Pather’s civil progress

By Eamonn Ryan

Neresh Pather, statutory director of the local subsidiary of international civil engineering consulting firm Mott MacDonald and current president of Consulting Engineers South Africa (CESA), has played a leading role in transforming the engineering profession.

Pather wb


Neresh Pather, statutory director of the local subsidiary of international civil engineering consulting firm Mott MacDonald and current president of Consulting Engineers South Africa (CESA).
Iamge credit: CESA


 

Approximately 4 500, or 27%, of South Africa’s 22 000 consulting engineers are black, Indian, or coloured (BIC). That’s a relatively low figure, because to people of Pather’s age who were entering the world of tertiary education as apartheid drew to a close, engineering was not a profession of choice in his community, he says.

“Engineering was not a profession widely spoken of or known about in BIC communities, and first generation black engineers remain disadvantaged by this fact — a disadvantage which spans longer than just educational and training. There were some pioneers before me in the engineering professions: people from the BIC community who qualified in one or other traditional built environment profession, but I didn’t even know of them until much later in my career. There were few role models available to motivate us to professions other than becoming a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant. Nonetheless, in my community in Chatsworth, KwaZulu-Natal, many of us had a hunger to better ourselves through education,” says Pather. His domestic life included a strong community life: “I’m absolutely proud of where I come from, which is the cornerstone of who I am today.”

With that hunger for improvement, Pather was fortunate to receive a bursary in the late 1980s from Van Wyk & Louw (which became Africon and today is known as Aurecon). Awarding such a bursary was a risk, because the statistics of the time showed that just 11% of students passed the degree within the specified time. Their confidence in Pather was well placed, however. Although he came from a middle-class family, it nonetheless would have been a financial challenge for his parents to fund his tuition, and regarding the bursary he received from Van Wyk & Louw, Pather says it remains imperative for small and large companies alike to invest in the profession’s future through bursaries.

He worked for Van Wyk & Louw during university vacations and then worked there full time following graduation, as the company evolved into Africon. He continued his studies, obtaining a master’s degree. “Technical skills and competence will always be a major driving force for the future of engineering.”

Finding mentors

At Africon, he met his first non-white engineer, Ali Naidu, who was to become his mentor and eventually his business partner in a new start-up company PD Naidoo & Associates (PDNA — which is today the local subsidiary of one of the biggest consulting firms in the world, Mott MacDonald). “This was a major step up for me because engineers are typically risk averse and not entrepreneurial — but probably the most influential move in my working life. PDNA was a start-up company and entrepreneurial venture in which broad-based black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) principles were ingrained. The company was a great illustration that the principles of B-BBEE do work as long as individuals buy into a long-term game plan, re-invest profits, and do what is right — not just focus on enrichment,” says Pather.

There he met the second great mentor of his life, Dempsey Naidoo, founder of PDNA and an entrepreneurial visionary who was to become an even more important influence on Pather’s career. “You need mentorship for success,” he says. These were exhilarating times — not only was the country going through huge changes, but working for what was then a small firm exposed Pather to a far wider spectrum of experiences. He was also a young parent, and the move to Johannesburg meant the loss of his community support system.

Once the three of them, together with other founding directors Jackie Naidoo, Anton Middelton, Vijay Dhana, and Sham Singh, were together under a single corporate roof, the business grew exponentially through mergers and acquisitions — acquiring 12 companies, all through shareholder reinvestment rather than debt. “That was genuine B-BBEE without the legislation to enforce it, and much of the growth was achieved by investing in our people,” adds Pather. From a wholly-owned business in 1997, PDNA grew to a staff complement of 650 with 54 shareholders by 2013.

From the perspective of that positive experience, Pather is somewhat censorious of how today’s empowerment policies are implemented, especially those regarding procurement, as they tend “to place a cap on how big these black owned and managed companies can grow, often motivating them to remain single-engineer or small firms (so as to benefit from preferential procurement), whose impact on the industry is consequently limited”. PDNA, in contrast, grew to a sizeable consultancy with the purpose of generating broad-based wealth as well as training as many engineers as possible. Since being acquired by Mott MacDonald, all its empowerment policies have been retained within the firm.

Joining the big league

Pather attributes PDNA’s attracting the attentions of a large multinational like Mott MacDonald to the former’s principles of reinvesting and empowering staff. “We were a South African start-up company, but were considered valuable enough for a multinational to invest in. The result is that South Africans are now able to work abroad to gain other opportunities, while at the same time being able to bring new skills into this country.”

Notwithstanding his enthusiasm for the experience of working for a small to medium-sized firm, Pather says that large firms are where the critical difference can best be made — though at 650 people the firm is not in the ‘big’ league. “They can employ and train large numbers of people, and they typically are the ones to be involved in large, influential projects.”

Staying small has its pros and cons, but on the downside is the fact that a small firm typically revolves around one or two personalities who “can become a slave to the business, as every client wants to see you personally”, he says. “There’s no time for holidays and it can become a lonely place. Today I appreciate being part of a multinational firm: I particularly enjoy interacting with colleagues from other countries such as the UK, the US, and Australia. That wouldn’t have been my major motivation 15 years ago — so a preference for one over the other depends entirely on where you are in your personal life.

“My advice to youngsters starting their career is therefore to define what it is they want to do with their lives, and only then make important decisions,” says Pather.

While managing the transition from a South African start-up to local subsidiary of a major multinational, Pather was from 2003 becoming more involved in CESA. He became the first chairman of the Young Professionals Forum (YPF) of CESA. “Youth involvement in institutions is vital to ensure survival of our profession. I was encouraged by my mentors and welcomed into the inaugural formations of CESA’s YPF.”

His involvement culminated in his appointment 14 years later as president of CESA in 2018. “Through my involvement in the various bodies and structures of CESA, I have been nominated to represent our industry, an honour I am truly grateful and humbled to have,” concludes Pather.

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