OBITUARY: Dr Oskar Steffen 1940-2018
11 July 2018 – Johannesburg: SRK Consulting announces with great sadness the passing of Dr Oskar Steffen – one of the three founders of the global firm of consulting engineers and scientists – on Wednesday 27 June in Johannesburg; he was 77 years old.
Oskar was born in Swaziland, where he spent his youth and completed his schooling. He left for Johannesburg in 1956 to study civil engineering at Wits University, graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1961 and 1963 respectively. He spent the next seven years working for Nchanga Consolidated Copper Mines in Zambia, initially in a geotechnical role focused mainly on pit slope stability and later transferring to production, where he moved successively through the roles of Shift Boss, Mine Captain, and Assistant Open Pit Manager Production and Planning, ending as Open Pit Manager.
Oskar left Nchanga in 1969 to take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer in Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering at Wits, where he worked with his mentor Professor Jere Jennings. He remained at the university until late 1973; his research focused on rock slope stability, which later led to a PhD thesis dealing with methods of stability analysis for rock slopes. While at the university, he also consulted for civil and mining clients.
During 1973, Andy Robertson persuaded Oskar and Hendrik Kirsten to join him in a consulting partnership and the firm Steffen, Robertson and Kirsten was formed in 1974. The new partners set out to build a firm where staff could reach their full potential within the business, rather than having to leave in search of new challenges; the concept was a series of practices under a unifying and supportive umbrella. They recognised that work must be interesting, preferably fun, and would need to be profitable to be sustainable.
Over the following decades, Oskar’s recognition and profile as a top-drawer consultant went from strength to strength, significantly contributing to SRK becoming a premium brand in the industry. His consulting activities included: open pit planning and design; rock and soil slope stability analysis and design for road and rail cuttings and open pit and strip mines; and general surface mining geotechnics, including tailings dam investigation and design. His innovation and discovery activities included developing frameworks for pit optimization, strategic mine planning, and the application of probability techniques in geotechnical engineering, particularly regarding risk analysis of slope failure in open pit stability investigations.
Oskar served as President of the South African Institution of Mining and Metallurgy from 1989 to 1990. He was awarded the Brigadier Stokes Memorial Award in 1995 and the SAICE Geotechnical Gold Medal in 2001. The former award is given to individuals who make a unique contribution to the mining industry over many years and the latter is for individuals who have made a significant contribution to furthering the art and science of geotechnical engineering in South Africa. Oskar was also awarded the Mining Journal’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010 in recognition of his technical contribution to the international mining industry.
Oskar was very much the statesman and “spiritual leader” in the new practice, and his personal values had an outsize influence on the culture that evolved. He firmly believed that ownership opportunities for strong contributors were essential in securing their long-term commitment to the business, leading to increasingly broad-based ownership in SRK. His strategic approach also promoted SRK’s expansion into a wide range of engineering and scientific disciplines.
Today, the company is a global group of practices, driven and owned by the kind of professionals that leaders like Steffen encouraged and inspired.