A career in chemical engineering with Richard Lau
"One of the best things about working for consultancy businesses was the opportunity to travel. I always had my passport in my briefcase."
Currently process group manager at global oilfield services provider Petrofac, Richard Lau has had a very successful and varied career in the Chemical Engineering sector. However he fell into the profession almost by accident.
“I always liked chemistry,” he says. “I ruled out the other types of engineering for various reasons and wasn’t clever enough to do medicine – so applied to study Chemical Engineering!”
Richard gained a place on Surrey’s Chemical Engineering course when – having missed the grades at his first choice university – he drove to the Guildford campus on A level results day to ‘try his luck’. He recalls: “A lady in the Chemical Engineering Department took one look at me and said ‘Oh, you didn’t get your grades, did you?’ But she took down my results and the next day the Head of Department contacted me and offered me a place on the four-year programme, which included a year in industry.”
He remembers an exciting learning environment and a tight-knit community within the Department of Chemical Engineering. “We were a small year group of only 40 students. One of my strongest memories is taking part in the Frank Morton Sports Day which brought together chemical engineering students from many different universities.”
Richard spent his industrial year at the Burmah Refinery in Cheshire where he got first-hand experience of some of the key challenges in process engineering. One of his jobs was to check where steam was leaking in the plant, and he also examined the impact of oily water being discharged.
On graduating, Richard’s first job arose from an unlikely source: he got chatting to a customer at his father’s restaurant who told him to come along for an interview at a company in Colliers Wood the following day.
“I duly turned up at the company, Brown & Root Inc. (a major construction company), but wasn’t too hopeful about getting the job. To my surprise, a few days later an A3 envelope came through the door. I’d had enough experience of small envelopes to know what this meant – I had the job! I started work as a graduate process engineer and only found out later that the customer I’d talked to was lead mechanical engineer for one of Brown & Root’s biggest clients. I was very lucky!”
“During the 30 months I spent with them I learned a lot about construction, safety and off-shore site work, which set me in very good stead for future roles.”
Richard then moved to a small London-based consultancy company where he learned the process engineering trade through conceptual and front end studies, and followed this with roles in a number of design contractor companies in both offshore and onshore engineering.
He says: “One of the best things about working for consultancy businesses was the opportunity to travel. I always had my passport in my briefcase.” During his career, Richard has spent time in Canada, China, France, Holland, India, Italy, Norway, Malaysia, Russia, Singapore and the UAE among other countries – often for assignments of up to 24 months.
“One of my best experiences was working in China, which was a dream of mine because my mother was from Shanghai. I worked there at an interesting time because the country was undergoing economic reform. My Chinese heritage meant that I was not treated as an outsider but still enjoyed the privileges of being a foreigner.”
Richard is keen to stress the importance of seizing opportunities to learn, even if they don’t seem particularly interesting on the surface. At one point, having finished a major contract with Global Engineering, he needed a job and took a role with a small company which he admits he considered to be ‘second division’. “I could not have been more wrong,” he says. “I worked in the company’s design offices learning everything about floating facilities. The specialist knowledge I gained led to me being headhunted by a larger consultancy where I headed up a ten-man process team.”
Richard has now come full circle, moving from being a self-employed contractor to a management role within Petrofac, where he has spent the last 13 years. “This is a typical career trajectory for many chemical engineers,” he explains. “You learn within a company, then become self-employed to capitalise on contract opportunities, and finally return to a company role which offers stability and a good work-life balance. For me, this flexibility of work is one of the great advantages of a career in Chemical Engineering.”