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It's a wonderful life...

... that's the message that Roger Sainsbury, the new president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, intends to put across at every opportunity.

Graham Anderson reflects on his career and asks him what the future holds

LET'S get the vested interests out in the open straight away. Construction News has good reason to be grateful for the help it has received from Roger Sainsbury, the new president of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

Three years ago, in the wake of Sir Michael Latham's report on the industry, Constructing the Team, this newspaper decided to create a new set of awards - the Quality in Construction Awards.

They had the backing of the government and were intended to reflect the new, anti-dispute, Latham-inspired cultural values.

On the first team of judges was Mr Sainsbury. He has actively supported the awards ever since with his time and advice.

Now, I mention this not to give the awards extra publicity. They do not need it. But Mr Sainsbury's involvement did give me an insight into the man himself.

He has been courteous, correct, committed, precise and gives the impression of not suffering fools gladly. At the same time, he can be extremely supportive and positive. He rarely gets angry, but he does argue his corner with a tenacity that marks him clearly as someone not to get on the wrong side of.

Within construction he has a reputation of being one of the industry's intellectuals.

'I don't think I fit people's normal image of a contractor,' he says. 'I like to see myself as a thinking person.'

He is a big theatre fan, roams Europe when he gets the chance seeking out rare orchids to photograph and is active in his local church in north London.

His presidential address, delivered on Tuesday when he formally took over from former Amec chief Sir Alan Cockshaw as the ICE's new president, also did little to belie the intellectual, thoughtful image.

Apart from detailing some of the key projects in his career and waxing lyrical about the glories of working as a civil

engineer - his address is called 'Wonderful Life' - Mr Sainsbury wove in references to dramatist George Bernard Shaw, poets Pope and Tennyson; Mr Punch; and geologists Simon Morris and Charles Walcott.

Yet if this creates an impression of intellectual detachment from the hurley-burley of construction industry risk-taking, it is contradicted by much of Mr Sainsbury's career.

Not only is he an outspoken and enthusiastic advocate of civil engineering, he has been responsible for some of the key projects in recent UK construction history and was one of the earliest proponents of using private finance for public infrastructure.

An engineering graduate from Oxford, he started work with consultants Rendel Palmer and Tritton. But the bulk of his career was with contractor Mowlem.

Having successfully solved some extremely challenging engineering problems of a new deepwater jetty at Immingham on Humberside, he became project engineer, and later project director, on the NatWest Tower in the City of London.

At the end of that project - for which he and a colleague jointly won the 1979 Construction News Man of the Year Award - he became a director of Mowlem Building. In 1982 he became a main board director. He left the firm in 1995, since when he has given a lot of his time to the ICE.

While on Mowlem's main board he took particular responsibility for privately financed projects, such as Mowlem's bid to build an additional Dartford Crossing; the London City Airport and the Manchester Metro.

In the early 1980s this was near-revolutionary stuff. So will Mr Sainsbury be a revolutionary ICE president?

Such an approach, he insists, would be wrong: 'The institution is facing a lot of challenges but I think it is already showing a good and realistic attitude to meeting those challenges.

'I will be reminding people that, just over a year ago, the institution's council approved over 200 recommendations for reform put forward by the ICE President's Commission.

'That is a tremendous project we are already engaged in. Now while every president is tempted to make a mark, my view is that at present the ICE does not need bold presidential initiatives.

'It needs the agenda that has already been set to be delivered.'

All of which should mean that Roger Sainsbury has the time to focus firmly on the outside world.

It is an approach he warms to. 'I think the most important challenge the ICE faces is how to create a greater level of interaction between the membership and the institution centrally. I will be doing everything I can to support and strengthen the local associations.

'I will also be taking every opportunity, especially with younger audiences, to say what a wonderful life I have had as a civil engineer.

And to proclaim what a wonderful career civil engineering offers and what a service civil engineers gives to the world.'

The temptation for any president must be to make a grand gesture. Such a temptation must be even greater for a man whose career has been marked by attempts to change the status quo, to look for new ways of financing and building major projects.

But grand gestures have a habit of turning into hollow ones.

And with much of construction suffering a post-Egan, pre-recession crisis of confidence, what better time is there to go back to basics and remind society how badly it undervalues its civil engineers?