Development & Alumni Relations Office 


Dr John (Michael) West, BSc, PhD, DSc (died 25 November 2020, aged 83)


Obituary submitted by Emeritus Professor Adrian Long, Queen’s University Belfast


It is with regret that we record the death of Dr Michael West in late 2020 after an illness.


John Michael West was born on 27 August 1937 into a Fermanagh family involved in quarrying, farming and timber and grew up in Ballycassidy, close to Lough Erne. Michael attended Portora Royal School following in the footsteps of famous old boys such as Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde. However, Michael’s strength lay in the areas of science and mathematics and he decided to study Engineering at Queen’s and Civil Engineering in particular.


Michael graduated with a BSc First class honours in 1960, and then took the opportunity to study for his Doctorate in Soil Mechanics, the aspect of Civil Engineering which had attracted him most as an undergraduate. He followed in the footsteps of Gregg Doran who was awarded the first PhD in Soil Mechanics in the United Kingdom in 1945, Walter Ferris, Victor Milligan, Ken Fleming, Chin Fung Kee and Tom Hanna, whose combined expertise in this field brought Queen's to eminence in the world.


In 1964, Michael joined a small division of the British engineering group GKN plc, where he started as an engineer dealing with soil analysis and advising clients on foundations - in pile construction and especially in the emerging processes of soil improvement.  By the mid-1970s he became a director of the UK business, with responsibility for all aspects of ground engineering.


In 1978, Michael was asked by GKN to relocate to Germany to join the management team in the Keller Grundbau which had been acquired several years earlier. The business was incurring heavy losses and staff morale was low. After only a few months Dr West was appointed Geschaftsfuhrer (Managing Director) and, working closely with his German colleagues, the business was turned around. The Company enhanced its reputation by carrying out work on two of the world’s biggest dams at Tarbela and Mosul. By 1981, the German business was thriving and Michael returned to England to become Managing Director of the Foundations Division of GKN which included Keller and its sister companies elsewhere.


By the late 1980s, however, fundamental change took place and after many months of complex negotiations, a management buyout of the division was completed early in 1990. The business was renamed the Keller Group, and under Dr West’s guidance grew year on year to become a global player in this specialised field from its main bases in UK, Germany and the US. Complete independence was finally achieved in 1994 when the Keller Group, with Michael as Chief Executive, was successfully floated on the London Stock Exchange. His outstanding contributions to engineering were recognised by the award of an Honorary DSc by his Alma Mater in 1997.


Michael took up the post of Group Chairman in 1995, continuing his influence in developing the business, until his retirement in July 2009. Currently the Keller Group has a turnover of over £2.5 billion – the largest and most profitable ground engineering company in the world.


Michael is survived by Ruth, his wife for almost 60 years.


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