Sir Alan Cockshaw spent his early career in both the public and private sectors, having attended Farnworth Grammar School and then the Univeristy of Leeds on a scholarship, where he read Civil Engineering.
After graduation from Leeds University, Sir Alan worked initially as a design engineer in Manchester, before moving down to the Midlands to work on the construction of the new M5 motorway – this combination of understanding both the design and construction has always been important in the development of Civil Engineers. He then moved back up to the North West to work on the design of bridges for the rapidly developing motorway network.
In 1973-74 Sir Alan joined Fairclough Civil Engineering in Adlington, to get back on to site again, and became progressively responsible for a wide range of projects of increasing size and complexity. These included the Brenig and Kielder Dams, two of the largest in the UK and many highway, railway and water related projects. First becoming a very junior Director, Sir Alan became Managing Director of the Northern Division three years later, and finally Chief Executive worldwide for the civil engineering company in 1978.
After the merger of the Fairclough and Press Groups to create AMEC in 1982, he was appointed Chief Executive of the combined group in 1984, and Chairman in 1988. The business grew – partly by the acquisition of such companies as the Matthew Hall Group – to employ over 27,000 people worldwide, working on projects of growing magnitude and intricacy. The group became the major British designer and constructor of offshore oil platforms and the comprehensive servicing of them, in the North Sea and other parts of the world. The company’s involvement in airports, railways, highways and broader built environment activities developed simultaneously in that same period. There were many noteworthy projects including the new airport in Hong Kong, the Jubilee Line in the London Underground System and partnerships in the USA, Australia and mainland Europe.
Of many fascinatings experiences in his time as Chairman and CEO of the group, at least two are worth a mention. Following the first Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the British Government and others were very concerned at the potential destruction of the country’s infrastructure, especially in oil and gas. Sir Alan, with a number of other business leaders, was asked to meet the Kuwaiti government in exile in Ta’if, not far from Jeddah, to see what Britain might do to rebuild the country. Subsequently, the company was commissioned to help re-establish the oil wells, deliberately burned during the invasion by the Iraqis. Only two days after the fighting had officially ended, Sir Alan and colleagues were flown into Kuwait by the RAF. Almost everything had been abandoned: the British Ambassador had been forced to leave, and the Embassy had been seriously damaged. The Army drove them in armoured cars to the Embassy, forced their way inside and then cooked fish and chips for the group; the Ambassador managed to find a bottle of whisky and together they toasted the Queen.
Back in the UK, as he was approaching retirement, Sir Alan was asked by the Government to join the board overseeing the Millennium Dome to help ensure its timely completion. Both the Dome and the Jubilee Line were completed in good time for the start of the new century, and board members were invited to attend the official opening on 31st December 1999. London was completely gridlocked that night but Sir Alan and his wife, Lady Brenda, travelled to the event on the Royal Barge departing from the Tower of London, so they didn’t have any problems with congestion and could not understand what all the fuss was about over the next few days! However, returning into the centre of London was somewhat more protracted, partly by train and partly on foot.
AMEC worked on a huge range of engineering projects during Sir Alan’s time with the firm, responsible for building and installing oil platforms in the North Sea and elsewhere, as well as gas fields and bridges all over the world and the construction of much of Manchester, Heathrow, Gatwick, Charles de Gaulle and JFK airports. The last major project in which he was directly involved was the construction of Hong Kong airport.
As Chairman of AMEC, Sir Alan also established an extremely effective, strategic relationship with Manchester City Council, working in partnership to deliver the Hulme Initiative – a huge urban renewal programme. Following the IRA bombing of Manchester in 1996, Sir Alan was the natural choice to chair the board responsible for the reconstruction of the City Centre, eventually becoming Chairman of New East Manchester; he subsequently worked on behalf of the Government to establish urban regeneration companies in Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield as Chairman of English Partnerships.
In 1992, 37 years after he had finished his Grammar School education, Sir Alan was knighted by Her Majesty the Queen for services to industry and commerce. In 1997, he retired as Chairman of AMEC and became President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, the oldest institution of its kind in the world. Sir Alan spent his year travelling the world, visiting countries, especially in South East Asia, that he believed would be important to the global economy in the future and speaking to university students and fellow engineers.
Sir Alan joined the Governing Body at Bolton School in 1991 and became Chairman in 1997. He met his wife, Lady Brenda, 60 years ago and currently, two of their grandsons attend Bolton School.
You joined the Governing Body at Bolton School after retiring from AMEC as CEO and Chairman in 1997. You must have had hundreds of requests to join Trustee boards all over the country – why did you decide to join Bolton School’s Governing Body?
Our three daughters, Catherine, Sally and Elizabeth, all attended the Girls’ Division, and as a result my wife and I grew to know the School well, particularly the Headmistress, much more than the Headmaster. After the girls had left School, the 3rd Viscount Leverhulme met with me and asked me to join the Governing Body. At the time it didn’t seem appropriate to do so whilst the girls were pupils, but after they had left, and I had seen what the School had done for them, I felt that it was something I could do to give back, so I agreed with pleasure.
It was Lord Haslam (Boys’ Division 1934-1941 and Chairman of Governors 1990-1997) who then later persuaded me to take over from him as Chairman of the Governing Body. As Chairman of both British Coal and British Steel, I had known him well from a business perspective, but as someone who also came from Bolton, we had become good friends.
When you joined our Governing Body, what did you see as the School’s main challenges?
When I became Chairman of the Governors, I felt that the biggest challenge facing the School was deciding strategically where it needed to be in the next 10-20 years and then planning to make sure that the institution was equipped sufficiently well to deal with that future. We posed these questions to the academic experts and leaders within School, asking them to consider what facilities would be needed to achieve their long term aims. The Governing Body then worked collaboratively to ascertain the best way of affording and realising these ambitions – it became clear that we would need to raise funds externally to make all the developments possible. We asked a consultant with whom I had worked on the master plan for Manchester City Centre to look at a masterplan for the School’s long-term development, which was the foundation of the work so recently completed.
The second big challenge I felt we faced was that the School had been operating as three individual, constituent parts and it was very important indeed if the long term strategies were to be achieved that everyone worked very closely together. Instead of having Boys’ and Girls’ individual committees we set up the joint Executive Committee, which comprised the Heads, the Clerk and Treasurer and an Executive Governor, in place of these two committees. The Executive Committee worked to plan what needed to be done at an operational level, so that the Governing Body could subsequently debate their recommendations, leaving the Governors free to work more strategically and plan for the School’s future.
What did you enjoy most about your role as Chairman of Governors here?
I thoroughly enjoyed my time as Chairman of Governors, as I was working with some outstanding people, all of whom had very different skill sets but were all open to looking ahead. I found in my professional life that, when running a large organisation, the secret to success is to know what you are good at, and then to surround yourself with people who are good at everything else, and I think that the School has been very lucky to have successive sets of Governors who use their respective skills to drive the development of the School.
Are there any standout moments that you recall particularly vividly or fondly as Chairman?
As Chairman of Governors, I enjoyed seeing the School flourish. Every year, I watched the pupils receive their awards at Presentation Evening and I would think to myself that their achievements could never be matched in the future, but then the following year there would be another equally fantastic set of young people completing their School careers. It was clearly evident what the School had done for them.
I always felt that it was the School’s job to enable each pupil to reach their best potential, and we did our best to achieve that. Not every child is necessarily academically gifted, but the School’s programme of extra-curricular activities means that everyone can find something they enjoyed, whether it is in the arts, music or sport.
We believe Bolton School is one of the great Schools of the North – would you agree with this? What do you think makes Bolton School so special? What sets it apart from other Schools?
I would agree wholeheartedly. The School can be judged principally by the young people that come out of it and the amazing things they’ve done. What happens to our pupils once they leave the School is our ultimate test – and we pass: our Alumni have made a huge contribution to society and to the world at large.
As we celebrate 100 years of the Bolton School foundation, what do you see as School’s biggest challenge over the next decade?
The School needs to ensure that it continues to attract a good balance of young people, not just so that its numbers are maintained, but to ensure that it maintains a socially diverse mix of children from all backgrounds, all of whom are important for one another’s development. This has always been a challenge for the School, and will, I’m sure, remain so.
Given your wealth of experience and success, what career advice would you give to Bolton School pupils today?
My principle piece of advice would be that pupils should not to take too narrow a view of their future career options. It is perhaps easier to decide to study a traditionally vocational subject, such as Medicine or Law, as they are attractive careers with established and structured career routes, but I would implore today’s students to open their minds to all possibilities. Nowadays, students need to realise that the subject they study at university may not form the basis of their chosen profession forever. Your time at school and university forms the foundation for your life, which allows you to build your career, so I would urge pupils not to think too narrowly.
What do you think about Bolton School’s 100 Campaign aim to re-establish genuine open access through its Bursary Fund?
I believe that the School’s aim to widen access to the School so that eventually, one in three pupils will receive a bursary place, is wholly correct. The School needs a balanced pupil community, which benefits from the contributions their families can make to that community: an elitist group of pupils drawn solely from wealthy families will be ultimately detrimental to the spirit of the School.
I would never have been able to attend university if I hadn’t attended a Grammar School with a free place, and then received a scholarship for my university studies. I feel that bursaries are key, not only for the School, but for society at large: if every child had the benefit of a Bolton School education, it would be a different world.