We talked to Derrick Hitchins CPEng RPEQ, National Sector Leader Transport Planning, Logistics and Analytics (AUS/NZ) at SMEC Australia and proud Fellow of the AITPM
I was born and bred in South Africa many more years ago than I wish to remember. I lived in Cape Town for the most part, attended school in the northern suburbs and studied at the University of Cape Town for both my Bachelor’s degree and MBA.
My family and I immigrated to New Zealand in 1997 but decided to make Australia our home from 2001. I have 35 years of experience in the traffic and transport planning industry and currently work for SMEC Australia, a member of the Surbana Jurong Group, Singapore.
What is your current role?
I am the National Sector Leader Transport Planning, Logistics and Analytics (AUS/NZ). Previously based in Brisbane, but now living in Melbourne, I usually travel interstate a lot to keep in touch with my managers, meet our key clients and assist with the delivery of our bigger projects. I am also responsible for the diversification, growth and financial performance of the TPLA team overall.
What first attracted you to get involved in the transport industry?
I am always been a bit of a hands on kind of guy – a typical Bob the Builder type. Civil engineering seemed like the right way to go, given the massive need for new infrastructure in South Africa at the time and the growing demand for new housing, municipal infrastructure and new roads. I think part of me wanted a good stable professional career, but at a personal level I also wanted to be able to tell somebody: “I designed and built this”. My diversification into transport planning happened because I became frustrated with having to build other people designs, including their “mistakes”. I decided to go after the source to make sure the right decisions were being made right at the start.
Could you explain some key opportunities in your career and how they contributed to your development?
I often lament on opportunities lost, but more often than not, it is because of these disappointments that new doors have been opened for me. I don’t believe that it is my nature to over-analyse these occasions in too great a detail though, but rather think about what is beyond, as what I need to be focussing on.
Major projects that have influenced my career include being the client project manager responsible for the installation of Auckland’s first ATMS motorway management system in 1998/99 and being the Transit New Zealand Event Coordinator and spokesman for Auckland Harbour Bridge Millennium fireworks display in 2000. For these reasons I will always have the fondest memories of this amazing little country and its people where everybody’s contribution is valued and everybody’s efforts count. Notwithstanding my overindulgence in the obvious natural beauty that the island has to offer, I can say with all certainty that my fanatism for the game of Rugby has never again been as pronounced.
Here in Australia, I had the privilege of being involved in both the development of toll patronage transport model and the construction phase of the $2.5B Eastlink toll way project in Melbourne back in 2003/2005. And since then, on the back of many other amazing opportunities whilst working at SMEC, I am now advisor to the ARTC on traffic matters for the $16B Melbourne to Brisbane Inland Rail project, currently underway. And whilst some might argue that the money could be better spent or that the project is taking far too long to construct, from a professional development perspective, this is project has certainly been the pinnacle of my career.
What has been involvement with AITPM to date?
I joined the AITPM in 2011 and soon afterwards successfully lobbied within my organisation for SMEC to become a National Sponsor of the AIPTM, a commitment we have maintained ever since. I have been an active member of the Queensland Branch Committee since 2014 when I moved up to Queensland for a few years. I was elected as Vice President of the Queensland Branch in 2016 and the Queensland Branch President in 2018. It was during this time that I accepted the additional responsibility of becoming a Company Director to be able to continue to represent the Queensland Branch as a member of the inaugural AITPM National Board.
What are your aspirations for your contribution to the AITPM Board?
What I hope to achieve over the next two years, is an active role in the promotion of our young professionals, a strengthening of our commitment to role of our Fellows in the leadership of the AITPM, improving the technical content of our events, and achieving a clear and undeniable value proposition to all of our Members and Sponsors.
In addition, the establishment of the Board, I believe, marks a step change in the way the AITPM is going about its current business and will be conducting its business into the future. With the recent appointment of Kirsty Kelly to the position of CEO, I am so very excited to be part of this new chapter in the life of the AITPM.
What has been a memorable moment in your career?
Deciding to immigrate was of course a significant event in my life – as it no doubt is for everyone else who has ever done so too. Leaving behind loved ones and everything you hold dear leaves a scar, but also makes you more resilient, more focussed, and to some extent, more hard-working.
Needing to start again in Australia was definitely a little stressful at first, but after securing my first job with Hyder Consulting, I soon got up to steam and underway. The noughties was a great decade from what I can recall. We made a lot of good money in those days, but also worked some very long hours at the same time too. Melbourne was definitely the place to be.
My time with SMEC has been a memorable moment as a whole. Introducing the concept of Transport Planning as a standalone business unit within a large design oriented consultancy has not been without its challenges. However, with the support of my current TPLA team, I do believe we are having a marked impact on the market and are making a significant difference to our clients. In a similar way, our more recent diversification into Logistics and Analytics has opened up new avenues for securing work and so the future looks very bright indeed.
Is there a challenge/problem that you have experienced in your career and how did you overcome it?
I think the only real problem that I have ever experienced regularly in my career is when people say that something is too hard to overcome or too difficult to achieve. As engineers we are all natural problem solvers, and in knowing that, there is nothing we cannot do. My only response to these situations is however unfortunately more often than not always the same; simply to step out in front and say, “follow me”, because together we can achieve more.
What I will say though is that very often these milestone events have occurred in the company of friends and fellow professionals who have always shown me great kindness and goodwill. Once agreed, they have given me the necessary support and encouragement to “seize the day” and have a go, knowing that I would be stronger for it, either way.
What are your personal and/or professional career plans for the future?
I am looking forward to entertaining some grandchildren at some future time, but my children are in no mood to reward me with this pleasure as yet. Until then, my focus remains squarely on my work, with the odd flurry or two on the weekends with my boat.
However, if I can make it happen sometime over the next few years, I would be keen to spend a little time as a volunteer with Engineers without Borders, as a way of sharing the knowledge I have gained with others simply because I can, and in doing so make sure that in some little way I can leave the world a better place than when I arrived.
What do you do in your spare time to unwind?
I purchased a 30’ yacht three years ago. It was either a yacht or a Harley Davidson. Still not sure if I made the right choice? Anyway, weather permitting, I try to get out on the Port Phillip Bay at least twice per month, but as every boat owner will tell you, the biggest issue is always trying to find a capable and willing crew. So far, the promise of a hot breakfast and beers on the Bay appears to be working well.
Do you have any advice you would like to share with professionals in the transport/traffic industry?
In no way can I profess to have sufficient wisdom, knowledge or understanding of the transport/traffic industry to be able to proffer any unsolicited advice. Is there anyone who would be so bold? What I can tell you about though is what has worked for me, and what I have seen work for others in the industry in response to the same. So if you truly want to be the best engineer you can be, you must make the effort to listen and learn from the successes (and failures?) of others before experiencing it on your own. For only in this way will you truly become the engineer you wish to be.
Anything else that you’d like to share?
Be safe, keep safe and travel safe, especially for my friends down in Victoria.