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A career in chemical engineering – Mike Banfield

“When you’re finding solutions to chemical and process engineering problems there has to be a culture of consensus – there’s no room for ‘prima donnas’!”

The offer of a technical state scholarship to study for a degree in Chemical Engineering in 1954 came as a surprise to Mike Banfield as he could not remember applying!  At the time he had already been working in industry for three years, for a company producing essential oils and fine chemicals for the perfume and food sectors, while studying part time to obtain an ONC in engineering. However the opportunity to study full-time convinced Mike to take up the scholarship and he went to Battersea College of Technology (the University of Surrey’s predecessor) for an A level year, followed by a three year degree course in chemical engineering.

It turned out to be a good decision. Under “the great Dr Tailby and Dr Thomas” who ran the Department, Mike learned a lot, and found life as a Battersea student lively and diverse.

“We were a very international community, including students from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa, China and the West Indies,” remembers Mike. “We also had a cohort of Polish students and staff which was a legacy of the PolishUniversityCollege in Putney being annexed to Battersea in the early 1950’s. We ran annual international evenings when national groups would entertain us with dancing and singing. The Brits would usually do something like singing ‘Mad dogs & Englishmen’.”

“We were also fairly politically aware. When Russia quelled the Hungarian uprising in 1956 we decided to hold fund-raising activities and succeeded in raising enough money to fund a couple of students from Hungary to come and study at the College. On another occasion we staged an impromptu event when Russian leaders Khrushchev and Bulganin arrived at Victoria station on a state visit to London.  As it was the same day that Grace Kelly was getting married, we produced banners welcoming her and Prince Rainer. The press were greatly amused and we got our pictures in several papers!”

Mike describes his post-war generation as “lucky”. He says: “We got a free university education and I wasn’t unusual in having six job offers to choose from when I graduated.”

He decided to take up an offer of a Graduate Apprenticeship at a British process engineering contractor, attracted by the excellent salary of £660 a year. “As chemical engineers we were the elite of the company,” he says. “I got the opportunity to travel around the UK and also to France and spent a training period at the BP Refinery in South Wales, which was a great experience.”

After completion of the apprenticeship, Mike continued at the firm as a project engineer. However there were interesting opportunities being created by the major US contractors and like many young chemical engineers, Mike capitalised on this trend, joining the London operation of the Ralph M Parsons Company (now WorleyParsons) which was headquartered in Los Angeles.

This move opened up an exciting career path for Mike. During his twelve years with the company, he helped to set up the business’s UK operation and travelled extensively in Europe and Africa. Thanks to his proficiency in French he spent much time in Algeria during the early 1970’s negotiating contracts for a variety of projects in the process and infrastructure sectors.

In 1976 – a time when the UK was challenged with high inflation, power cuts and strikes – Mike moved his family to Brussels and took up the role of senior technical director at an international agricultural chemicals producer based there. His principle role was to evaluate and develop new manufacturing opportunities within a framework of international project fianancing and ongoing training and management.

“At the time banks had plenty of money to back development in ‘third world’ countries, so this was a great business to be part of. However by the mid-1980s the dynamics of agriculture chemicals had changed. With countries like Kuwait now building huge fertiliser plants, it was difficult to get funding for smaller operations.”

Returning to the UK, after a brief stint with a Houston-based company providing technological services to the oil and gas sector, Mike decided it was time for a complete change of direction. He knew there was a gap in the market for a consultancy to assist major production companies in adopting engineering management software, and set up Peacock Engineering Ltd in West London to exploit this opportunity.

With good credibility from his long industrial experience, Mike worked with major clients across the oil and gas, food and beverage, and paper production industries with the aim of enabling them to operate more efficiently. The consultancy, which eventually comprised 12 professionals, was taken over by a Dutch group in 2006.

Looking back on his career, Mike’s consultancy business represents one of his greatest achievements. He says: “I’m proud that we were able to bring some original thinking to the sector, developing an interesting approach to re-engineering business rules and processes by evaluating their contribution to adding value, and using software to support decision making and measure performance.”

He adds: “I’ve had a wonderful career in chemical engineering. I’ve really enjoyed working with colleagues because when you’re finding solutions to chemical and process engineering problems there has to be a culture of consensus – there’s no room for ‘prima donnas’!”

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