Four months in and Nelson Ogunshakin, the Association of Consulting Engineers' new chief executive, is steering his ship into unchartered waters. He tells Kate Allen why his plans simply can't fail.
Nelson Ogunshakin is on a mission and he's clearly confident of success. It's just four months into his term of office as chief executive of the Association of Consulting Engineers and he's already singing his achievements.

Quite what previous bosses of the trade body will make of his pronouncements one can only guess. Here's his opening pitch: "There aren't two Nelson Ogunshakins in the industry. I have a passion. Everything I do I have to be successful in. I've got to where I am by understanding issues of common sense, integrity and respect. I'm passionate about what I do and the construction industry and I believe I can make a change.

"I'm repositioning ACE to be what it should be: a real voice both in the UK and internationally, gaining respect and value for the profession."

Quite a first statement from the 43-year-old, who is currently interim managing director at consultant AEO Group. It may come across as arrogance on the printed page, but it sounds more like enthusiastic confidence in the flesh. After all, how many captains of industry would allow their daughter to tell them which CDs to buy (see "Personal effects")?

Ogunshakin's career pays testament to his self-belief. He has held senior roles at WSP Group, High-Point Rendel and Tarmac (now Carillion). And his overseas experience includes stints in Africa, East Asia, Europe and South America.

ACE is undergoing a period of sweeping change. As well as expanding its activities and aggressively recruiting any consulting engineering companies that aren't already members, it's also looking into an internal restructuring. On top of that, it's in the middle of a comprehensive rebranding exercise.

Ogunshakin sees himself as having three mandates: to be the voice of the industry, uniting consulting engineering practices; to promote the public position of consulting engineering; and to lobby ACE's interests in Westminster and among big clients. "To do this we need to understand what our members' needs are," he says. "They have to be able to see the benefits of being members. We don't believe in subscriptions for the sake of it."

Several high-profile practices, such as Hyder, Parsons Brinckerhoff and Black & Veatch are not ACE members. Ogunshakin is (of course) confident he can win them over. "We have to recognise their needs and take them on board," he says. "We have started a dialogue. The feedback I've had so far is very positive.

"The companies have said they've been waiting for someone who understands the industry to take over ACE. There's a vacuum in providing a platform for the industry, creating a need for a voice. We need to recognise that there are different needs for different sizes of firm, and the large firms need a forum. I firmly believe that every consulting engineering firm should be in ACE."

Ogunshakin's first action has been to home in on a key concern of his members: insurance. He met construction minister Nigel Griffiths last month and ACE published a report highlighting the crisis for consultants over liability and the cost of premiums. "I think the minister was pleased to see us taking a leadership role in this," he says.

And what's his solution? "A combination of two things," he says. "The need for the client to recognise how best to ensure project security through project insurance, and for the government to take a lead in sorting out who takes responsibility. There's also negotiation needed with insurance companies.

"I think this is something that is relevant in the wider context of professional bodies. At the moment we're focusing on the issue within our own industry, but we need to see how it affects other industries, too."

ACE is focusing its energies on influencing the government's planned rail review, which is to kick off this summer. Transport is a big earner for consulting engineers, and Ogunshakin is keen to have his voice heard by ministers.

"It's not just about rail," he says, "it's about the whole transport issue. The government's 10-year transport programme is seriously behind; we want the review to look at this and reconfigure the plans. Airports are doing okay, because they're under private control, but we're concerned about Network Rail's operations, and we want a coherent approach to how investment is channelled.

"We've been engaged in consultation with the Strategic Rail Authority – we believe the government needs to resolve this. One of the historic problems is that we've tried to break transport down into different sectors, but we need to see it holistically."

But how can he get his message across? Ogunshakin is keen to build links rather than encourage enmity with other trade bodies. "We are the biggest group in the consulting engineering sector," he says. "I see the other groups as potential strategic partners. We need to collaborate for a united voice."

"The Construction Industry Council is a good forum for promoting a wider agenda than just ours. The CBI is a bigger platform for our larger members. These organisations add value. We need to build strategic links with them rather than causing opposition. We've had a lot of feedback on the need for a unified voice, an industry forum, and that's our role."

Awareness of business practices and issues is something Ogunshakin believes engineers need a lot more of. It's not possible to operate successfully in today's construction industry without understanding how the financial side works, he adds.

"Our members understand that they have to understand the client's side of things now. We need to understand how investment works and the role of the client.

"I would like to see a reciprocal change in clients' understanding of the role of consulting engineers. They must see us as a key player at development, construction and maintenance stages, and give us more recognition. Consulting engineers are the real intellectuals who make projects happen."

Personal effects

Who’s in your family? I’m married with three kids. My wife is a banker for NatWest. My children are Abi, 16, Deji, 14, and Tunde, nine.

Where do you live? In Halesowen in the West Midlands. I commute into London for work.

What do you do in your spare time? I play squash – I used to be in a local league. And I read a lot. At the moment I’m reading Colin Powell’s book on leadership. I read a lot of leadership and management books – that’s what an MBA does to you.

What car do you drive? A black BMW 5 series.

When and where was your last holiday? It was last year, in Florida. This year we’re going to Hania in Crete. Florida is great for the kids, but Crete is better for relaxation and switching off.

What music do you listen to? I’m a great lover of jazz, all types of jazz. And I like R’n’B. My daughter is passionate about it so she keeps me up to date. I get text messages from her telling me which CDs to buy.