Successful Career Built on Solid Foundations

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In the late seventies, the University very nearly missed out on having Gerry Donnelly as a student at the Paisley Campus, because of his love of football. Neilston-born Gerry excelled at sports and athletics at school. He was in the Summer Cup winning team at Neilston Primary School. In secondary school, he was a mid-fielder for Gleniffer Thistle Club, and the Paisley and District team, where he had the distinction of playing at Love Street, St Mirren’s Paisley football stadium, against the Northern Ireland Under-16 Youth National Team.

When he left Eastwood High School in 1978, four higher education institutions offered him a place at university including Leeds University, and also the then Paisley College of Technology, now UWS.

Gerry Donnelly, BSc (Hons) Civil Engineering 1983 (photo credit: Tim Morozzo)

“Although an English club, I was a Leeds United fan, because half the Scottish National football team played for Leeds United,” he says, remembering Peter Lorimer, the legendary attacking midfielder from Dundee, and fellow Scottish National teammates Billy Bremner, Joe Jordan, Eddie Gray and Derek Parlane.

But fortunately, he paid the Paisley Campus a visit and was so impressed by the course on offer that it overcame his devotion to Leeds. He had been particularly gifted at maths at school, and while at Barrhead High School, which he attended before spending the final year of secondary at Eastwood, he seemed set for a career in accountancy. But a school careers adviser introduced him to Civil Engineering.

“That was the right decision. If I’d become an accountant, I would have missed out on the great experience that civil engineering has afforded me.”

He was attracted to Paisley’s BSc (Hons) Civil Engineering, because the course was not only academic, but also highly technical and practical, giving it an edge over other universities’ degrees. And he found the sandwich programme of the course invaluable in incorporating work experience into the curriculum.

There was no stuffiness about the academic atmosphere, he recalls. The staff were always available and approachable and made learning enjoyable. During his course, he won a prestigious Eccles Scholarship for international travel, which he used to go to the States, launching his career in the company he remains with to this day – STV Incorporated.

During his degree course, he completed internships with a local construction contractor and with Strathclyde Region Sewer and Water Authority. The scholarship enabled him to undertake internships in 1981 and 1982 with the then Pennsylvania-based engineering and architectural firm STV/ Sanders & Thomas (now STV Incorporated), which then offered him a permanent post upon graduation in 1983.

“I believe the education and training I got at Paisley gave me a technical and practical application edge, when I began my career,” he says. “The high standard of engineering education I got was a significant foundation for my career. I started in the company’s structural engineering group and my structural ability gave me a distinct advantage.”

Gerry has been with the company for more than 30 years. He is now Executive Vice President of STV Energy Services, Inc., a new business unit which he was instrumental in developing from scratch, over 20 years ago, and which has become one of the company’s most rapidly growing groups.

“Without a doubt, my proudest moment was leading the energy services practice to the point of creating a separate division within STV,” Gerry says.

He manages a team of 230 engineers, designers, surveyors and environmental scientists, who offer design, permitting, project management and construction services to the petroleum, natural gas and electric transmission industries. He led the acquisition of the Denver-based firm GWD, prominent for its work in the natural gas sector in the Rocky Mountain region, spending 3 months in their Denver, Colorado headquarters to make sure the cultural differences of both companies were harmonised and integrated smoothly.

Following the acquisition in February 2014, Energy Services now has annual revenues of around $52 million (£30 million). The whole company has doubled in size since Gerry joined, from 900 employees to 1,800, with 42 offices across the United States and an annual revenue of over $400 million.

Gerry married his wife Jane, whom he met in secondary school, while he was attending Paisley College of Technology (now UWS), and their eldest son, Paul, was born just before Gerry graduated. They moved to the States when Paul was a few months old. Paul is a former US Marine and is currently completing a nursing degree. The couple’s daughter, Laura, is an environmental scientist with STV Inc, and their youngest son, Kevin, has a degree in supply chain management and marketing and works for Volvo Construction Equipment in Germany.

Gerry still maintains close links with Scotland, and returns to visit relatives and friends every other year. Both his parents had careers in the Royal Air Force, after which his father managed casinos and his mother was a payroll clerk for a number of local companies, as well as running her own grocery store. His mother lives in Kilbirnie, and he has two brothers, one living in Irvine and the other in Roseneath.

Gerry says his parents impressed on him the importance of higher education qualifications, and he got his maths skills and work ethic from his mother. His knowledge and experience at Paisley gave him the foundation to continue to learn and to apply his knowledge, he says.

“I believe what I learned most is that you can’t do it on your own. Every project assignment takes a team of people to accomplish. Working with others to achieve a common goal is the most important aspect of education, together with recognising what you don’t know.”

What advice would he give to the current cohort of UWS Civil Engineering graduates, as they set out to build their own successful careers?

You have to put the effort in. The opportunity has to be there, but you have to want it and go after it – if you’re not the driver, someone else will take your place.”

Gerry Donnelly

He urges students to develop their interpersonal skills, which he says are just as important as technical skills. Communication is key to the success of any project, to understand what is needed and how to interact with the team. Gerry is enthusiastic about the openings which Civil Engineering offers. “There are vast opportunities. It’s like a candy store. Once you get through third year, you need to start really thinking about what area you are passionate about. Take advantage of work experience to try something different, to experience whether that’s what you really want to do for your career.”

He recently visited the UWS Paisley Campus, where he studied 30 years ago. “I can see that some investment has been made in expanding labs in the engineering wing.”

But the visit was not simply a walk down memory lane: he met senior management, having said he wanted to “give back” to the University.

“I’d like to have the opportunity to share experiences with students who are seeking a Civil Engineering career or looking to work overseas. I’d like to share with staff the knowledge that new graduates need to have to embark on their career, beyond the technical courses, and what attributes are important to companies when they interview new graduates,” he says.

He is a prominent member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and has often given talks on the profession to high school students in the States, as well as being a judge at science and engineering fairs.

Still an avid football fan, he was also a youth football coach for many years. “I might get back into that when I’ve got more time.”

But he is showing no signs of easing up on work. “For the future, I hope to continue my career with STV, until I’m ready to retire, and to continue to advance my role. I really care about the company and about my staff.”

He enjoys playing golf, but says ruefully: “I don’t get out very often – five times a year doesn’t cut it. My wife, Jane and I like to go on cruises, and that helps me to relax – it’s one place the cell phone definitely doesn’t work!”

Words Olga Wojtas, Photography Tim Morozzo

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