Our series on key construction figures looks at the former-Atkins-boss-turned-major-client, in his new role as boss of aerospace consortium AirTanker. We analyse the comeback of Robin Southwell
He's back. In September 2002 Robin Southwell had virtually no choice but to walk out of the construction industry after Atkins, of which he was chief executive, suffered a profit warning and a 400-job cull.

There was heavy criticism – Southwell was an outsider to construction, his background was with aerospace giant BAE Systems, so how could he possibly run the country's biggest consultant?

Those who attacked Southwell will probably make more conciliatory noises now. He is set to dish out £100m of construction contracts by the end of the year as a result of the impending £13bn PFI deal his aerospace consortium, AirTanker, is due to sign with the Ministry of Defence. These contracts include offices and an aircraft hangar.

Not that Southwell seems particularly embittered by his experience at Atkins, despite rumours that he felt himself to have been made the fall guy for decisions made jointly at board level: "I'm not surprised that Atkins has turned it around [the share price is currently more than five times its year low of and has eradicated its debt]. I have a lot of good memories."

But then Southwell has many reasons to feel he has redeemed himself after his perceived failure at Atkins. Almost as soon as he left Atkins he founded an airline, Bookajet, which flies none other than David Beckham around the world. He also had a few months to enjoy his family, as his wife demanded that he did not take a full-time job until 2003. He started at AirTanker on 2 January: "I stuck to that promise, but I think she expected me to stay at home a little bit longer!" he says.

Whatever the problems at Atkins, this sense of humour certainly won many of his colleagues over. Ric Piper, the finance director who left Atkins on virtually the same day as Southwell, says: "We've kept in contact since we left Atkins. He has kindly kept me involved with him in a number of business advisory activities."

Even Mike Jeffries, who temporarily returned to his role as Atkins chief executive in the wake of the profit warning, was happy to write Southwell a reference supporting his AirTanker job application: "He's got the marketing and selling skills that are perfect for that job."

Still, it is probably best that Jeffries keeps on the right side of Southwell, as Atkins could find itself pitching for some of the work that AirTanker is preparing. As Southwell says: "Atkins has very high levels of capabilities for this kind of work."

Up the ladder

Age 43
Academic history Graduated with honours in economics and economic history from Hull University
Career history 1982 Joined BAE Systems as contract negotiator
1988 Promoted to commercial director
1992 Ran the asset management group
1995 Became chief executive of BAE in Australia
1997 Given an OBE for services to exports
1998 Headed BAE’s customer support activities
2000 Joined Atkins as chief executive
2002 Left Atkins
2003 Appointed chief executive of AirTanker