In many ways, Steven Demetriou’s success is the epitome of the American dream.
Having left school without any qualifications, his father jumped on a boat from his native Cyprus to set up a new life in America, where he set up a Cypriot restaurant. “I started peeling potatoes and washing dishes,” says Demetriou, who grew up in Boston. “Before I was finally promoted to waiter.”
These days Demetriou ranks among one of the world’s most influential executives in the engineering, construction and consulting arena as chairman and chief executive of Jacobs.
He is responsible for 60,000 jobs worldwide, 13,000 of which are in the UK. While the $16bn (£12bn) corporation may not be a household name, the projects it is responsible for overseeing are.
In Britain, Jacobs oversees the High-Speed 2 rail link, the Hinkley Point C nuclear reactor, the refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster, the Lower Thames Crossing, London’s Crossrail and the Dogger Bank wind farm – to name but a few.
Operations in the US extend beyond construction and civil engineering: Jacobs handles classified information, surveillance and dealing with cyber threats.
Work isn’t everything for Demetriou, however. “I’m a big diehard Boston Red Sox fan,” he says, cutting a relaxed figure from his office in Dallas, Texas. “[But] basketball is my number one sport. I peaked in high school, and I was elected to my high school hall of fame.”
And so, naturally, the millionaire sports fanatic – who took home $16m in pay last year – bought a minor league basketball team. “It’s based outside Orlando, Florida and called Lakeland Magic,” he says. “And by the way, we won the championship last year.”
After 17 years working for oil major Exxon, Demetriou moved to a series of smaller manufacturing firms, successfully turning their fortunes around and allowing US private equity firms to cash out with big returns. In 2015, a recruiter called to say Jacobs was looking for a chief executive.
Then, he says, Jacobs was predominantly known for its work “for the likes of Exxon and Shell and Rio Tinto. It was very much a traditional energy type engineering consultancy”.
Demetriou claims he could see the impact that climate change campaigners would have on the energy industry. Oil and gas would become “dirty” words.
“We made a bold decision, a couple years after I joined, to divest [sell] the industry that I was hired from,” he says.
The money raised was used to accelerate an expansion into consultancy work. The acquisition of rival CH2M for $3.3bn was a key – the Colorado engineering consultancy is best known in the States for masterminding the expansion of the Panama Canal in the noughties.
In the UK, it was chosen to oversee the £4bn development of stadia, sports venues and London’s Olympic village.