Posts Tagged ‘Engineering and Technology magazine’

Nick Smith in conversation with record producer John Leckie – E&T magazine, November 2011

November 28, 2011

Man at the controls

John Leckie is one of the UK’s most successful record producers. His CV reads like a who’s who of rock’n’roll. Here, he reflects on the technological changes he’s seen in the recording studio over the years. Interview and portrait by Nick Smith

E&T layout. John Leckie interview by Nick Smith

How the article appeared in E&T magazine, November 2011

From Pink Floyd to Simple Minds, John Lennon to Muse, Public Image Limited to XTC, John Leckie has produced or engineered records for everyone who’s anyone in rock’n’roll. He’s picked up countless awards and accolades along the way and has been inducted into the Record Producers Hall of Fame by legendary guitarist and no stranger to the faders, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page.

He has also seen just about every technological change to happen in the way music is recorded. And with every change he’s adapted and evolved, finding new ways to exploit emerging trends in both analogue and digital production. Leckie says that these days he doesn’t do interviews about his experiences with A-list clients. So when it comes to finding out more about what it’s like to work with the Stone Roses or Radiohead, ‘I’ve said everything I want to say.’

Fortunately, he’s not so reticent about the buttons, rotary potentiometers and faders that have been his stock-in-trade for more than four decades. Sitting in one of the demonstration suites in Solid State Logic’s headquarters just north of Oxford, he seems more than happy to chat about how all that’s changed.

Record producer John Leckie at Solid State Logic. Photo: Nick Smith

John Leckie in the control room at Solid State Logic's demo studios in Begbroke, Oxford. Photo: Nick Smith

‘I’ve been at this for 42 years, I think. I started at Abbey Road studios 15th February 1970.’ Although this date is clearly one burned into his memory, to understand the technological landscape he entered as one of EMI’s first hippie employees (‘I only got the job because I had long hair’) we need to go back a few years further. At school, he ‘managed to get’ A-Levels in physics and geography (he was ‘useless’ at maths), before progressing to Ravensbourne College of Art in Bromley (where a young David Bowie did his foundation course.)

‘They’d bought four black and white TV cameras from Associated-Rediffusion that had just closed down. There were two courses running: an arts side, and I suppose a science side. The science people got in as technical operators and the others became producer/directors. My training there was setting up a 4-camera TV studio, doing all the maintenance. This was all tube and valve equipment.’

By 1968 Leckie was writing a thesis on electronic music. ‘I was always mad keen on Moog synthesizers, or anything that was a new sound.’ Finding that there were very few books on the subject, Leckie copied notes from the back of Stockhausen sleeves. His thesis eventually covered all aspects of electronic music, from the design of oscillators and filters, to an appreciation of classical electronic music, taking in Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix along the way.

After a brief stint with a film company in a dubbing theatre, making industrial training films for Shell BP, it was time to move on. Unable to gain membership of the film union, the 19-year-old was stuck. Leckie wrote to all the big recording studios in London: EMI, Decca, ICP and Olympic. Only EMI replied, offering him an interview, and a few month’s later the lowly position of ‘Tape-Op.’

When Leckie arrived at Abbey Road the set-up was based on 3M 8-track one-inch tape machines with the legendary analogue TG consoles running them. In terms of ‘outboard’ – separate sound processing devices connected to the desk – there were only ‘a few Altec compressors and Fairchild limiters. Microphones were by Neumann. I never saw a single Shure microphone, either an SM57 or 58, until I left Abbey Road.’

At that time, audio recording was a scientific process, and although EMI engineers had long given up the habit of wearing white coats, they still had clearly delineated roles, with job titles often containing the word ‘engineer.’ Leckie remembers a strict regime. ‘Basically a Tape-Op’s job was to run the tape machine. Which was important because if you left the tape room, the session finished. But you didn’t set-up the studio. The Amp Room guys, who plugged everything in and did all the line testing, did that. The Balance Engineer did the session sheet, which was the layout for the orchestra and a mic list.’ Some of these layout sheets still exist, including those for Beatles’ sessions. Everything at this point was analogue: ‘we simply couldn’t dream of anything else.’

John Leckie at the controls, Solid State Logic. Photo: Nick Smith

John Leckie at the controls, Solid State Logic. Check out the old-style record player in the background. Photo: Nick Smith

Towards the end of his eight-year stint at Abbey Road, Leckie started to notice digital technology creeping into the mix. ‘It happened very slowly at first,’ most obviously in the form of Solid State Logic’s inroads into computerized recording desks (‘We were blown away by the SSL computer being able to print out the channel lists.’) But what the integration of computers into the process really meant was greater control over the faders and cut-buttons on mix-down. ‘That was the prime thing.’ Change was rapid: mixing desks had gone from 4-track to 16-track – the ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ desk was ‘considered huge’ – in the blink of an eye. With the 24-track desk on the horizon, EMI simply couldn’t provide the technology to its global network of studios. The market erupted and the door was left wide open for a new generation of manufacturers such as Neve and SSL.

Times they are a-changin’

Two major technological changes affected Leckie most as a producer. The first was simply the availability of more tracks to work with. To have a 24-track machine and to be able to slave together two of these ‘easily and reliably to produce 48-tracks was a big breakthrough.’ This was market driven. Everyone knew this was coming, says Leckie. ‘When you were 8-track you always wanted nine. When you were 16-track you always wanted 17. And when you were 24, you always wanted 25 tracks. And so one of the turning points was access to more tracks. There’s always one more overdub, one more harmony.’

This expansion was a two-edge sword, because ‘the fewer the tracks, the simpler it all was. And if you look at today, when there are an infinite number of tracks available, it’s all a bit silly. But at the time, up until the arrival of Pro Tools, this was the norm. It was a very complex system. But it was all you had.’

The second revolution was the advent of digital. ‘When I look at the big picture it’s strange really because in the 1960s and 70s, and even the 80s, there used to be an area of recording that was called ‘semi-pro’ – essentially ‘demo’ equipment and studios, where equipment was by manufacturers such as Tascam, Teac, Fostex, Akai… people like that. I’ve got nothing against this, but they weren’t professional. They weren’t Studer, Neumann, SSL or Neve.’ But somehow over the years that distinction became blurred, ‘because now you can have a pro recording studio in your bedroom.’

Did this frighten Leckie at all? ‘At first I stood aloof from this in the way a professional photographer with his Hasselblad would frown at taking pictures on an iPhone [Our portrait of JL was taken with a professional Canon 5D MkII – ed]. But it’s the end result that counts. If a recording sounds good on the radio, it doesn’t matter if it was recorded at Air Studios or in someone’s bedroom.’

‘The other thing that’s changed,’ says Leckie, ‘is the way people listen to music.’ In the 1970s consumers were proud of their hi-fi systems. ‘I can remember inviting friends around to listen. It was, hey, let’s go around to John’s house and listen to the new Pink Floyd record there because he’s got great speakers.’

Record producer John Leckie, October 2011. Portrait by Nick Smith

Record producer John Leckie, October 2011. Portrait by Nick Smith

But it’s not like that any more, according to Leckie, due to the rarity of hi-fi retailers promoting their products on the basis of audio quality. ‘There doesn’t seem to be the stimulus for people to listen on good speakers. Everyone listens on laptops, mobile phones, MP3 players. And, more people listen on headphones now.’ Does this cultural change in listening affect the way Leckie makes records today? ‘It should. But it doesn’t. I don’t mix records on iPod headphones.’

Making records

Leckie recalls that one of the main challenges of mixing for vinyl was the time limitation imposed by the format. In essence, the 33rpm ‘long player’ was a compromise format developed to allow record publishers to get an entire symphony onto one piece of plastic, allowing 22 minutes per side. This became the marker for modern musicians making LPs.

‘The problem was that there was always a fight to get more onto the record. If you had 26 or 28 minutes that you needed to get onto one side, then the level dropped. In other words, the challenge was to make the record sound loud.’

With the advent of the CD all this changed. Faced with potentially 80 minutes of uncompressed audio on one disc, recordings expanded to fit the space available. The resulting bonus tracks, disco remixes and various other filler did much to dilute the experience of listening to a conventional ‘album.’

‘That wasn’t really anything to do with the bands themselves,’ says Leckie. ‘It was more to do with the record companies asking for albums with 20 tracks on them.’ Every time a band went into the studio in the early days of CD, they were under pressure to record material of a length similar to the (much more rare) double studio album. ‘And for a while we lost the sense of a band making an album, as such.’

Was this a case of technology leading the creative process by the nose? Does Leckie miss the idea of deliberately sitting down with a band and making an LP-length record? ‘I still do that, actually. That’s what I aim for… to make a 10 or 12 track album.’

Artists in the house

Although we’re not here to talk about the household names that Leckie has produced, there comes a point where it’s impossible to go forward without discussing the human factor. Anyone who has even a passing interest in mainstream rock music in the 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond will recognise the importance of Leckie’s work. But presumably, not all bands work the same way, and so I ask Leckie what happens creatively in between Day 1 and Day 30, from the band walking into the studio with an idea, to them walking out with a hit record. How much of a role does the producer play in the creative side?

At this point Leckie smiles knowingly before bursting into laughter. ‘You have to put in a lot of commitment. And the band has to be up for it. Very often records get difficult or even remain unfinished if one member of the band doesn’t really want to do it.’

But the key is to start off positive and keep the ball rolling. ‘I very often say that a producer is the person who says something when the music stops. Invariably in the studio, the band’s going to play, or the singer’s going to sing, and you come to the end of the track. And there’s going to be silence. Everyone’s going to look around, waiting for someone to say something. And the person who speaks is the producer. Very often that’s the hardest part of the job.’

In amongst the monitors. John Leckie in classic 'producer pose', leaning on those NS10s

In amongst the monitors. John Leckie in classic 'producer pose', leaning on those NS10s. Photo: Nick Smith

When it comes to disclosing details of his client-base Leckie is discreet and diplomatic. Reading between the lines, there appears to be different levels of professionalism from band to band. ‘Of course, some need more encouragement and help than others,’ says Leckie. I ask him what were the best bands to work with: who are the ones that just walk in and nail it, when it seems like sitting on the riverbank with the fish jumping into your net? Leckie laughs again. ‘None of them. None of them are like that. But XTC are the most musical, imaginative, creative band you can get. They’re the funniest and the most serious, and the most rock’n’roll. Except they’re not rock’n’roll. They’re the ones that just get on and do it and the end result would be great. Whether it would be a hit or not…’

Back into the future

Having reflected on the pre-digital days and the key revolution of the increase in channel capacity, the discussion turns to the future. Once there were 120 recording studios in London. But now there are only three places where you can record a full orchestra. Despite SSL shipping big consoles in healthy numbers, the market for audio technology is changing and things are getting smaller.

But, Leckie thinks that all musicians aspire to working in big studios, recording their music on ‘big equipment with plenty of knobs and buttons, working on tape and hearing their creation reverberating around in a professional environment. On the other hand the future is going to be, for the most part, digital and miniature. We’re going to have mixing desks on iPad. All your plug-ins and software will be in the Cloud somewhere. The iPad will change a lot of things.’

Which is a long way from Abbey Road four decades ago, sweltering over all those valves. Does John Leckie feel his was a privileged journey, or would he like to start all over again and just work in the digital domain? ‘It’s been a great privilege. I’m really pleased I’m not starting now. I became a producer through the engineering route and these days that would be a very difficult thing to do.’

The author wishes to thank Niall Feldman of Solid State Logic for the generous loan of his recording studio demo suite in Oxford, where the interview took place

Nick Smith interviews American philanthropist Greg Carr in E&T issue one, 2011

February 7, 2011

Bringing new life to Mozambique

A main player of the voice mail revolution, legendary American CEO Greg Carr amassed a colossal personal fortune. But then he turned his back on the business of technology to become a humanitarian. Interview layout

‘If you want to get anything done here you’ve got to stop thinking like an American CEO’ says Greg Carr, looking out over a small car park where field scientists, engineers and biologists are packing up their Land Rovers in the early morning African sun.

We’re sitting in the bar of Chitengo lodge, drinking iced-tea, while the soft hum of insects and the purple glow of neatly trimmed bougainvillea make this a pleasant place to be. ‘See the swimming pool over there?’ he says pointing through a stand of acacia trees where weaverbirds are busily building their nests. ‘That used to be a prison during the Civil War.’

Carr was one of the most influential American CEOs during the digital technology revolution of the 1980s. And the rewards were substantial as he amassed a colossal personal fortune. But here in the middle of Mozambique – the world’s poorest country – he has no Croesus-like delusions of grandeur, while pioneering telecommunications is a world away. There are no power trips, status symbols or trivial luxury. ‘If you look at the organisation chart, you’ll see I’m not even the boss’ he says, before explaining that what he does now, in partnership with the Government of Mozambique, this is his most rewarding challenge to date.

And it’s made him a national hero. Having once made a living from hacking through the lianas and creepers of the corporate jungle, he’s now dedicated his professional life to restoring a real jungle – Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park. His aim is to return to Mozambique its ‘crown jewel’ in pristine condition, and in doing so provide sustainable employment, education and health for local people whose economy has been destroyed by civil war. Understandably, for the village people of this rarely visited country his new career is far more important.

Well known for his championing of humanitarian causes, Carr has signed a deal with the government in a ‘classic public private partnership’ that sees US$40 million of his own money ploughed straight into the project. Both parties hope that in 20 years time the Park will be a self-sufficient business that will put much needed economic activity into the country’s tourism sector with benefits for all. With the project still in its early phases, local people living around the Park have started to benefit from Carr’s corporate acumen. They now have jobs. And Carr has helped provide the local village of Vinho with water pumps, medical facilities and a school. But it’s only the start. ‘We need 750 medical centres’, he says referring to the other villages surrounding the National Park.

Carr is best known in the world of digital communications as one of the protagonists in the emergence of voice mail, a technology that informs so much of our everyday business and social lives that, as with other basics such as email, we never really stop to consider the engineering behind it. But the story goes that, inspired by the breakup of AT&T, he founded Boston Technology, one of the earliest organisations to market voice mail systems to telephone companies. Carr served as the chair of Boston until Comverse Technology bought it out. He went on to become chair of Prodigy, an early global Internet service provider.

These were good breaks for Carr and by 1998 he retired from ‘for-profit’ business an extraordinarily wealthy man and made entrepreneurial philanthropy his full-time job. Today he spends half of his life in Mozambique, and as he describes his new job it’s clear that, while success in the world of digital technology was a major milestone in his career, it’s what comes after financial success that really matters. ‘I’m a human rights guy’ he says just in case you might be thinking he’s still a hotshot CEO. What you really have to do is listen to what the people want. So what did they want? ‘Bicycles’ he says. That was the most important thing for almost everyone. As the employees took home their first wage packets from the restored Chitengo Lodge, most of them invested in a set of wheels. It changed their lives.

In the 1960s Chitengo was a hip hangout for cool and trendy (and very rich) South Africans who wanted to go into the bush to see elephants and lions at close range. Businessmen in their smart new Mercedes-Benzes drove up in, well droves, to visit a National Park that had arguably the densest population of mega fauna – lions, elephants, wildebeest – that Africa had ever seen.

But when the Civil War rolled in, Chitengo became popular for a different reason. Strategically placed on the Beira Corridor that links the Indian Ocean seaboard with Zimbabwe, it was also the only brick-built permanent settlement for miles around. The competing political factions Renamo and Frelimo were fighting one of the bloodiest battles seen in this part of Africa. They both wanted Chitengo as a military stronghold. Before long, or so it seemed, all the animals were dead and Chitengo was just another war-blasted ghost town. Meanwhile the war killed a million humans.

There’s still plenty of evidence of the war today. As Carr and I walk around the lodge he shows me bullet holes in the walls and gates, grenade damage to the water towers, while the path we take to the ferry to the nearest village Vinho threads its way through a cleared minefield. Cleared or not, you don’t stray from the path – just outside the chicken-wire fence enclosing the compound there’s a post close to buildings that were once used for interrogation. It’s riddled with head-height bullet holes.

But the mission the Carr Foundation is not one of a truth and reconciliation committee; rather it is to restore the park to its pre-war glory. The theory is simple: Get the land in shape and the animals will come back. Get the animals back and the tourists will come back too. Tourism brings money and the money, if fed properly into local communities, will bring health, education and employment. Or as Carr says: ‘sustainable economic development.’

For the visitor the most pressing question is that of where the animals have gone. Although there are lions and elephants today they’re present in nothing like their former numbers. ‘There have been two wars – civil conflicts – here in Mozambique in recent times’ says Carr. ‘The first, the War of Independence, didn’t affect the ecosystem that much. Mozambique got its independence from Portugal in 1974. And so the National Park in the late Seventies was in good shape.’ But then followed a civil war between the resistance movement Renamo and the liberation movement Frelimo. ‘That really got going in the Eighties, and there were battles fought here at Chitengo, and it changed hands a couple of times. The camp was shut down to tourism as it was occupied by the militia.’ He tells me of a local ranger working at one of the local who was held prisoner in that swimming pool.

It’s easy to imagine the scenario. Two factions competing for a place where the main military benefits were the occupation of permanent buildings and unlimited bush meat to feed the soldiers. While there’s no doubt Chitengo became a flashpoint because of the protection it gave, the bush meat issue is more complex. ‘The real carnage came at the end of the war’ says Carr. ‘This was when professional hunters saw an opportunity and raced in here with weapons and vehicles. There was a massive slaughter and they wiped out the buffalo and sold the meat. It took us a while to figure that out, because we just thought that the soldiers had eaten the animals. But it was more of an organised commercial activity than that. It’s true that ivory was being taken into South Africa and being traded for guns, but the problem was the commercial hunting.’ Carr says that when he first came to Mozambique he was told there were no elephants in the park. ‘But in fact there were 300 in hiding, and now we think there are 400.’

This was all a far cry from the heyday of the Sixties when, according to Carr ‘this was paradise and tourists were coming from all over the world and people loved it.’ But something else was going on at that time too: with so many tourists coming to Gorongosa, the National Park was also was also the economic engine of Mozambique. ‘I’m a big believer that if you do it right, National Parks can protect nature and create a lot of jobs. Good jobs too, because what does it take to run a national park? It takes a lot of knowledge. So you need scientists, biologists, engineers with certain skills, service industry people and guides.’

But it’s not always been done right. National Parks don’t have a good reputation for protecting human rights. In the bad old days it was like this: phase one, let’s have a National Park, if you’re not an animal please leave. But, says Carr, at Gorongosa ‘we have a rights-based philosophy, and that’s the new way of thinking.’ But not new for Carr, who’s always been more interested in human rights than making money in the business sector. ‘I was a human rights activist before coming here – I created a human rights centre at Harvard University and my philanthropy was based on human rights too. When I came to Mozambique to choose a humanitarian project I thought that restoring Gorongosa was a great opportunity for helping people.’

But when Carr arrived in 2004 post-war Mozambique was a wasteland. He waves his arm around as he surveys Chitengo: ‘everything you see here was rubble. I didn’t even know that there was a swimming pool here for the first year because the grass swamped everything. It was so overgrown it was difficult to find what used to be the flow of human beings here.’ He says that when he took his first game drive around the region he simply didn’t see any animals. ‘Maybe you’d see a warthog. Maybe you’d see a baboon. But you could drive for days and not see any animals. But, it turns out that they were hiding, because all of the human activity that had been going on had been bad news. But animals are smart and they do figure out who’s who.’

Within a few years the wildlife ‘started to calm down as they realised that nobody was shooting at them.’ And part of the success story of Gorongosa is that, as it is an unfenced park, animals can make their way back whenever they want to, while the Park authorities reinvigorate their protection. ‘Today if you’re lucky you’ll see elephants and lions, impala and magnificent birdlife.’ He’s right. I was woken up one night by a female lion roaring outside my tent. Nerve-wracking as this might have been, when I told Carr this, he smiled. ‘They’re coming back.’

And it is this return that means the tourism product will flourish and that the cycle of economic activity will gather its own momentum, requiring less and less stimulus from agencies such as Carr’s philanthropic foundation. But there’s work to do if this is to become a genuinely self-sustaining ecosystem: ‘What we were missing most are bulk grazers – big buffalo, zebra, wildebeest – of which there were thousands and thousands. You need them because they eat a lot of grass. We really need 10,000-20,000 grazers for the proper functioning of the park.’

As Carr leans back it’s hard to see him as a trailblazer in the digital world. But as his story unfolds it becomes clear that the challenges are familiar to him, and the citizenship values that make the wheels of good business turn well are transferrable to life in the bush: ‘I’ve got 20 years to make it work. We’re two-and-a-half in and we’re getting there. I think that the government of Mozambique is open to healthy relationships with international partners. They invited me here and that’s a very critical point – they said to me let’s do something together. I couldn’t turn up in someone’s country and just say here I am. It’s about partnerships. This is a new philosophy in aid and philanthropy. It must be done together. If you look carefully at this organisation chart you’ll see I’m just a member of a committee. I’m not here as a big cheese.’

Case study: Local people made good

According to Greg Carr, roughly 80-90% of the workers hired at Chitengo or otherwise in connection with the Gorongosa National Park are locals, many from the village of Vinho, a few miles away. ‘They get a salary, but what’s important about this is that it might be the first formal salary they’ve ever had in their lives.’

As employees they are trained in a range of park management skills, learn languages and advance their education. But it’s the salaries that really count because this takes hard cash back into their village, where only five years previously the economic model was subsistence farming. ‘I’ve got to tell you’ says Carr ‘that it’s hardly the Champs-Élysées now, but five years ago you never even saw a bicycle. Now one of the first things they do when they get their first pay packet is buy one. They ride their bike to get water or go to the market or get their kids to school. It’s changed everything.’

The bikes have created an entrepreneurial buzz in Vinho. Once there were no markets, but now there’s transport to collect goods and set up shop close to home. The real entrepreneurs set up bike-fixing workshops, and the mechanics wear football shirts and baseball caps. ‘They used to be in rags – now people are starting to dress better.’

‘The other change I’ve seen in Vinho is that the farming has increased and diversified to meet the demands of the sustainable tourism. Also in our 20 year agreement with the government we’re obliged to the communities by Article 8 to build them a school, a health clinic and so on. We also share 20 per cent of the Park gate revenue with them. We talk to them to see what they want – maybe a new roof for the school – we listen.’

For more about:

Gorongosa National Park visit http://www.gorongosa.net/

Visit E&T magazine online by clicking http://eandt.theiet.org/

Nick Smith’s interview with explorer and environmental scientist Tim Jarvis, as featured in current edition of E&T magazine

December 8, 2009

Words with the environmental explorer

As an explorer he’s walked from pole to pole. As an environmental engineer he’s worked on sustainability projects the world over. As a motivational speaker he sets new goals for tomorrow’s management and gives the odd talk about cannibalism. Nick Smith hears Tim Jarvis’s story…

‘Environmental engineering is exploratory by its very nature’ says Tim Jarvis, whose CV says he’s an environmental engineer and explorer. ‘Both disciplines are in some ways looking for solutions to energy and sustainability issues. During the course of my journeys I’m taking water and soil samples, documenting what I see in articles, books and films. It’s the photographic evidence that has the greatest impact of all.’

Jarvis is also a motivational speaker on the corporate circuit, where demand for what he’s learned in the field has never been higher. ‘Ironically, I find that I use my expeditions more than the engineering degrees when it comes to communicating environmental or management messages. This is because expeditions to the Polar Regions throw up so many lessons relevant to the business world.’

Jarvis was for some time best known for his Antarctic expedition a decade ago. This propelled him into the record books with the fastest journey to the Geographic South Pole and the longest unsupported Antarctica journey in history. He is the author of ‘The Unforgiving Minute’ a book that recounts his expeditions to the North and South Pole as well as the crossing of several Australian deserts. More recently he recreated the Antarctic journey of Douglas Mawson, the subject of a TV documentary and a best selling book entitled ‘Mawson: Life and Death in Antarctica.’

He is currently serving under Yale’s World Fellows Program for 2009 that aims to broaden and strengthen the leadership skills of emerging leaders as they work on progressing thinking on global issues and challenges. Jarvis has co-written a course for the Open University on environmental management. The course will be linked in with the BBC’s Frozen Planet series due to be broadcast in 2011. If that weren’t enough, his immediate plans include the recreation of legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ‘Boy’s Own’ voyage of heroism from Elephant Island to South Georgia in replica of the original open whaler, the James Caird.

As an environmental scientist Tim Jarvis is used to cold places. An Associate Director at engineering and environmental professional services firm URS Corporation Jarvis says he’s ‘committed to finding pragmatic solutions to global environmental sustainability issues.’

E&T: Describe a typical geo-engineering project you’ve worked on recently…

Tim Jarvis: Last year I was project manager and technical peer reviewer of Environmental/Social Impact Assessments for a number of large open cast iron ore mines in Sweden and Finland. These were situated in sensitive locations adjacent to human populations and sensitive river and wetland environments. I was responsible for developing various extraction, waste disposal and rehabilitation options.

E&T: Typically what sort of training and lecturing do you do…

TJ: I normally speak about the lessons I have learnt related to problem solving, teamwork, change management and goal setting with perhaps a little bit of cannibalism thrown in. After a decade of polar travel, and almost twice that long working as an environmental scientist, I also talk about topics related to human-induced environmental change and how industrial and domestic consumers can reduce our environmental impacts. I also look at the associated opportunities and costs, how to manage change in our personal lives, as well as at a corporate level.

E&T: How do you think that your role as explorer helps cast light on this?

TJ: I provide first-hand information on the fascinating regions in which I have travelled and worked, with expedition analogies offering insights into the parallels in the business world.  I think my expeditions provide motivation for those looking to embark on the process of achieving their personal and professional goals, set against a topical background of polar ice cap melt and an ever more interconnected world.

E&T: As an engineer and an explorer, are there any conflicts of interest?

TJ: No. The expeditions I do involve going to remote places of high environmental and wilderness value. This gives me the chance to highlight their value in the books, films and articles produced. This allows me to draw to the wider public’s attention any environmental change I observe in the regions I visit.

E&T: Do you feel that expeditions are in some ways businesses in microcosm?

TJ: The whole process of planning expeditions is an exercise in business planning: determining an original concept and an understanding of whether a niche exists for it in the marketplace; what level of support there might be for it; taking it through to marketing, planning, risk assessing and costing all aspects. These are all parts of the process of project management.

Expeditions can demonstrate and highlight areas of business execution, including problem solving, teamwork and so on. Typically, the talks I deliver focus on the parallels that exist between extreme expeditions and running a business.

E&T: Who was Douglas Mawson and why did you recreate his sledging epic?

TJ: Douglas Mawson was a scientist, geologist, explorer and industrialist. He accompanied Shackleton on his Nimrod expedition, when he famously trekked to the South Magnetic Pole. I retraced Mawson’s subsequent journey – his famous survival journey of 1912/13 in which two of his colleagues died. The modern expedition used the same clothing, equipment and starvation rations as Mawson to allow us to test various theories about what had happened. At the time many believed that Mawson had been forced into cannibalism in order to survive.

E&T: What conclusions did you draw that are transferrable to business/engineering?

TJ: I learnt a lot about how difficult it is to conduct al forms of business the old way. But I learned to make the best with what I have – old, often unreliable gear and starvation rations – and work towards more manageable goals when bigger, more optimistic goals are not possible. I planned and risk managed accordingly to cope with these eventualities. Operating with limited resources has good parallels with the corporate world in that business often has to make do with budgetary and resource constraints and plan accordingly (although often fails to do this).

E&T: The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration is almost a century behind us now. Why do we keep going back to it – and in particular Shackleton – for our leadership lessons?

TJ: Shackleton had many characteristics that made him a phenomenal leader –charisma, fund-raising ability and general empathy with people. He was brilliant at managing change, and ensuring that his team really worked as a team. In terms of everyone pulling together, he was very inclusive, being careful not to isolate anyone and was prepared to muck-in with the men. He also broke down the very real class divides that existed amongst his men.

E&T: What do you think was his key leadership characteristic?

TJ: Shackleton’s ability to change direction was a key strength too. Once the South Pole had been reached by Amundsen Shackleton saw that he must switch his goal to crossing the whole of Antarctica on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition. His esteem, reputation and legacy were all wrapped up in this one trip. But then with the sinking of his ship Endurance he was forced to re-evaluate his goals once more and, despite his desperate disappointment he pursued the new goal of getting his entire crew home safely with the same dedication and determination (see box ‘recreating the voyage of the James Caird’).

This showed tremendous presence of mind and a great leader who not only recognised the original goal is no longer achievable, but is prepared to act unequivocally on the new goal. This is a valid message for the changed world in which we find ourselves post-credit crunch, where financial plans of a year ago are no longer viable and we need to re-set goals and pursue them with the same vigour as the now unachievable goals of a year ago.

In Shackleton’s footsteps – recreating the voyage of the James Caird

Explorer Tim Jarvis uses his expeditions to communicate positive leadership and self-development messages. His next major expedition will be an attempt to retrace Ernest Shackleton’s journey in the James Caird from Elephant Island to South Georgia. This is often cited as one of the greatest rescue missions in the history of exploration: Shackleton, with a handful of men set forth in a plucky little open top whaler of just 23ft traversing 800 miles of the most hostile seas in the world.

As a result of Shackleton’s leadership the mission was a success, and to this day the great man’s leadership style is still central to curricula at many business schools. Whether it be looking at environmental issues such as climate change, or the state of disarray in the credit markets, Shackleton’s message of individuals putting differences aside and working to their strengths to collectively overcome seemingly insurmountable problems has real resonance.

The expedition will start from the Antarctic Peninsula, where much of Antarctica’s ice cap melt has occurred, several hundred kilometres from the infamous Larsen B Ice Shelf. The expedition aims to document the status of Antarctic ice with Jarvis in his role as environmental scientist.

Jarvis takes up the story: ‘In terms of the relevance of exploration, I think we need to challenge ourselves to find out more about the world and our place in it. This is because mankind relies upon adventurous souls taking a few risks to progress. This human spirit of adventure lies at the heart of artistic expression, advances in science, medicine or politics, or any other sphere you care to mention.’

To this day no one has been able to replicate Shackleton’s ‘double’ – sailing a replica boat from Elephant Island to South Georgia and then climbing over the mountains to Grytviken in the way he did. In 2011, Jarvis will attempt this, under the patronage of The Hon Alexandra Shackleton, granddaughter and closest living relative of Sir Ernest, in an expedition that has been dubbed the Shackleton Epic Expedition. A documentary film and book will be made about the expedition. ‘I want to do it honour Shackleton’s legacy, and because I want to see if a modern team can accomplish such a feat in the modern era.’

The expedition will set sail from Elephant Island at the end of the austral summer 2011 in a replica of the James Caird and, in an attempt to relive Shackleton’s experience, will use only technology, food and equipment that he would have had available in 1916.

Shackleton Epic Expedition appeal for sponsorship

The Shackleton Epic Expedition is seeking sponsorship support from both corporate sponsors and individuals to assist with funding the expedition. A breakdown of expedition costs and opportunities associated with sponsorship can be obtained by contacting Tim Jarvis (via http://www.timjarvis.org). Opportunities include wide international media exposure, and presentations to staff and clients of sponsoring organisations. Costs relate mainly to logistical support, clothing and equipment, the construction of the replica James Caird boat, and transport of the expedition team.

To find out more about the Shackleton Epic Expedition visit http://www.timjarvis.org

To find out more about URS Corporation visit http://www.urscorp.com/

Nick Smith’s article on visiting the North Pole as appearing in current edition of E&T magazine

December 8, 2009

Breaking the ice at the North Pole

You don’t have to be an Arctic explorer to visit the Geographic North Pole these days. E&T sent intrepid reporter Nick Smith to Murmansk’s Atomflot, where he joined the nuclear icebreaker 50 Years of Victory on a trip to the top of the world…

I’m standing on the bridge of the world’s largest and most powerful nuclear icebreaker. It’s been days since we’ve seen land and even longer since we’ve seen anything approaching darkness. Here in the high latitudes in summer it never gets dark, and in the eerie silent fog, the Arctic seems like the loneliest place on earth. My GPS says we’re at 89° 59 999’N, which means we’re about as close as we can get to the North Pole without actually being there. In fact, given the size of the 50 Years of Victory – 159.6 metres long, with a breadth of 30metres – it’s perfectly possible that part it is already at the Pole.

Of course, it doesn’t matter what my GPS says – not because of any possible margin of error – but because the only navigational reading that counts is the one on the bridge. We’re only technically at the Pole when Captain Dmitry Lobusov of the ‘50 лет Победы’ says we are. Positioning a 23,439 tonne ship on such a precise point as 90 degrees North, while simultaneously smashing through a pan of multiyear ice several metres thick, is a tricky job. Captain Lobusov has until now operated an ‘open bridge’, but we’ve been temporarily invited to leave to allow his crew some breathing space, to concentrate on this moment of pinpoint navigation. I leave reluctantly because the tension is mounting and it’s obvious that the precision of the final phase of the navigation is a matter of extreme seriousness. This is the world’s largest nuclear icebreaker and we’re going to stop it on a sixpence.

And the Victory truly is huge. For all the facts and figures (see side panel ‘Specification Sheet’), nothing can really prepare you for the experience of simply being aboard this huge work of engineering art. Of course, compared with some of the commercial ocean going cruise liners such as the Independence of the Seas (which is twice as long) the Victory is a big minnow. But the idea of being aboard a ship powered by two nuclear reactors that’s going to blast its way through the ice to the Pole is simply awe-inspiring. To think that even in the heaviest of icebreaking conditions the Victory consumes only 200g of nuclear fuel per day – about the weight of an apple – borders on science fiction.

It’s getting on for midnight on 15th July 2009 and after several attempts to ram a pan of multiyear ice out of our way, the icebreaker finally moves into position. ‘Ladies and Gentleman’ says an excited voice on the ship’s PA system, ‘we have achieved our expedition’s objective.’ The ship’s GPS reads 90° 00 000’ N (and for the record 172° 51 811’ E, although that hardly matters) and so it’s official – we’ve finally arrived at the Geographic North Pole. Most of the ship’s 124 passengers gather on the bow deck to celebrate, while the crew sets about the business of parking the ship (‘park’ is the technical term for mooring an icebreaker). Preparations are made for a party out on the ice at a ceremonial pole the following day. As the engines stop and the relentless vibration subsides it’s a great feeling to think we’ll be walking on the ice tomorrow.

It’s hard to imagine what the great explorers of the past would have made of all this. Technology has advanced so far in the pat century that a feat of navigation that was once only the dream of visionaries and madmen is now a reality for adventure tourists. In 1909 no one had set foot at the North Pole for certain – Commander Robert Peary of the US Navy claimed to have arrived there with a team of dogs that year – and it was to be another 60 years before British Explorer Wally Herbert could claim to be the first human to have beyond all doubt arrived at the Pole on foot. The challenges for these pioneering explorers were enormous: apart from the constant battle with 5-metre high pressure ridges and ‘leads’ (rivers of open water), there was the gnawing sub-zero temperatures, ravenous polar bears and the intellectual rigours of navigation with compasses, wristwatches and the stars (on the rare occasions when the sky was clear or dark enough). It was a mind-bogglingly tough existence that these men chose, and one that’s hard for the passengers of the Victory to understand.

A new day doesn’t dawn, but the clock tells us that it’s another day, and so on 16th July the ceremonies begin and I celebrate being the 22,500th person to set foot on the ice at the North Pole. This figure was calculated for me by onboard polar historian Robert Keith Headland, formerly archivist of the Scott Polar Research Institute, who has kept meticulous records of every arrival – and even disputed arrival – since Peary claimed to have attained ninety degrees north.

As you stand with your feet on what T.S.Eliot called the ‘still point of the turning world’ the significance of this place slowly sinks in. Look directly upwards along the earth’s rotational axis you’ll come to Polaris, the North Star, the so-called celestial pole. Look down and beneath your feet after a couple of metres of sea ice, there are 4,000 metres of sea. Then, after 14,000km of planet, you’ll reach sea level at the South Pole, after which there are then another few hundred metres of rock, followed by 2,835 metres of ice. If you’ve maintained a straight line down through the globe you will end up almost in the middle of the geodesic dome of the Amundsen-Scott science research base at the South Pole.

To date the only nuclear-powered icebreakers to have been built are Russian. The reason for this, according to Captain Lobusov of the 50 Years of Victory, is simply that Russia is the only country that needs them. Of those countries with extensive Arctic Ocean shorelines, only Russia relies on the commercial transportation of goods through the sea ice. ‘We have very vast country from west to east and there is a need to carry cargo by sea and so we need an ice fleet.’

Captain Lobusov explained how the development of nuclear technology has led to icebreakers of increasing power and range, with the ability to remain at sea for long periods without refueling. In the Arctic summer, when the atomic fleet is less in demand for keeping open commercial seaways, icebreakers such as the Victory and her sister ship Yamal become available to adventure tourism companies such as Quark Expeditions, who commission these ships in order to make the armchair explorer’s dream of going to the North Pole a reality.

Ten nuclear powered surface ships have been built in Russia, nine of which are icebreakers, with the tenth a container ship with icebreaking capabilities.  And although the specifications differ from one to another, those in the Arktika class – of which the Victory is the newest member –are fundamentally the same, becoming more efficient, powerful or faster as evolving technology allows for higher performance.

Power for the Victory is supplied by two pressurised water KLT-40 nuclear reactors, each containing 245 enriched uranium fuel rods. Each reactor weighs 160 tonnes and is enclosed in a reinforced compartment. Fifty kilos of uranium isotopes are contained in each reactor when fully fuelled, with a daily consumption of approximately 200g a day of heavy isotopes when breaking thick ice. This means that the Victory can remain operational for four years between changes of the reactor rods, Used cores are extracted and new ones installed in Murmansk, where spent fuel is reprocessed and waste is disposed of at a nuclear waste plant. A total of 86 sensors distributed throughout the vessel monitor ambient radiation. While on my way to the North Pole I was taken around the engine and control rooms, shown the nuclear reactors and I spoke to several of the officers in charge of keeping the Victory moving. Of course, you’re not allowed to photograph everything, but the Russians are far more open about showing you the technology of this ship that perhaps might be expected.

After spending a day at the Pole it’s time to turn around and sail back to the Victory’s base at Atomflot in Murmansk on Russia’s northern coastline. While the voyage north had often been a bone-jarring experience as we smashed our way through the ice, the homeward leg was a much more sedate affair. The wake of broken pack ice that we’d left behind was now at times a mile wide and the process of sailing ‘downhill’ the way we came was a positively sedate affair by comparison. From time to time we slowed down to watch polar bears out on the ice, or the occasional ringed seal and we even saw a pod of walrus as we approached Franz Josef Land.

But for anyone thinking that we were on a pleasure cruise there were several reminders that we were on a working nuclear surface vessel, including being buzzed by Norwegian military aircraft and being warned from passing too close to the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, where rocket testing made this route ‘dangerous to shipping’. We’d also been told by Moscow that we weren’t allowed to arrive at the Pole before 15th July, which seemed a bit odd as the Geographic North Pole – frozen wasteland or not frozen wasteland – is in international waters. I mentioned this to one of the Russian officers who corrected me very politely, informing me that we were on a Russian ship and if Moscow tells us not to go somewhere, for whatever reason, like it or not, we’re not going there.

The original Russian nuclear icebreaker: whatever happened to Lenin?

If 50 Years of Victory is the most recent, state-of-the-art nuclear icebreaker, then it owes much to the very first of all, the NS Lenin. Launched in 1957 Lenin was both the world’s first nuclear powered surface ship and the first nuclear powered civilian vessel. According to Soviet-born features editor of Engineering & Technology magazine, Vitali Vitaliev, it was: ‘the greatest ship in the world – a masterpiece of Russian engineering. As children we had pictures of it on our bedroom walls.’ It also featured on Russian postage stamps.

Lenin was decommissioned in 1989 because she was literally worn out. Years of crashing through the Arctic pack ice had worn the hull thin, and as a result she was laid up at Atomflot in Murmansk, where she was converted into a museum ship that opened in 2005. Lenin is held in such affection in Russia that when I visited in July earlier this year there were several wedding parties queuing up to have their official nuptial photographs taken in front of this imposing vessel.

On board, the technology looks very similar at first glance to that on 50 Years of Victory. And while there are obviously fewer computers and more mechanical dials and levers on view, the real difference is in the officers’ quarters, the mess rooms and the wardrooms. These are all exquisitely decked out with Art-Deco style interiors. While 50 Years of Victory is all about form and function, with its utilitarian magnolia paint and rudimentary furnishings, Lenin is simply opulent. With wooden paneling and brass everywhere, it resembles a floating palace more than a working icebreaker. The Party obviously knew how to look after itself.

But Lenin had a chequered operational history and was involved in two nuclear accidents.  And while these happened in the mid-1960s, they did not become widely known until after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In February 1965, after shutting down for refueling, fuel elements melted inside No2 reactor as a result of the coolant being prematurely removed. More than half of the fuel assemblies fused on to the reactor core, resulting in the need to remove of the fuel unit for disposal. The entire assembly was taken away, quarantined in a special cask and stored for two years before being dumped in Tsivolki Bay (near the Novaya Zemlya archipelago) in 1967.

Later that year a cooling system leak happened shortly after refueling. In order to locate the leak engineers needed to smash through the reactor’s concrete casing. They did this manually with old-fashioned sledgehammers and in doing so caused irreparable damage to the casing. As a result all three OK-150 reactors were rendered unserviceable and were subsequently replaced with two OK-900 reactors in an operation completed in early 1970. These two reactors provided steam for four turbines that in turn powered Lenin’s three sets of electric motors.

Specification sheet: How big? 50 Years of Victory in facts

50 Years of Victory is one of six Arktika class icebreakers operated by the Rosatomflot (Russian Atomic Fleet) of Murmansk on behalf of the Russian Government (the others are Arktica, Sibir, Rossiya, Sovietskiy Soyuz, and Yamal.) The ship’s name commemorates the defeat of the Nazi forces invading Russia on the Eastern Front during the Second World War. The keel was laid on 4th October 1989 in St Petersburg and the Victory was launched on 29th December 1993. After a prolonged fitting out – delayed by financial restrictions in Russia following the fall of Communism – the icebreaker finally came into service on 23rd March 2007. Engineering & Technology magazine joined the Victory for only its second commercial passenger voyage to the Geographic North Pole.

  • Length overall 159.6m – at waterline 136m. Breadth overall 30m – at waterline 28m. Draft 11.08m. Height keel-to-masthead 45m. There are 12 decks (4 below waterline)
  • The bow is ‘spoon-shaped’ – a new design for icebreakers – and has a 480mm thick cast steel prow, with an ‘ice tooth’ 20m aft
  • Displacement 25,840 tonnes overall (22,335 light ship). Registered tonnage 23, 439
  • The hull is double with water ballast in between them. Ribs are deployed at 50cm centres
  • The outer hull is 46mm thick, argon welded, armour steel overlaid with a 5-7mm plating of stainless steel (high molybdenum content) where ice is met (the ice skirt), and 25mm armour steel elsewhere
  • Nine bulkheads allow the icebreaker to be divided into 10 watertight compartments
  • The hull is also divided into two main longitudinal bulkheads – important areas are in independent watertight compartments
  • For fire protection the hull and superstructure are divided into 4 vertical zones by three bulkheads
  • Ice breaking is assisted by an air bubbling system delivering jets from 9m below the surface, specialised hull design, friction reducing alloy ice skirt, and capability for rapid moving water ballast
  • Ice may be broken while moving ahead or astern
  • A helicopter is carried for observing ice conditions up to 40km ahead of the vessel
  • The icebreaker is equipped to undertake close-coupled tow operations when assisting other vessels through the ice
  • Search lights and other high intensity illuminations allow work to be carried out in winter darkness
  • Complement 108: 51 officers and 57 other ranks. The infirmary has 2 medical staff

Nick Smith travelled to the North Pole on board the 50 Years of Victory with the assistance of Quark Expeditions. To find out more about Quark’s scheduled voyages into the Polar Regions visit http://www.quarkexpeditions.com/

Nick Smith reviews Buzz Aldrin’s new book ‘Magnificent Desolation’ in E&T magazine

July 9, 2009

Magnificent Desolation

By Buzz Aldrin, with Ken Abraham

Fighter pilots aren’t any good at poetry and are trained to keep their emotions in check. So says Buzz Aldrin in the latest installment of his autobiography ‘Magnificent Desolation’ that takes its name from a memorable phrase he uttered while walking on the moon in July 1969. ‘It was a spontaneous utterance, an oxymoron that would take on ever-deeper dimensions of meaning in describing this strange new environmet’ he writes early on in the book.

In fact ‘Magnificent Desolation’ starts on the upper platformon Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39-A, just as Aldrin is about to enter the Apollo Command Module prior to take-off. What happens over the next week or so is well-known, but such a terrific yarn that Buzz tells it gain. But it is the ‘Long Journey Home from the Moon’ that occupies the remainder of the book, and as his subtitle seems to imply, in many ways it was a much more dangerous journey.

The fabric of Aldrin’s life since Apollo 11 is woven with many threads. There is his devotion to the public understanding of space, his long-running one-man crusade to get NASA moving in a positive direction; And yet there are a pair loose threads that continually threatens to unravel the whole thing: depression and alcoholism. Faced with the awkward question of ‘what’s next?’, after the Lunar Landing, Aldrin hit the bottle hard and it retaliated. Failed marriages, long dark nights of the soul, physical immobility, the loss of dignity, all spiraling downwards hand-in-hand with their attendant depression. It was a horrible existence and Aldrin was a sick man. In some ways it’s harder to be a down-and-out when you’re an all-American hero and a moon-walker too. As Aldrin’s father, a distinguished aviator in his own right, continually urged his high-achieving son: pull yourself together.

Easier said than done, and after a spell of trying to sell cadillacs to a public that only wanted his autograph he saw ‘the long journey home from the moon’ as being one of public disclosure. He told the world he was ill, attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings on a daily basis, dried out, fell off the wagon and dried out again with a cyclical monotony that seemed to bore even himself. And when this happened he’d stay in bed and watch daytime TV.

Every superman needs his Lois, and when he married Lois Driggs Cannon, on Valentine’s Day in 1988 it seemed the only way was up. More than two decades later they are still together touring the world, lecturing on the future of space, dining with the crowned heads of Europe facing their second Recession together. In the early 1990s the private bank Mrs Aldrin was heiress to collapsed leaving the couple virtually penniless and having to build up from the floor. This is when Buzz became the extraordinary freelance astronaut he is today.

Nothing if not entrepreneurial by nature Aldrin is a pioneer even today. He has exploits his celebrity to lobby governments and to inspire school children alike. He has been one of the biggest supporters of space tourism and has launched the Sharespace foundation to try to get ordinary people up there. He’s had a best selling toy named after him and he’s been on the Simpsons. He famously kept a straight face while interviewed by Ali G and punched a conspiracy theorist journalist’s lights out when told his whole life was ‘a lie’. He likes to wear his dress whites and be seen with beautiful women, and he can compute orbital mechanics in his head. Buzz Aldrin’s story is amazing, and his new book Magnificent Desolation is inspirational.

Nick Smith’s review of ‘The Language of God’ by Francis Collins, as published in E&T magazine (archive stuff)

May 26, 2009

The Language of God: A scientist presents evidence for belief

Francis Collins, Pocket Books, £8.99, ISBN 9-781847 390929

If you’re a scientist and want to sell books then you’ve got to write about God. Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, and as such probably one of the world’s leading scientists of the day, is happy to oblige. A committed former atheist, some time agnostic, but now member of what we broadly think of as the Anglican Church, Collins has come up with a compelling rationale for why religious belief and Big Science are not mutually incompatible.

While it is very tempting to see the hand of the publisher guiding Collins toward simply writing a rebuttal of Richard Dawkins’s splenetic ‘The God Delusion’, Collins has actually got something interesting to say about compatibility issues between the world of objective technological reality and the less observable world of matters spiritual. While it’s true that he’s openly scornful of Dawkins – dismissing some of the British scientist’s claims as ‘eye-popping’ – his agenda has more to do with unification and harmony of differing approaches to thinking, which is one of the main attractions of ‘The Language of God’.

Clearly, with any such project there are key landing spots: Copernicus, Darwin, Crick and Watson, Intelligent Design, Young Earth Creationism, the Big Bang, and so on. But Collins has also stepped into the equally challenging world of moral philosophy and theosophy, both of which add intellectual ballast and balance to his ideas. Influenced by the seminal Oxford thinker of the mid-20th century, CS Lewis, he derives some beautifully crafted logical propositions for the mutuality of religion and science. And he is right to hold Lewis in such high regard: Lewis can make the subtlest of theological points clear and precise for the ordinary man. This is an interesting echo of the great physicist Ernest Rutherford, who said: “A theory you can’t explain to a bartender is probably no damned good.”

Whether or not ‘The Language of God’ is sufficient to silence the hordes of aggressive atheists rallying to Dawkins’ flag is moot. Of course, it all comes down to faith, and faith, unlike science, does not require evidence. For Collins, this explains why many scientists are uncomfortable with an argument where something more nebulous replaces data. On the other hand, recent research reveals that 40 per cent of all scientists believed in a god of some sort, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking among them. One thing I know is that, for sheer clarity of argument and magnanimity of thought, this important book knocks Dawkins’s ‘The God Delusion’ into a cocked hat.

Nick Smith’s interview with Stephen Urquhart, President of Omega, as featured in E&T magazine (full text)

May 23, 2009

Timing for success

Omega is the world’s largest watch manufacturer and has developed a portfolio of marketing alliances with aspirational brands such as James Bond, the Olympics and even NASA’s Lunar Landings. Nick Smith talks to Omega’s president, Stephen Urquhart…

Stephen Urquhart studied Industrial Management at the University of Neuchâtel and has been a member of Omega’s Management Board since 2000. With dual nationality (British and Swiss) Urquhart is currently President of Omega, part of the Swatch Group, the world’s largest manufacturer of finished watch products. Urquhart began his career at Omega in 1968 and although he has worked for other companies since he returned to the Swiss manufacturer in 1997.

Omega has regularly been the official timekeeper for the Olympics since the 1932 summer games. The Swiss manufacturer has been the official timekeeper for every Olympiad this century including the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. They will be operating in the same capacity at the 2010 winter games in Vancouver, Canada (see Engineering & Technology ‘Olympic Time’, 23rd April 2009) and will be on hand with several new technical developments for London 2012. In the 2008 Olympics, Omega bought out an Olympic limited edition edition watch with its logo on the second hand. Olympic swimmer and multiple gold medalist Michael Phelps is an Omega Ambassador and wears the Seamaster Planet Ocean.

Today, the Swatch Group continues to invest heavily in research and development, driving the steady expansion of its leading position in materials and process technologies and in product design and manufacturing. In particular, the Swatch Group engages in significant development activities in microelectronics and micromechanics. Sports timing and measurement technologies, although not a core business, play a key role in Omega’s brand and corporate visibility.

Nick Smith: Describe the relationship that Omega has with the Olympic games…

Stephen Urquhart: Everybody knows we started of in 1932 the first ever watch brand to be commissioned by the IOC. We sent three watchmakers to Los Angeles with a little briefcase of stopwatches and they timed a few of the events. And then we went to Berlin and London. We missed a few for different reasons – so there’s a very historical basis. Second, I think we would be crazy not to pursue this association with the Olympic world because it is a unique world, a unique entity. Secondly sports is very much part of our brand’s equity. We’ve been involved in diving, sailing and golf over the years, but to have the Olympic games as your main hook for your message is a chance to go in for the long run – we’ve done 23 games and Vancouver will be our 24th. It’s part of the brand’s DNA. We don’t sit down and ask ourselves ‘do we as part of our strategy sponsor or become a partner for the Olympic games’. It’s part of our future and it goes without saying. So we’ll be at the London Olympics, then Sochi (Russia Winter Olympics 2014) – that’s definite – and also the 2016 games. We don’t know where they will be yet, but Omega will be there.

NS: What are the tangible commercial benefits of this relationship?

SU: For Omega to be where it is today, somewhere along the line the Olympics must have played an important role. There’s an old saying in marketing, which is ‘half of what you spend is a waste of money, but you don’t know which half.’ And the thing about the link to the games is that it has helped us to build up the brand in terms of seriousness, reliability and quality. Obviously to be a part of the games in Beijing for us as a brand was an incredible opportunity to make the brand known in China. For the Chinese, it was such an important event for them. We saw the result there: we saw the build-up, during and after. If the brand is strong today in China then the Olympics has doubled our strength there.

NS: Can you put a graph on the wall and say these are the results?

SU: I don’t want to put a figure on it. It’s brand image and that is hard to measure. At every Olympics we launch a limited edition watch to coincide with the games and there will be a new one later this year for Vancouver. Okay, so we know that we can sell these watches because of the Olympic connection. But we’re not investing all this money and effort just to sell a few more watches. A watch is nice to have and it is part of our whole message, but it is not really our main message. That is to convey that Omega is heavily involved in the most universal sporting event in the world. But I can’t put a graph on the wall.

NS: Who is the message for? Is there a profile of the Omega client, how do you reach them and what is the method of delivery?

SU: Let’s face it, the purchase of a watch these days is not a rational decision. Today, who needs to buy a watch to tell the time? And if you do, who needs to spend thousands of pounds on one? But below the surface, to own a brand that has the notions of longevity and quality makes a difference, I think, to people’s decisions when hey come to buy one. Obviously people will buy a watch for many different reasons – it could be spontaneous, it could be for prestige reasons, or maybe even to show off – but they need to have a brand that has reliability. When our consumers spend three, four, five thousand pounds on a watch this image does play a role. If you ask the consumer, they’ll tell you that it doesn’t, but it does and our surveys say it does. When the market gets difficult, such as the economic environment we find ourselves in now, issues such as reliability and quality play an even bigger role.

NS: What part do the brand ambassadors play in establishing this reassurance?

SU: They play a role. I think maybe it’s above the line, with the precision, accuracy and reliability below the line. When you see James Bond wearing Omega, that’s when you can put a graph on the wall. We can show that during the period of promotion for Quantum of Solace the sales of the James Bond watch went like that [Urquhart points to the ceiling]. Cindy Crawford has been with the brand now for more than a decade associated with one particular product that is heavily promoted in Asia, and that line is now 60-70% of our business out there. I won’t say it’s entirely due to Cindy Crawford, but the ambassadors are there to help. They are people that the consumers can relate to, and they can relate to them much more tan to time keeping. In Beijing we had Michael Phelps along as an ambassador, and that helps. I am sure of it.

NS: Famously, Buzz Aldrin was wearing an Omega watch when he walked on the moon in 1969. The Speedmaster Professional is the first and only watch to make it to the lunar surface. What sort of effect does branding like that have on your business?

SU: Although there hasn’t been a mission to the moon for twenty or so years, to this day the Apollo 11 mission still has incredible appeal. We know that there are a lot of people out there who still follow this, so every year we celebrate the moon landing and to celebrate the 40th anniversary this year we’ve made a very special version of the moon watch. It’s sort of semi-limited and we’ve made a lot of them because there is a big following for the Speedmaster and a lot of people will want to own it. At the Basel Watch Fair in March there was a big event where we actually had Mr Aldrin with us. I am amazed to see how this story still has mass appeal to people of all ages, even people who weren’t even born when the moon landings happened.

NS: The lunar landings were technology at its most flamboyant…?

SU: I agree. And it’s technology that doesn’t really exist any more. If you go to NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Texas and have a look at the stuff they’ve got there you can’t believe that they got to the moon and back using just this technology – it’s so rudimentary. I’ll always remember meeting the astronaut General Stafford, who didn’t actually walk on the moon, but was commander of Apollo 10, and did the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project where he made the historic meeting with a Soviet Cosmonaut. He picked me up at the airport in Dallas in a small Japanese car and said: ‘Stephen, do you know that there’s more computing power in this car than there was in the whole of the whole of the Apollo space programme.