50th Anniversary: Dr Nelson Ogunshakin Q&A

50 Aston Greats: Dr Nelson Ogunshakin

Dr Nelson Ogunshakin, OBE

Dr Nelson Ogunshakin, OBE, is Chief Executive of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE). Since graduating from Aston in 1985 with a BSc (Hons) in Civil Engineering, he obtained a Master Degree in Construction & Programme Management at the University of Birmingham. He has gained over 30 years’ experience in the construction and engineering industries and today holds a number of Executive and Non-Executive Board positions. In 1994 he completed an MBA at Aston Business School, and in 2011 was the recipient of an Honorary DSc from Aston, recognising his outstanding services to construction and engineering, both in the UK and abroad.

What made you choose Aston as an undergraduate?

When I came to the UK from Nigeria I wanted a course that I could enjoy and I loved the programme that Aston put together - it was well structured and well rounded; strong on the engineering side but complemented by pragmatic learning processes and the ability to interface with companies. On graduation and after taking up full-time employment, I noticed that I was ahead a lot of my colleagues who went to other universities because of the industrial experiences I gained during my first degree at Aston. I recognised that Aston had given me a competitive advantage.

Although I was not one of the top students on graduation, I knew that Aston had provided me with a fantastic platform on which to launch my career. On leaving I had already secured a job with one of the biggest construction companies based in Wolverhampton – Carillon Construction plc. [previously known as Tarmac]. It was fantastic to have that feeling that the University had credibility and we were being tutored by people who knew their stuff.

Where did your career take you after Carillion (Tarmac)?

I spent a further three years with Carillion, and then moved to Warwickshire County Council where I became a transport planner. After that I had the privilege of securing a job with one of the oldest companies in the UK, High-Point Rendel Group plc. [previously known as Rendel Palmer & Tritton]. Shortly after my arrival there I was involved in a major commission to design and build a new motorway around Birmingham that also included the M6 toll. I became very involved with the design of that project and this gave me a fantastic insight into infrastructure planning. In total I spent 14 years with the company, working in a variety of positions in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Canada, Egypt, Africa and Europe.

What made you come back to Aston to do an MBA?

Having gained significant experience in engineering and construction management, I acknowledged that I needed to develop business management skills. Around the same time I was being head-hunted by a competitor company based in London. When I tendered my resignation the company came back to me and said: “We don’t want you to leave. We know that you are very ambitious and we will support you to gain the tools that you need for your future development”. They supported me to obtain an MBA, but there were two conditions I had to agree to. I had to do the MBA in the Midlands as they wanted me to maintain relationships with all of my clients, and I also had to stay with them for a further two years. I looked at the prospectus for Warwick, Birmingham University and Aston and it was a no-brainer: I chose Aston. I feel blessed to have been given an OBE by the Queen for my contribution to the consultancy and engineering profession, and, looking back, it all stemmed from my Aston days. In my industry, understanding engineering, finance, people and international markets are all important and these are skills that I developed at Aston.

What is your fondest Aston memory?

The fact that I was in an environment that was interactive and engaging. It’s important when you are in a learning establishment that you have a good rapport with your tutors. That was fantastic for my first degree and it gave me immeasurable help. During the period I was studying for my MBA the fondest moments I had were the interactions with people from different parts of the world, and as a result I learned a lot about cultural differences in international business. Aston gave me that understanding of the cultural environment, and I still network with all of those people around the world.

What do you think makes Aston special and distinctive?

Many Aston graduates secure employment quicker than other universities and I was a living example of that. I was rooted in the industrial heartland and I had a job secured before my results came out and they became secondary in significance because the company knew the discipline that had been instilled in me at Aston. The ability to do things properly has been the foundation for my success. 

When I look back, I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to be at Aston. My background was one where I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. It is not money that drives me but the contribution I can make to society. I now work with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury; Rt Hon Danny Alexander MP on the whole of the UK infrastructure plan. In this role I act to facilitate the two-way conversation between representatives of the various sectors involved in the development, delivery and operation of infrastructure and government. Through this vital work I have real influence over the formation of policy, the identification of issues and the development of solutions to ensure the UK has the infrastructure it needs to compete in the global economy. 

Studying and gaining my degree at Aston has allowed me to do these things. It has helped me to transcend geographical and cultural boundaries and to understand the mix between the technical solution, the business environment, and the need to bring money to the table to deliver social and economic benefit.

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

Being an engineer, I have to speak in engineering language. Aston gives you a set of items for your long-term toolbox which you need to build on as you go along because the learning process does not stop at university. So my advice is: come to Aston University and then connect it through to your industry - meet people from different backgrounds and learn the tools of your profession. The ability to build on that comes down to you as an individual.