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In honour of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Everyone needs a hero - not because your hero is perfect, but because he or she has some admirable qualities or achievements which can inspire you to greater things. My hero is Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Born on 9 April 1806, Brunel was a 19th century engineer who built the Great Western Railway, the best railway of the times. He built the Great Western, the Great Britain and the Great Eastern - the largest and most advanced steamships of their time. He built great bridges and tunnels. Overcoming setbacks (and the occasional failure), he made things happen, and his works still stand today as examples of innovation, design, entrepreneurship and execution. In an extensive national poll accompanied by in-depth BBC TV documentaries in 2002, Brunel was voted the second greatest Briton of all time.

Brunel was always around in my early years. My parents’ families lived near the GWR in west London (the local pub was called the Great Western). I studied Computer Science at Brunel University in London. Early in my career, I worked near Paddington, London and Temple Meads, Bristol - the original terminus stations at either end of the GWR. Brunel’s constructions were everywhere.

Brunel’s life story is as fascinating as his work. The more I learnt about the man, the more I identified with his sense of ethics, his egalitarian elitism, his setting of grand goals (not just his works themselves, but why they were built) and his ability to achieve them.

Brunel translated his personal motto ‘En Avant’ as “Get Going’. Anyone who knows my leadership style knows that I want to get things going, get started, start delivering value.  And like Brunel, I have tried to apply a bigger vision.  Designing and operating a great business is akin to a great engineering project:
  • an overarching purpose: what you offer the world, to whom (customers, shareholders, staff, communities, business partners), and why they'd want it;
  • a clear, coherent, consistent and elegant design of how you will make and fulfil that offer - core principles, people, processes, products;
  • doing what should be done to build that business (and not doing what shouldn't);
  • thinking, planning and acting for greatness.

It follows that my private companies (Isambard Ltd and my old venture investment company Isambard Investments Ltd) were named after Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I have a small, but growing, collection of Brunel-related books, pictures, DVDs and souvenirs. My car number plate is ISAMBD (which has most personalised-plate translators completely stumped). And I have a life-size banner image of the great little man hanging on my study wall. Top hat, 3-piece suit, cigar, and muddy boots - what an icon!

First published 9 April 2008 and republished on Brunel's birthday