Paul Marshall, managing director, Desco

Desco MD Paul Marshall discusses his unconventional route into engineering and how his company is helping the next generation to come on board

Managing director of Desco, Paul Marshall
Managing director of Desco, Paul Marshall

Paul Marshall, by his own estimation, isn’t one for making life easy on himself.

Not satisfied with simply honing his practical skills as a electrician, he put himself through university, studying electrical engineering part-time, all while helping to raise a family.

Hard work, no doubt, but it’s all paid off for the 52-year-old, now managing director of the Sunderland-based Desco.

He’s keen to point out, though, that his long and prosperous career as a Chartered Engineer all began with an apprenticeship at Sunderland City Council.

“As a youngster, I was never 100% certain as to what I wanted to do,” he said.

“The only thing I was sure about was that I wanted to ride fast motorbikes!”

It was this dream that spurred Paul on to leave school at 16 and earn money for his first bike.

“When I started my apprenticeship, my mind was on being able to afford to buy my first motorbike; it was only when I started working and learned the value of money and working hard, that I realised I could do anything I put my mind to,” he said.

“In many ways, I took an unconventional route into engineering, but if I hadn’t had that first opportunity, I don’t think I would be where I am today.”

After realising how much he enjoyed life as an electrician, and after excelling in the field, Paul was selected for management training and was awarded apprentice of the year by the council for two years running.

As part of his training, he spent time working in a design office, where he discovered a passion for design and the consultancy side of the sector.

Paul then joined WSP Group, one of the world’s leading professional services firms, where he enjoyed rapid career progression, becoming one of the youngest directors at the company, aged just 29.

“I spent a very happy 10 years at WSP and I was incredibly lucky to work with some very talented people, from whom I learned so much,” he said.

“I learned a great deal about management and how to run a company and I received excellent technical training.

“During my time at the company, it changed dramatically, with turnover increasing substantially and, as a global company, I even had the opportunity to spend some time in Hong Kong.”

It wasn’t the first time Paul - by this point in his 30s - had visited the area.

As his father served in the army, he had spent much of childhood travelling around the UK and even overseas.

Hong Kong had been among his family’s many destinations, giving his a taste of Chinese culture at an early age.

“My time spent abroad as a child taught me the value of other cultures and opened my mind to the world of possibilities out there,” he said.

“I think it made me realise that the world is a much smaller place than it appears on the surface and in some senses I think this contributed to my ambition to make Desco an international player.”

When Paul was 13, the family moved back to the North East and put down their roots in Sunderland, which Paul describes as “the first place I really thought of as home.”

It seems fitting, therefore, that his company maintains a similar regional identity, despite the Doxford Park-based business having now expanded to open offices in London and the south, Qatar and The Philippines.

As the company enters its 16th year, it is in fact become one of the most highly regarded M&E engineering consultancies in the region, with a client list that includes Rolls Royce, Nissan and Virgin Atlantic, to name just a few.

The concept behind the firm arose in 1998, when Paul recognised a gap in the North East market for a good quality medium-sized M&E practice that worked across a number of sectors.

He went on to found Desco alongside co-directors Marco Ambelez and Dave Fittis.

“My experience of the North East is that it is a place where approachable, hands-on service goes a long way,” he said.

“We have a team of nine directors at Desco who all come from technical backgrounds.

“I think a lot of our clients like the fact that the company directors are so hands-on and are always involved in projects.

“I’m very proud of the fact that the original seven members of the Desco team are all still part of the company 15 years on. I think that says a lot about our company ethos and how important our staff are to us. “

The company has experienced steady growth throughout its lifetime and now employs around 100 people.

Paul puts the accomplishment down to the quality of his and the service they offer to clients.

“We know we could’ve taken our expansion even further than we have but we would never have compromised our reputation for quality and technical expertise,” he said.

“For me, that is the most important thing.”

In recent years, Paul has taken responsibility for the strategic direction of the company, including the opening of the new offices in Doha, Manila and London.

On facing the economic down-turn, Desco found it had two options – downsize or diversify - and chose the latter, taking its design consultancy service to new geographical locations.

“As a consultancy firm which works across a number of sectors, from leisure to education, we have to remain flexible to changes in the industry,” he said.

“Like every other company in the region affected by the recession, we had to assess our options and take strategic decisions in order to take Desco forward in a stronger position than it was previously.

“We made a series of well-thought-out and thoroughly considered decisions, from taking on our first project in the Middle East in 2010, to eventually opening our Qatar office and acquiring a London business in 2011.

“The recession was a tough time but making difficult decisions has actually helped us continue to grow. We’ve been able to build our reputation on an international platform and we’re enjoying more and more success in London now too.”

Desco may now be an international player in mechanical and electrical building services design, but Paul recognises how important its home market remains and is delighted to see things improving in the North East.

“Desco is a company proud of its roots and we’re delighted to be thought of as one of the region’s top M&E consultancies,” he said.

“The North East has a number of new and exciting schemes; our cities are undergoing an exciting face-lift and regeneration work across the region is picking up.

“We’re lucky to be involved in such a wide range of projects here in the North East, from the development of Newcastle’s Stephenson Quarter to Sunderland’s manufacturing industry.”

On his rise to the top, Paul also recognises the challenges he’s faced along the way.

“Working to realise your aspirations has to be a real balancing act,” he said.

“It can be hard juggling work with family life and other commitments and I haven’t always got the work-life balance right.

“I’m lucky to have a very patient and supportive partner, Christine, and love spending time with family and friends but realise these are the things you can never take for granted.

“In my spare time, I also try and fit in the odd round of golf and I’m still a real sports fan.”

He added that, as an engineer who started his career with a trade apprenticeship, he feels it’s vital opportunities be opened up to the future generation.

“The role of the M&E consultant is as important as it’s ever been,” he said.

“The rise of Building Information Modelling – BIM – means that collaborative working has been taken to a whole new level.

“It is imperative that we continue to attract young people into M&E engineering design and Desco works hard to help support our future engineers through their degrees.

“Of course we have concerns for the future – engineering isn’t always considered the most attractive career to go into and it worries me that the North East is losing out on its engineering skills and that less emphasis is placed on the industry as a result.

“We hope to turn this around and showcase what an excellent career opportunity the industry can offer.”

The North East’s universities, he added, offer extensive training programme, giving young people a great start to their careers.

“Desco is now involved in an awareness programme which supports the work that the universities are doing and takes the subject into schools across the region, with a view to introducing engineering to prospective students,” he said.

“We’re also committed to putting our staff through the training they need to develop and we regularly take on graduate engineers.

“We are by no means in this alone – the UK as a whole has to continue to raise the profile of architecture and engineering as attractive professions to go into.

“We have some of the best quality building designers and engineers in the world and a lot of students from across the globe come here to the UK to be educated and trained, which I think says a lot for the calibre of the industry in this country.”

With regard to the longer term, Paul is optimistic about the future.

“In 2014 things feel like they’re really looking up,” he said.

“In the next few years, we look forward to continuing to develop our home base here in the North East and expand our national and international bases.

“We’ll continue to nurture young talent and offer our young people some exciting and career-developing projects to work on.

“My first job gave me the very best start to my career and I hope Desco continues to offer the same for our next generation of engineers.”

The Questionnaire

What car do you drive? I’m more of a motorbike fan really, so it’s an old Volvo Estate which is great for the golf clubs and doing the skip run

What’s your favourite restaurant? D’Acqua in Sunderland – you always get a warm welcome and the food is great

Who or what makes you laugh? Mrs Brown’s Boys (first series in particular) and family get-togethers; there are a lot of similarities really

What’s your favourite book? I don’t read a lot of books - normally only on holiday - but enjoy a good autobiography. Recent ones include; Gerald Ronson / Muhammad Ali / Seve Ballesteros.

What was the last album you bought? I rely on recommendations from my son Neil and recently it’s been Mumford & Sons.

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got? Professional golfer - touring the world and playing golf really appeals.

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say? ‘Take your shoes off’. I’m always getting reminded by my partner Christine.

What’s your greatest fear? Losing my hair – oops too late.

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received? When setting up the business I was given two gems; work with good people and make sure you enjoy it

And the worst? Just leave it and it’ll go away – it never does

What’s your poison? A cold beer

What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal? The Sunderland Echo (for the SAFC news), The Times and BBC News online.

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for? £21 a week as a 16yr-old-apprentice and it seemed like a fortune.

How do you keep fit? Playing golf, walking and thinking about the gym

What’s your most irritating habit? Apparently I have a few but probably top would be channel hopping or making lists.

What’s your biggest extravagance? Tickets for sports events – SAFC, cricket, golf... it’s a long list.

Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire? I admire Nelson Mandela; having read the book and seen the film, he was a real example of a truly ‘great man’

Which four famous people would you most like to dine with? George Best, John Daly, Niall Quinn, and Barry Sheene

How would you like to be remembered? Hardworking, honest, caring and generous

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