My journey from Apprentice to CEO

Rob Melling
Rob Melling on 11th May 2022

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Someone asked me recently how it came to pass that I chose a career in engineering, and the answer is; ‘complete fluke’. 

It was 1981, I had left school with five less than desirable ‘O’ Levels (as they were called way back when) and I just needed a job. Any port in the storm. There was the opportunity to go into my family business on offer, and I guess that may have been the easy option to take, but I always wanted more of a challenge than to take the easy option.

“No thanks Rob Melling, we don’t see you having a future at Curtins”.

And so it was I posted out my CV out to a range of businesses in Liverpool looking for an Apprenticeship, including WG Curtin and Partners, as Curtins was then called. I nervously attended the interview and was immediately struck by the buzz in the office. The great big sketches strewn out on the drawing boards were so intricate and creative. The people were loud and friendly and funny, and I could really see myself fitting in. Unfortunately though, Bill - our founder and the chap who interviewed me - thought otherwise and sent me on my way. “No thanks Rob Melling, we don’t see you having a future at Curtins”.

Ah.

But I couldn’t get the place out of my head. I liked Bill; his enthusiasm, his directness, his interest in people. A few months later, I took my chances and sent my CV back in again. Of course, this time I knew what questions were coming my way at the interview and so I swotted up. Luckily for me, Bill didn’t recall my face and so that time I left with offer to begin an Apprenticeship in civil and structural engineering. I was delighted.

I love telling new starters at Curtins this story. Because I’ve had a career spanning four decades in our business, and I have worked my way up to the CEO position. And yet, I was rejected the first time I applied. I guess you could say I was tenacious, determined, I had my eye on the destination I wanted to get to and the drive to get there. And I think a lot of that translates into how I run the business today. Of course, there will be bumps along the way but the destination point remains the same if you truly believe in it.

Having walked in the shoes of an Apprentice, I know it’s not always the easy route into employment. There were times I felt negatively compared to my peers, who had come to the job through the traditional degree entry system. Whilst I did go on to achieve my engineering qualifications in university, I believe starting first as an Apprentice gave me the drive to prove not only was I technically just as capable, but that I had an extra edge too. I think that edge turned out to be business acumen, and an interest in people as well as maths formulas that meant I could run a company as well as design a concrete slab!

We employ many Apprentices across the business, both in technical and non-technical roles; some of whom are doing degree-apprenticeships and some who are not. Generally speaking, we employ a pretty great bunch of people at Curtins, but I always do have my eye on the Apprentices in particular, watching how they operate and the value they bring to the whole team. I’d like to think I learn as much from them as they do from me. We have an ethos that has tracked through our 60-year history where we believe youngsters can run the business, if they are given encouragement, empowerment and they are nurtured to their full potential. This happened for me, and I’d say it worked out alright!  

Inspiring Graduate Prize

We established the AJ/Curtins Inspiring Graduate Prize in 2015 to celebrate young talent in architecture by identifying graduates that display a combination of business acumen and rigorous design skills. 

Recognising and nurturing young talent to enable them to reach their full potential has always been a key driver for Curtins – from day one when Bill hand-picked graduates from his college course to start the business with him, to launching the Curtins Academy in 2014.

Rob Melling, CEO of Curtins comments:

“In memory of Bill, Curtins established the Bill Curtin Medal for Innovation in Civil Engineering Design which is awarded annually by the ICE. But why stop there? We want to take this approach to the development of individuals and apply it to the wider industry by identifying, praising and inspiring future generations in other disciplines too.”

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