50th Anniversary: Allen Leatt Q&A

50 Aston Greats: Allen Leatt

Allen Leatt

Allen Leatt graduated from Aston in 1977 with a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering. He is the Senior VP of Engineering and Project Management at Subsea 7, a leading engineering and construction company in the offshore oil and gas industry. He has extensive international experience in management and executive positions in both oilfield construction services and product manufacturing. He is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

How did you first become involved with Aston University?

I must say that I was absolutely thrilled to be awarded a place at Aston in 1973. Like most of my peers at that time, I was a first-generation university student, meaning that I was the first member my family to go to university; which I accepted as a huge privilege and by no means given as a right. Even after 40-odd years I can still feel the excitement of that time when I was given a wonderful opportunity to go to Aston University.

At that time the UK was enjoying a high level of infrastructure development and civil engineering was prominent in the investment thesis. Likewise Aston had a large engineering department that was prominent in that space, and I wanted to be part of it. 

What do you think is Aston's greatest achievement?

From my perspective, I think the business engagement strategies and connection the University has forged with industry is very impressive. This is not an easy endeavour; industrial organisations are difficult to please and it takes a lot of rigour to establish the right linkages and formula so that all parties, the university, company and student, get something good and worthwhile from the experience. The development of the sandwich course format has been hugely successful and I count myself as fortunate to have been a product of that design. 

What has your experience at Aston given you personally?

Aston gave me a chance, and once I had that I knew I would not let them or myself down. In that respect, Aston started my career and allowed me to make future choices in professional direction. I suspect that not many other universities or polytechnics at that time would have done that so emphatically; since Aston’s pragmatic approach emphasised a blend of intellectual, technical, and commercial thinking which is so popular with industry.

What is your fondest Aston memory?

This may seem a strange answer, but actually it was graduating from the University. My parents joined me and it was a proud moment, and the right thing had been done. Ten years later, I did an MBA at another first class university, but didn’t even make the time to attend the graduation ceremony; so fondness is the right question.

What is the best advice you can give today's graduates?

The overwhelming attribute I look for in our graduates is the right professional attitude. Of course this cannot be simple cheer leading - high levels of intellectual enquiry, organisational competence and rigour needs to underpin the attitudinal characteristics. Industry, and I don’t limit this definition to engineering, needs graduates who can think in a technical way but with a strong commercial bias. Aston has a canny way of delivering in this regard.

Tell me a little bit more about your career

When I graduated from Aston, I joined a main stream engineering contractor called John Laing Construction and I was fortunate to be in their marine construction sector working with ships and barges which gave me a taste of offshore activities. When I became a chartered engineer I moved to North Sea oil and gas business. After that the industry took a down turn, as it does from time to time, and I went off and completed an MBA and returned into the same industry 

I joined Stolt Offshore in 2003, when the industry and the company was in pretty bad state.  I joined as part of a new management team and we were fortunate in that the market turned and we managed to turn things around. A few years later we merged with Subsea 7 and took its name. It is now a company with a 4 billion pound annual turnover. 

It’s a pretty big player and a pretty big niche in the market and my role here is heading up the engineering product management function which is the biggest in the company. We engineer things and we construct them on the sea bed, out of sight, underwater, all over the world.  We are in all the places that where you need to be if you are in our business, the North Sea is important to us, as well as the Gulf of Mexico, West Africa, Brazil and Asia - which is half the world! We are in the high end of things, we have a large fleet of ships, 2000 engineers, so it’s quite a significant enterprise. The oil business is largely unknown to those outside of it and there are many many market segments within the industry which often people just don’t know about. They are not well published. 

I have been fortunate in looking after businesses in the construction side, the services side, the building side, meeting manufacturing clients, manufacturing plants, under water robots, and all sorts of other products that we put on the sea bed. I’ve worked or been heavily involved in all those countries that we are located in. So I began in civil engineering and moved to the oil and gas industry, which has been a pretty seamless move. 

What are the challenges that come with working in a subsea environment?

We operate in deep water in often harsh environments. Any part of the North Sea is not so easy, weather is an important factor in the management of those projects. 

We have big ships and we have well trained people. As in all industries, you learn the hard way and learn what works and what doesn’t work.  It is very commericalised now. We will do billion pound projects around the world on a lump sum basis; we have that level of confidence and ability to manage that level of risk.