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DBA studies “invaluable” for Canadian engineer

A lot has changed in Alexander White’s life since we last caught up with the Canadian civil engineer and recent Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) graduate.

For one thing he now has a four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter at home near Toronto which inevitably made balancing the commitments of a full-time job, DBA studies and childcare challenging. “It was certainly a motivator to complete my studies,” he admits with a touch of understatement.

Five years ago, when we last interviewed him, Alexander had just begun his part-time programme at Alliance MBS and then worked as Chief of Planning and Development for the Toronto Terminals Railway (TTR) company which operates the main passenger rail terminal in Toronto.

His proposed area of study was the use of Public Private Partnership (PPP) business models in public infrastructure delivery, and at the time he had been looking for ways to research the rapidly growing industry further. Having looked at programmes all over the world he chose Manchester because of the strength of its academic research in this field, and also because the course was part-time which would enable to split his time between industry and academia.

New role

Alexander has since changed jobs to work for Plenary Americas, a leading specialised developer of long-term PPP projects, and says the decision was in part driven by the progression of his DBA studies. “Plenary is a real specialist in the PPP field and that was a major attraction for me as I continued through my studies at the same time,” he says. “One of the biggest benefits for me was that by working for Plenary I was able to access real live data to complement my research and test my theories.”

As a Director of Project Delivery at Plenary, Alexander has specific responsibilities for a portfolio of hospitals across the province of Ontario, and as such was able to base his empirically-based DBA thesis on the actual operational performance and delivery structure of various hospital facilities.

Perfect bridge

Alexander says the new job helped feed into his DBA studies in innumerable ways, and likewise the skills and disciplines he learnt from his DBA fed back into his day-to-day working role.

“Studying for the DBA has proved invaluable and is the perfect bridge between industry and academia. At a basic level it has significantly improved my data analysis and report writing skills, but what I also found was that clients were very interested and impressed by my interest in critically analysing the business models and being immersed in the subject matter. This is exactly what attracted me to the DBA in the first place, the ability to carry out in-depth research while also making it as applicable as possible to the industry I was working in.”

Globally, and especially in the UK, PPPs have not been without their critics in terms of whether they deliver value for taxpayers, but Alexander believes the model’s broader advantages can be significant. “To me the greatest benefit of the PPP model is the opportunity that comes with bundling design, construction and operations into a single contract. This not only allows for innovation and effective incentive structures, but can also strongly influence green design and energy use which is of course critical today.”

Pandemic impact

Another huge change since we last spoke has been the impact of Covid-19. Like everyone Alexander says his working lifestyle has changed dramatically in terms of home working, but says the hospitals he manages have been able to cope very well with the crisis.

He says one of the key reasons is that they were all built in the aftermath of the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto. “This heavily influenced their design and ensured their layouts could handle a pandemic event. The hospitals were also designed to ensure that there was 100% fresh air circulation throughout buildings which is also critical.”

The pandemic meant that Alexander was only able to graduate ‘virtually’ last summer, so he is looking forward to returning to Manchester sometime soon to catch up with his supervisors, Professors Anne Stafford and Pam Stapleton.

He adds: “Anne and Pam were an absolute pleasure to work with from start to finish during my studies. They both have fantastic subject expertise and have also done a lot of work with hospitals across the UK and Europe which I found invaluable when it came to putting my thesis together. But, just as importantly, they were really supportive throughout the course and, particularly with the birth of my two children, gave me space when I needed it.”

Enthusiasm

Professors Anne Stafford and Pam Stapleton added: “It was a very great pleasure to act as Alexander’s DBA supervisors. From the first time we met him he was so very enthusiastic about his project, full of ideas about how to pursue it, and yet willing to listen to alternative suggestions.

“Like many part-time students, Alexander had a huge balancing act to get right between home, work, and study. Despite, and maybe because of, his increasing family, he was very determined not just to complete his thesis but to create a worthwhile study of which he could be rightly proud.

“During the DBA he took full advantage of both the academic learning we offered and his excellent access to empirical data to provide an in-depth and critical analysis of the operational stage performance of PPP projects, and his work both offers academic contributions and is highly applicable in practice. We wish him all the very best for his career and personal life and hope to see him either in Toronto or Manchester when we are all free to travel again.”