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Nick Pelham: unravelling big infrastructure challenges

Nick Pelham, Director – Project Investment and Finance

As a Director in RPS’ Project Investment and Finance team, Nick Pelham is in the business of big infrastructure projects. While he considers himself a project manager foremost, his experience extends far beyond just delivery. Here, Nick talks about a career journey that’s spanned offshore navy patrols and submarine programs, city building in the Middle East, mega transport projects, and passing his experience on to the next generation of infrastructure leaders. 

Q Tell us a little about your career journey

Before I worked in infrastructure, I was in the Navy. I sailed around Australia on warships and patrol vessels, from Sydney to Western Australia, Far North Queensland and all along the northern coastline, doing illegal fishing patrols and other operations at sea. 

Later, I was given the opportunity to move to Canberra and work on the program that put Australia’s Collins Class Submarines into service. That’s where I started my project management career and where my love of big projects began. And it was a big project to start a career with - $5 billion at the time! 

After that I spent six years delivering projects for engineering firms, and then moved to the Victorian Department of Treasury and Finance. I looked after the state’s infrastructure portfolio with the challenge to improve the quality of high value high risk ($100m+) business cases, and ensure big projects got delivered on time and on budget.  

Early in my career I learned valuable lessons about what can happen when projects go off the rails, and the waste that can occur. Those early lessons were the motivation behind the mantra that I have reminded myself of throughout my career – set up projects so they are well planned and properly delivered. That’s what drives me. 

Meet Nick

Role at RPS

Director - Project Investment and Finance, supporting clients to solve big infrastructure challenges. 

Specialising in

Transport infrastructure investment strategy, project development, business cases, project management, and much more.

Q At some point you started working in transport infrastructure?

Transport projects are vital for cities to function, so it made sense to move into that. It’s been my good fortune to work on major train, plane, road and maritime projects, and I never imagined it would be as big as it is right now!  

I’ve worked for Metro Trains Melbourne and Metro Trains Sydney. And the last six months before joining RPS I was working on the transport elements of a project in Saudi Arabia – designing and building a new smart city called NEOM, that will eventually be home to nine million people.  

The city will be 200 metres wide, 500 metres above sea level and stretch out for 170 kilometres. With no roads at all, the street level will just be parks and open space. Below the city will be all rail infrastructure, which was what I was working on – setting up that element of the project.  

Completely futuristic and redefining what a city can look like, it was a fascinating project to be involved in.

Q What kind of expertise do you need to work in infrastructure investment advisory?

There’s no one-size-fits-all university course on how to define and solve big infrastructure problems. So when it comes to big infrastructure investments, writing business cases and developing project strategy – no one can really come in as a trained expert in that field.  

I think you have to come into it because you have a natural interest in solving problems and working with likeminded people.  

The work actually is very creative. You will need to follow quite a structured process in terms of identifying what isn’t working, how can we fix it, and what benefits are expected at the end.  

I don’t think there is one “right” skillset to have from a technical perspective. Economists and accountants come at business cases from a certain viewpoint, project managers and engineers will have their own ways of looking at the problem, and stakeholder management is becoming a core part of the solution, too.  

All these views are valuable. The art is in coordinating all those perspectives, and writing an investment case that makes good sense and most importantly, options that are affordable to the people concerned.

Q What’s the key to a great business case?

A lot of work goes into a business case and they can often end up being 300 pages or more. Personally, I don’t know many people, particularly senior decision makers, who have the time to read through every single part.  

Detail is important and necessary, but I think the real skill is being able to tell a story and articulate the benefits in a page or two. To me, that’s the skillset we most need to have as the people developing business cases. Making it clear, concise and compelling.

Nick Pelham, RPS Director – Project Investment and Finance, Project management, Perth, Australia

Q What’s your approach to balancing the technical and strategic aspects of front-end infrastructure work?

In my role you can’t be an expert on everything, so you need to be a bit of a generalist. What really matters is the ability to understand enough about all of the technical elements to engage meaningfully with the experts, and bring all of their knowledge and skills together. 

Q So, your work is as much about people as anything else?

I think having great people skills is one of the most important aspects, yes.  

To be honest when I started in rail I knew very little about how all the systems work. But my approach was to just put my boots on, go out to site, talk to the foreman and say: “right, explain everything to me. What does this do? How does this work?”. 

If you show an interest, and value the people who are working day in and day out on assets, you learn a lot. You get valuable insights and ultimately end up with much better results.  

Q And this is something that you are teaching the next generation of infrastructure leaders, too

When I started out as a project manager, I think there was only one project management course in the country. Fast forward to today and there are plenty, and I now do some lecturing at the University of Melbourne. 

My focus is on teaching engineering students how big projects work. Looking at all the engineering stuff is one thing, but you also have to understand and know how to do engineering procurement, to translate commercial requirements into technical ones, that kind of thing.  

Delivering great projects is all about balancing the technical components with the overall strategy and intent. It’s about communication and taking everyone on a journey. 

Desert meets the sea - an aerial view of ocean and desert sand dune beach, Broome Western Australia