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ACE's Nelson Ogunshakin on working in construction

Published on: 9 Apr 2009

Even the global meltdown hasn't dented the Association for Consultancy and Engineering's chief executive Nelson Ogunshakin (pictured, right).

When Nigeria-born Ogunshakin took charge of the trade body in 2004, membership was low: about 670 firms employing 35,000 people. It has since grown to 800 employing more than 100,000 staff.

It has also brought in major players such as Atkins, Halcrow and Mott MacDonald. The organisation has become a respected campaigning body, but its challenge is now to sustain momentum on long-term issues while staying relevant.

“The immediate pressure on companies is surviving,” says Ogunshakin. “But the challenges facing the industry haven’t gone away. There are major issues around skills, transport and energy, such as replacing ageing power plants, and if we don’t talk about them now, we will have a crisis.”

One of Ogunshakin’s ambitions is to forge a stronger link between engineering and business excellence to strengthen the sector against future downturns.

Judging which countries to tackle is a tricky business, says Ogunshakin, whose own career has taken him to Africa, Asia, the Middle East and North America.

He expects the US market to “turn in on itself” but says players with an American reach may still bring design work to the UK. “Its an internationalised market,” he says. “You can be doing a project in China but design it in Manchester.”

Other regions, such as North Africa, present huge opportunities, he adds, pointing to Nigeria, which has a large foreign currency reserve and 75% less infrastructure than would be expected for its population of 145 million.

Ogunshakin on...

Unreasonable clients
asonable clientsThere are some clients out there who will take a unilateral decision to make fee cuts of up to 60% and my message to them is get real. The supply chain is not a charitable business. A reasonable supply chain should take a sensible decision and avoid working with such clients. If you compromise today, then you have to do it tomorrow and the day after, and after a while the bubble will burst.

In the long term I think the region will stop thinking in states and become more of a true nation. Then investment will flow. But it will be a minimum of six months, possibly a year, before we see change in Dubai. My advice for those already on the ground is to “rightsize” your business and get closer to the client. For those looking to go abroad, there is still a market – particularly in low-carbon design. In Abu Dhabi, they’re building a new city with the lowest carbon footprint in the world.

Any company that wants to survive should make appropriate adjustments. But it mustn’t cut back to the bone and damage the sustainability of the business. Because notwithstanding this short-term blip, we still need to encourage people into the industry. New technologies will change the way we build and that requires scientists, engineers and consultants.

Ogunshakin's CV
2 November 1960 born in Nigeria
1981-85 civil engineering student, Aston University, Birmingham
1982-86 engineer, Carillion Construction
1987-2000 consultant; director; board director, High-Point Rendel
2000-2002 board director, WSP
2002-2004 interim managing director, AEO Group
2004-today chief executive, ACE 

Read the full interview in Building's The optimist: ACE's Nelson Ogunshakin.