Consultancy Special Interest Group
20 September 2015

Our People: Aled Davies

By Francis Minah Aled Davies

Aled Davies is a Chemical Engineer with 33 years of experience working in industry in the UK, Belgium and Germany, and after early retirement, moved on to self-employed consulting and starting up a solar energy systems business. He maintains interest in the activities of the Chemical Engineering community and the developments in power and sustainability. In this interview, we learn of his experience and helpful advice on making the switch.

FM When did you start out as a chemical engineer?
AD 1966. I worked as a research officer in the UK Nationalised Power Industry for a short time then joined a US owned company with the dual roles of technical sales support and process/project engineering support to the small UK factory. As the company grew and expanded throughout Europe, by the late ‘80s I became Technical Director leading others filling those dual roles. Over that period my consultancy activities were both external (working with the company's prospective and actual customers, so as to be sure their engineers understood the 'ins and outs' of using our products and processes) and internal (to manufacturing units in the UK, Belgium and Germany). A period of General Management followed with that same company until early retirement in 1999, when I set up shop as a self-employed consultant.


What challenges did you face when you started as a self-employed consultant?
It’s a little daunting to move out of a relatively large organisation, with its ‘support structure’ (a boss to guide you, colleagues to act as discussion partners, people to type the letters and a monthly pay check!), onto that lonely bare desk in the spare bedroom with no money coming in!

The initial projects I won were either in the Water Treatment sector or in Sales Training. The biggest challenges were in winning the first clients, keeping my knowledge base current and resisting going off at non-remunerative tangents.


How has your sector consultancy industry changed in the last decade or so?
In the first decade of this Century the biggest change I noticed was the ‘Internationalisation’ of the competition and the move away from ‘face to face’ dealings to electronic communications whether spoken, written or visual.

I pretty well retired a few years ago, and so cannot comment on the second decade.


What are the challenges faced by engineers in your sector consultancy?
Keeping technical knowledge and soft skills up to date.


Have you found your consulting projects interesting?
Yes – I didn’t do the ones I thought would be boring!


Would you advise people to take up consultancy as a career?
It’s entirely a personal choice – most engineers start out in the womb of some organisation or another. Sometimes they stay there until they don’t want to work anymore. Sometimes there is no work for them but they still want to work, or they get fed up with the constrictions of being a well-paid slave and decide to start up their own business, and often judge that a consulting business is an easy option.


What advice would you give to people wanting to take the plunge?
The only advice I’d give is to make your business plan realistically, keep your eyes wide open and do your marketing homework, as to be a self-employed consultant is to enter a highly competitive environment – it’s NOT easy!

Oh – and remember you can’t put a business class flight or even a lunch time beer on expenses, because you pay for it yourself when you’re pitching for a project (if you write it right your client may accept that sort of thing within the contract – good luck with that one!)


What proportion of your working time did you spend on administration (marketing, proposals, invoicing, cash collections, etc.) compared to delivering the technical work you were contracted to do?
In the early days it was mostly marketing and proposal work, then as I got some contracts I'd say 50% remunerated time. Invoicing and cash collection were always a very small percentage as I remember it.


Did you already have these skills before you started consulting or were there any new skills you needed to develop?
During the 33 year period I worked for my main employer, I had the chance to fill posts in marketing and general management, so I picked up most of the non-technical skills I needed. I also found it useful to go along to exhibitions and conferences to deliberately 'bump into' previous contacts - I'm not sure that's covered in Marketing 101 :-)


Now that you are retired, looking back do you think that studying Chemical Engineering helped you to meet your career expectations?
Unequivocally Yes! When I was 17 and writing around to find a University that would take me, I hadn't really got any clear career goal. I went into Chemical Engineering because I thought I'd be bored doing one of the pure sciences, and because an uncle of mine who was an Electrical Engineer said Chemical Engineers in his company got paid more than he did! I never once regretted that, albeit a rather arbitrary decision.


As a retiree do you still maintain an interest in chemical engineering and if so what interests you?
Yes, the Institute gets my retired member annual subscription because that means I keep up my Chartered Engineer label, and I do enjoy the TCE magazine. In parallel with consulting activities in 2004, I started a solar energy systems business selling directly to end-users. Although I've passed that on, I am still very interested in sustainability issues: developments in energy storage and the politics around power generation and distribution, where far too much 'power' is in the hands of a few large monopolistic energy companies and their chums in Government.

My IChemE

IChemE is a registered charity in England & Wales (214379), and a charity registered in Scotland (SC 039661).