often identify new opportunities and add new products and services to our portfolio.

The West African region is much more diverse than I ever imagined and bears some interesting similarities to the European Union.  There is a burgeoning Economic community of West African states consisting of 15 states and a population of 300m people; the big difference is that this population is dominated by Nigeria with a population of over 160m people.  Nigeria is currently the second largest economy in Africa and projected to become the largest economy within a decade; it is an economy dominated by the oil industry. Ghana by contrast is the second largest economy in ECOWAS with a population of 25m people and the highest growth rates in Africa with 14.4% growth in 2011.  There is even a common currency between a number of the French speaking states in ECOWAS, the CFA which existed long before the Euro and there are discussions on a regional currency union ongoing.

Working in West Africa has its pleasures and challenges.  One of the things I didn’t realise before I arrived here was how much I would have to travel by plane to visit different cities.  The cities are densely populated and the countryside is sparsely populated and the road network is very poor; motorways between cities are rare.

Accra, the capital of Ghana is equidistant between Lagos, the capital of Nigeria and Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast.  Both are only 45 minutes away by air and over nine hours by road.  In Europe the journey to these cities which are only 300km apart would take around three hours.  I find myself regularly flying four times a week as a result.  The other surprising thing is that direct air links between these countries are a relatively new innovation, only a couple of years ago it would be quite normal to have to fly via London or Paris to travel the region safely.

Operating a company in Ghana requires a more vertically integrated approach than in Europe.  We have had to develop our own water and electricity supply, construct buildings, develop good logistics infrastructures to secure the materials we need to run the facility and train our local staff in-house.

I have been surprised by the large numbers of university graduates and the relative lack of skilled technicians.  We have found it challenging to recruit high quality skilled builders, masons, carpenters, machinists and mechanics.  There is a lack of high quality vocational training in Ghana which is holding back the industrial development of the country.  University graduates are important but only as part of an overall mix of skills in the population.

On the same theme, the Ghanaian government is very keen on encouraging local content to ensure that the oil companies operating in Ghana do not solely use expatriate labour in the oil and gas value chain. This landmark legislation aims to have 90% local participation in the oil industry within a decade. This is a very exciting initiative and as a dual British-Ghanaian national, I am interested to see how successful it is. This policy has been successful in encouraging local participation in the Nigerian oil field and Ghana hopes to emulate their success. If Ghana can use oil and gas to develop its local industrial capacity it may well meet its aim of becoming a middle income country within a decade.

If you’re wondering how you can help countries in West Africa develop, I would urge you to consider doing business in West Africa, currently most goods are exported as raw materials but there is low cost power and labour (hydro power dominates here), an English speaking and well educated workforce on the same time zone as Europe and generous corporate tax holidays. Every business established here makes a huge difference to the economy.  Oh and by the way the temperature is between 25 and 35 degrees centigrade all year round!

From MBA to DNA

110
Chris Martin, Chief Executive of Sciona, a company at the cutting edge of business innovation and the revolution in genetics.

SMF Chris Martin is a highly qualified chemical engineer. His MBA demystified the workings of corporate finance and enabled him to pursue his ambitions for commercialising technology. Chris, who started his career as a chemical engineer, has harnessed the knowledge he gained from an MBA at leading Swiss business school IMD (formerly IMI) to combine his natural commercial flair with his scientific know-how. His sector is one of the freshest business areas to have opened up in the last decade – taking technology developed in academic institutions to mainstream markets.

Sciona, the latest in a string of spin-out ventures Chris has presided over, is leading the push to bring the benefits of major breakthroughs in mapping the human genome, to consumers.

His company offers a service to customers that reveals if they are genetically predisposed to illnesses affected by lifestyle factors like stress, diet and exercise. It offers consumers the opportunity to tailor their lifestyles to ensure prolonged health and well-being. Customers simply take a swab from inside their mouths that is then analysed by the company’s expert team of leading scientists to produce each individual’s unique genetic make-up. Combined with a brief lifestyle questionnaire, Sciona can advise its customers how best to make lifestyle changes to enhance their well-being.

Chris’ career started with a degree in Chemical Engineering at Aston University. He followed it with a DPhil in Engineering Science at Oxford University. It was during 18 months of post-doctoral work at the University and the Atomic Energy Research Establishment that he first started to develop his commercial instincts, starting a computer software company with his flatmates. Chris recalls, “I got a real taste for the commercial world and realised I enjoyed that side of the industry as much as the technical elements.”

He joined a small consultancy working in the offshore oil industry that then diversified into the pharmaceutical sector and other process engineering industries. “I took a diploma in management studies to try to understand more about business. From my work I thought I could see situations where large companies were making poor technology investment decisions.”

His interest in this subject grew and in 1988 he applied to Sainsbury Management Fellows for a place on the International MBA programme, opting for a one-year course at the leading Swiss business school IMI, now IMD.

Chris says, “Mine was a classic MBA, very strong on international finance and organisational development. The key thing was that the course demystified a lot of aspects of business. One of the biggest advantages my MBA gave me was a thorough understanding of corporate finance.”

After completing the course Chris used his new skills to tackle the trend of poor technology decision-making he had spotted over the previous years. He and a partner set up the consultancy as part of Marex in late 1989.

Early success, including a series of contracts from Courtaulds, was followed by Chris leading a management buy-out of the consultancy to form Paras Ltd. Growth over the ensuing years created a team of 40 professionals at offices in the UK, Holland and South Africa.

In the early 90s Chris’ attention turned to the growing trend of companies formed around technologies from leading universities and industrial research. He joined a fellow engineer to set up an early stage feed capital company after recognising that embryonic companies founded on campus research required expert outside help.

Chris and a growing number of expert colleagues created a string of successful technology companies including Solcom, which develops web-enabled systems monitoring and management systems, Despatch Box, a data encryption and security company, and SpiroGen, a biotech spin-out developing the technology to stop cancer cells replicating by binding specific DNA strands.

But it was Sciona and its potential for putting a truly groundbreaking health product in the hands of ordinary people that really fired Chris’ imagination. “It’s a really fascinating area to be working in, with some tremendously talented people.

“I’ve never been a traditional chemical engineer but the scientific foundation combined with the skills and knowledge I gained through my MBA have enabled me to take my career forward in challenging and, I hope, innovative ways.”

He concludes, “Every day I see that there is a significant change in the UK climate for entrepreneurial innovation. There are now a lot of well-educated, ambitious young people using their technical education to launch themselves into business. When the SMF scheme started more than dozen years ago, this was almost unheard of.”

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