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Personality of the Month: December

JACQUES van Eeden, newly appointed vice president at Schneider Electric, has been in the industry, he says, from about the age of five. A decisive and focused individual with a talent for motivating his colleagues, Jacques also has a knack for getting everybody to work enthusiastically towards the same goal.

He has an interesting and diverse life and enjoys every aspect of it to the full, believing that the only sin in life is having regrets on your deathbed. Living this philosophy completely, Jacques has climbed Torres del Paine in Patagonia, scuba dived with the sharks all over the world and paraglided in the Andes. He is devoted to his two sons, who he has dragged with him across several continents during his interesting and wide-ranging career.

Jacques enjoys people, which is one of the things that make him a manager who enjoys his work. It also means that one of his favourite pastimes is conversing with friends and colleagues over a good bottle of wine.

Sparks: Where were you educated?

JvE: I attended Technical High School in the Vaal and studied electrical engineering at the Vaal University of Technology. I was trained on DCS, MV, LV and drive systems in Mannheim, Germany and received my cross-cultural and international cuisine training in Europe, Middle East, Africa, North and South America. Lastly, but most importantly, I received my fine wine training in Chile and Argentina

Sparks: How long have you been involved in the electrical industry?

JvE: From before I could walk, seriously. My granny used to be a supervisor at a block of flats when I was two or three, she used to collect old radios and all sorts of gadgets for me. We didn't have colour TVs, Play Stations and everything else the kids have today so we had to find entertainment elsewhere.

Sparks: When and where did you start your career?

JvE: Must have been at the age of five... I always wanted to be an engineer. I started to do home automation, remote control pump stations for farmers, even did a medicine delivery automation system for a hospital when I was still at school. My first paid job was just the next step.

Sparks: What are the greatest changes you have seen over the years?

JvE: Changes in technology and changes in career decisions by the younger Play Station generation, globalisation, urbanisation, lack of qualified skills, technology that is becoming a commodity. Good technology doesn't bring you the special edge anymore - today you have it, day after tomorrow the Chinese have the same. Today is about adding value, quality of service, skill retention and development, today is about people.

Sparks: What major projects have you worked on and what is your greatest accomplishment?

JvE: I have done quite a few projects - some good, some not so good. The not so good ones are the ones you learn from and believe me I have learned a lot! The toughest project I ever did was for a brewing company when I had to fit the dynamics of the IS88 model on the fixed IS95 model. The fact that I got the thing to work must qualify as my best technical achievement.

Sparks: Who has been your inspiration or have you had a mentor who has influenced your career?

JvE: The first person who comes to mind is a MD I used to work for on a large project - a seamless tube factory we were building in the late 80s. Young and green, I was responsible for C&I. To cut a long story short, there were some serious problems on some of the early production runs on some product ranges and I was called out at 2am to make some decisions and changes. Just to put things in perspective: this was big mechanical stuff and if you get it wrong, you can break some serious equipment.

By 6am I still didn't have a solution. I did have a plan but not the guts to implement it. By 7am, Barry (the MD) was there after assessing the situation. He said: "Make a decision, any decision is better than no decision". You can imagine the tone! I did and got the thing to work without any serious consequences. Through my career I have had the privilege to work with quite a few other Barrys.

Sparks: What to your mind is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry at this time?

JvE: Qualified people, cheap products from the East and for today, global economic uncertainty in the market

Sparks: What do you enjoy most about your job?

JvE: I love what I do. Today I enjoy the people aspect more than the technical but nothing beats closing a big deal.

Sparks: How do you motivate your staff?

JvE: Lead with passion, have fun and enjoy what you do. Make sure everybody takes care of the balance: health, family and then career. Don't be afraid to take calculated risks, and apply the 80/20 rule. If you don't make mistakes you're not doing anything at all. Establish trust and make sure the team is a high priority. Be human and drink some wine with the guys.

Sparks: If you could ‘do it all again', would you change anything? If so, what would that be?

JvE: I don't think I would want to change anything. I have an Aussie friend in Chile, whose dad passed away a couple of years ago. Garry (the Aussie) shared his dad's last words with me. To his wife he said, "I didn't do it" and to his son: "Here is my last dollar I have lived the rest out". Real words of wisdom.

Life is short and I am not wasting time by not living it. Nothing is perfect, but I am having fun.

Sparks: Would you advise a person leaving school to enter the electrical industry? And why?

JvE: Of course there is no better profession on earth. It makes you feel alive and sometimes grateful to be alive. I was, again, young and stupid busy commissioning a drive system; covers were taken off and the 900V DV bus bars were exposed. It was a little awkward reaching the drive for tuning and looking at the conveyor system around a column. At some point, I overreached and grabbed the DV bus and not the column's edge. I never experienced anything like this... it felt as though I had been shot with a cannon ball... could smell something burning... my life passed before my eyes and I was sure ‘this is it'. Miraculously, gravity pulled me down and I was freed from the bus. I never felt more alive or grateful to be alive. I even stopped swearing and smoking (for two days)!

On a more serious note, though, yes, I would advise youngsters to get into the industry, we need the skills. I have been in industry for 25 years, loving every minute; this is not a dull profession!

Because of the skills issues, the industry pays pretty well for good quality skills. I don't see this changing any time soon.

Sparks: What is your advice to electrical contractors and/ or electrical engineers?

JvE: Be careful, they don't teach you that electrons are dangerous at varsity. Constantly develop your skills, keep up with technology, focus on delivery of quality, service and have fun.

Sparks: What is your favourite quote?

JvE: To paraphrase Walt Disney: "Don't dream it. Do it."

Sparks: What ‘activity' is on your ‘bucket list' list?

JvE: The sharks at Umkomaas don't want to play... the stupid things just sit there! I was thinking of finding a new local dive spot where the sharks have real teeth.

While living in Miami I saw quite a few guys kite surfing, saw one guy being dragged through rocks and scrubs by 80km/h winds. It looked like real fun - not being dragged through the bushes, though. I think I need to put kite surfing on the list.

(This is an extended version of the article that appears on page three of the December 2011 issue.)