Was Alan Sugar right about engineers?

Lord Sugar's point that he's 'never come across an engineer that can turn his hand to business' was certainly harsh. But perhaps not entirely ridiculous.

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013
MT tries to give as little space as possible to anything to do with The Apprentice. But Lord Sugar’s assertion in this week’s episode (just as he was about to fire Glenn, arguably the least offensive person in the boardroom) that he’s ‘never come across an engineer that can turn his hand to business’ is worthy of some thought. After all, it’s the classic British conundrum: science whizz comes up with world-changing idea, patents it, then abjectly fails when it comes to raising capital/finding a way to manufacture it cost-effectively/spotting a route to market. Could Lord Sugar have had a point?

Obviously, we can think of a few people (Sirs James Dyson, John Rose and Robin Saxby, for example) who would have a thing or two to say about that comment. Indeed, as ASuitThatFits.com founder (and Aeronautical Engineering graduate) Warren Bennett says, ‘My background has certainly stood me in good stead. Engineering teaches you to think through problems logically without panicking. I can get a lot more done as a result.’

But, as MT discovered when it interviewed Reaction Engines’ Alan Bond for a feature on the British space industry for this month’s issue, the UK is rife with engineers whose business acumen leaves a lot to be desired. ‘I don’t think those skills are compatible.’ Bond explained that his company, in its early years made up solely of engineers, was in dire financial straits until it brought in a business-minded investor to go through the books. ‘I dread to think how much truly innovative material must have been lost in Britain because people don’t have the right skills to bring their idea to market,’ he said.

If that’s true, given the Government’s drum-beating for a ‘Made in Britain’-style manufacturing revival, surely something needs to be done to help engineers who are lacking in business nous?

The solution, suggested Bond, lies in finding a way to bring those with a business background together with those in the engineering field. Take Rolls Royce: founded by Henry Royce and Charles Rolls, ‘a combination of an engineer and an extremely astute and wealthy businessman’. Or even Avanti, a satellite communications firm founded by an engineer and a banker, which, five years after launch, turns over almost £6m. In other words, as Phil Levermore, British Gas engineer-turned-social entrepreneur, pointed out, it’s all about teamwork. ‘To make a successful venture, you need a group of people with a complimentary set of skills’. The challenge, though, lies in finding a way to bring those dream teams together.

But while it’s tough, it’s vital we get engineers’ ideas moving from the garden shed to the marketplace. And it’s not just the engineers who need the help: as Sugar discovered, these things work both ways. You could argue that, had he employed decent engineers in the first place, the Amstrad E-m@iler might not have been such a flop...

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