Join an engineering firm at 22 and, if you keep your nose clean and work hard, you may be promoted to a managerial position by the time you reach your forties. This has long been the attitude of the more conservative manufacturing companies. But for many talented engineers, that is just not satisfying enough.
The five people we feature over the next three pages are all atypical in a sector where youth, in many cases, remains a barrier to responsibility and career success.
All have broken the mould of the usual career path in engineering. On a personal level, all are verging on being workaholics, and are frighteningly self-confident. And they have all learned quickly a wide range of business skills by being involved in their companies at a top level at an early stage.
But there are vast differences in their operations. One runs an internet start-up, another a new company with an innovative new product. There is an engineer who has moved up rapidly thanks in part to time spent studying or an MBA. And there are two young bosses of their own family firms, determined to keep the businesses going, but perhaps also wondering if the growth potential of their inherited businesses will satisfy their personal ambitions.
All these men are the exception, rather than the rule. `It is still rare to become the managing director of a manufacturing company by the age of 35,’ says Mike South, head of recruitment consultant Jonathan Lee.
South says most companies are looking for senior managers with an understanding of every aspect of a business, including technology and finance. They don’t usually find them, but the more diverse the experience, the better the prospects.
Of course, there are plenty of routes to the top in the kind of mainstream companies where most engineers work, though it looks increasingly as though an MBA is one of the few ways to accelerate what is otherwise a lengthy career path.
But MBAs are also expensive. Chris Shelley, group marketing manager for Blue Circle Industries, and chief executive of e-cement.com, its online trading firm, is another young high flier. But he is also secretary of the Sainsbury Management Fellows’ Society, which helps young engineers into senior positions in business, by providing them with funding to study for MBAs. But with only 10-14 places per year at international business schools, competition is tough.
`An MBA gives you a business tool kit to combine with a strong engineering background, plus the confidence to go out and use it,’ Shelley says.
So if you are young, ambitious, and an internet start-up venture is not your thing, you’d better start saving for that MBA right now.
For further information on the Sainsbury Management Fellows’ Society, contact Cathy Breeze on 020 8941 8584 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Education: MEng manufacturing engineering, Cambridge University
Job title: Founding director, TradingParts.com
Salary: Doesn’t pay himself. May start to earn a salary in September or October
Work rate: 50-110 hours a week
Relaxation: `Cycling, socialising and going to the gym. I enjoy travelling, and if I get a weekend free I like to go to somewhere like Paris.’
Vehicles owned: Touchy subject, had to sell his Porsche Boxster recently to put the money into the business – but may buy himself a new one at Christmas
Although SHAH is an engineer, he was working as a management consultant when he realised how internet procurement sites could accelerate purchasing processes and reduce costs.
He and a friend set up a European internet procurement service to provide engineering components.
Working in the e-business world gives engineers greater opportunities at an early stage, he says. Ten years experience is not a guaranteed advantage, and can sometimes constraint the way people think.
Shah says young people are more familiar with new technology, and are quicker to spot the latest trends. He believes that if they can augment this with a relevant industry-based background, they can exploit recent technological advances.
The e-business world is also more concerned with what people have achieved in their careers than with who they know, says Shah. `In manufacturing, it is very difficult to understand what impact an individual has had on the success of a company – the technology world is so fast, and so transparent, that if someone is doing well you know it very quickly,’ he says.
Education: BSc business information systems, Sheffield University
Job title: Managing director, the Doherty Group
Work rate: 50-hour week
Relaxation: `I jump on one of the fastest motorbikes made and give it some stick.’
Vehicles owned: Honda 1100 Blackbird motorbike, Alfa Romeo car
Jim Doherty joined his father’s family business after a period with ICL, including completion of the company’s two-year graduate training programme. He has a background in IT, and is now managing director of the precision turned parts manufacturer, WH Doherty, and two other related companies. He has been with the group, which has an annual turnover of £8-9m, for the past seven years.
He believes consolidation in the engineering sector will help companies attract more young high-flyers, as they will be able to offer higher salaries.
Doherty’s company was founded 66 years ago by his grandfather, and he is adamant that he does not want to see it swallowed up by a larger business. But consolidation may be unavoidable.
There are limits as to how fast the group can expand, which he finds frustrating, but he plans to remain with the company. `I see myself sticking with it, because we have got something we can make a lot of, and if you’ve got the right people around you, you can change the business to suit the market,’ he says.
`It may mean that in four or five years making armature spindles for electric motors is just one of many other businesses that we have.’
Education: MEng chemical engineering, Loughborough University
Job title: Chief executive of GdHS Salary: £3,000 per month for the last four months. Hopes to rise to £125,000 a year from September Work rate: Easing its way down to a 75-hour week
Relaxation: `I don’t have time for relaxing. The last time I sat down with a bottle of wine was about a month ago.’
Vehicles owned: Ford Escort
Dolan established the technology start-up, GdHS, with a colleague he met while studying for his MBA, who had spotted a gap in the market for a method of transporting chilled or frozen foods through the post.
Dolan came up with the design for the product, Friobox, and the company was set up a year ago.
He forecasts that GdHS will have a turnover of £750,000 this year, rising to about £30m next year. The company already has two factories in Europe, one in Mexico, and is establishing plants in Korea and Japan.
Setting up a technology start-up speeds your career progression, according to Dolan. `If the company expands quickly you can rapidly find yourself heading up a substantial business, whereas working your way to the top of a large company can take years. You can end up in the dead man’s shoes situation, where it is not until someone at the top pops their clogs or retires, that everybody else can move a rung up the ladder,’ he adds.
Although the number of young high-flying engineers is growing, it remains small compared to sectors such as accountancy and finance. Dolan attributes this to the pleasure engineers take in their technical work. `There are only a small group of engineers that actually make it to the top, because there are so many other interesting things to do in engineering. In a lot of careers there is not much else to do but get to the top – because there are no other challenges.’
Job title: chief executive of Pel
Work rate: 39-hour week
Relaxation: `The business is my hobby as well, that is the sad thing. I enjoy the job so much I think about it 24 hours a day.’
Vehicles owned: Range Rover
Nigel McGinnity has worked his way up through the ranks of his family firm, Pel, which manufactures shop fittings, furniture, and stadium seating.
He started at the age of 15, making sandwiches and sweeping the factory floor, and says he has progressed through each part of the business.
Now chief executive, he took over running the company four years ago, at a particularly crucial time.
`A year before I took over, the business lost £200,000 in a year. I was faced with a company which was losing £4,000 a week,’ he says.
Four years later McGinnity operates one of the most profitable shop fittings businesses in the UK, with a turnover this year of £75m.
He has already been in the industry nearly 20 years, and devoting the rest of his working life to the firm, potentially for another 30 years, would seem a long stretch by anyone’s standards. But McGinnity does not expect to be doing exactly the same thing by 2030.
`As I own the company, I see Pel as a vehicle I can do a lot of things with, depending on my drive and ambition. My ambition was to become the number one in our sector, which I have done. Twelve months ago I made a statement saying we will be turning over £200m in 36 months, which we will be,’ he says.
McGinnity is now looking to grow the company through acquisitions, but does not rule out merging with another business in the future.
`We are a private business, and indeed a family business still, and I think you have to look at every option available to you as your business develops,’ he says.
Education: Engineering degree, Cambridge University
Job title: European business director of Amtico
Work rate: 50-hour week
Relaxation: `I’ve got a young family, so I wouldn’t say I relax, but I spend time with them, and play as much sport as I can.’
Vehicles owned: Audi A4
Michael Gansser-Potts joined Amtico, the vinyl flooring manufacturer, following completion of his MBA. He was a member of the team that led the management buy-out from Courtaulds in 1995. He says his MBA helped him to understand the buy-out process, and hold his own against the banking and finance executives.
Gansser-Potts sees multi-skilling as the key to a successful career in industry. In the past being an accountant was seen as the ideal route to management, but engineers, with additional skills, can make much better managers, he says.
`If you understand the product, the industry and the technology, but also understand the finance, commercial aspects and sales, then you are in a stronger position than those who have only got either a manufacturing or a finance background.’
He adds: `A lot of people in industry are fantastic engineers, but they are either not good sales people or they don’t understand finance.’
A number of Gansser-Potts’ friends went straight from their engineering degrees into the City, and all earned three times the salary he was able to command in the manufacturing industry.
However, as they reach their mid-thirties, some have realised they have gone as far as they can, while Gansser-Potts says his possibilities remain as potentially limitless as ever.
`There are some very attractive salaries at young ages in IT, banking and consultancy, whereas engineering is really a longer-term career. You may not get a top salary early on, but you could compensate for that with very interesting jobs, and you certainly do compensate for it with long-term potential,’ he says.