Your past does not define you: VUT alumnus lands amongst the stars

Your past does not define you: VUT alumnus lands amongst the stars

VUT Alumnus and Head of Process Design and Engineering for WoodGroup PSN Russian: Mr Vernon Adams 

Azande Ralephenya

It’s not too often we hear of success stories coming from the notorious streets of the Cape Flats. This is where the hard knocks are made, where dreams and hopes die before they are reached.  However, Vernon Adams, a Vaal University of Technology alumnus chose a different path. He chose education, a path which saw his dreams and goals come to fruition.

Vernon is currently the Head of Process Design and Engineering for WoodGroup PSN Russia, a $4-billion-a-year revenue company with more than 22 000 employees and engineering offices around the globe. He does process design contracting work for Kazakhstan, Russia and The United Kingdom and has nine process engineers reporting to him from Russia, England, Iran and South Africa.

WoodGroup PSN does process design and engineering work providing technical support to three offshore gas producing platforms, an onshore condensate processing facility and a 90 000 tons per day Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) plant.

Vernon is testament to the phrase: “It doesn’t matter where you come from; it’s where you’re going that counts the most.” Life wasn’t smooth sailing for him; he grew up in the poverty stricken Cape Flats in the town of Macassar, located in the Western Cape.  He matriculated in 1989 from the local Secondary School of Macassar with Physical Science, Mathematics, Biology and Geography as his subjects.


His mother, who used to be employed as a domestic worker and his late father, who was a carpenter, made a huge impact on his life. He says that his parents had strong work ethics and pride and this had a profound effect on how he viewed life. He planned for his future from a very young age. Being the youngest of five children, it wasn’t easy for his mother when his father passed away. But, she made it work!  She ensured, through her struggles and her small salary, that all five of her children completed high school successfully. His mother’s die-hard attitude and perseverance instilled a sense of commitment and responsibility in him, which, to this day, he holds dearly.


His enjoyment for Mathematics led him to choose the Chemical Engineering route at Peninsula Technikon. He recalls a time during the early days of his studies where he had to give up his weekends, since Peninsula Technikon had class tests almost every Monday morning.


“My views on giving my free time to my books was always that it was a short-term sacrifice for long-term gains,” he says with pride. Vernon also battled with transport. In order for him to arrive on time for his classes and practicals, he had to take a train for an hour every day for three years to and from campus. “My mother could only afford to give me R10 a week for a train ticket and taxi ride.  With the train ticket costing R7 a week that did not leave much for a taxi ride to the train station. That cost R1 for a one-way trip and it would take me an hour to walk,” he adds.


Vernon started his career working for Sasol Waxes in Sasolburg as one of the first recruits of Sasol’s Technikon recruitment drive in the early 1990’s. He secured a position as a Process Controller and within two-and-a-half years, he was promoted to Senior Process Controller.

“After two years and obtaining my National Diploma, I opted to resign to do my National Higher Diploma on a full-time basis with the plan of moving back to Cape Town.  Sasol management made me an offer and agreed to move me to their Technical Development Department to conduct plant troubleshooting and get involved in money-saving process improvement projects.  At the same time, Sasol offered financial support for me to complete my National Higher Diploma in Chemical Engineering on a part-time basis through the Vaal University of Technology (in 1994), with lectures held from 17h00 to 21h00 twice a week.  I completed my National Higher Diploma in1996. I believe that without the VUT’s part-time lecturing programme, I would not have had the opportunity to gain both valuable hands-on engineering and design experience and the theory to advance my qualification at the same time,” he says.

While working for Sasol Waxes’ Technical Development Group, he gained experience of the processes in the Wax Work-Up Division which had 10 different distillation and fractionation and hydro-treating processing units. Vernon and a colleague were responsible for conceptualising the process to replace the 10 distillation and fractionation units and build a single high-vacuum distillation fractionation column.  This process was issued a worldwide process patent in the United States of America, Australia, Europe and South Africa.  It also formed part of his thesis for his Master’s Degree in Chemical Engineering. Once he completed his degree, he took on a part-time lecturing post at VUT, teaching Reactor Technology IV to part-time BTech: Chemical Engineering students.

Now, settled in the bustling and scenic holiday town of Mossel Bay with wife, Yulia, and his four daughters, Vernon looks back on his journey and says that he believes there’s so much to be proud of. He’s achieved a lot; greatness has not been impossible to reach. A firm believer in making use of all the opportunities available, his advice to VUT students comes in the form of quotes from Nelson Mandela: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” and secondly “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

“I personally think the Vaal University of Technology is the perfect stepping stone and a good alma mater to start a rewarding career as a Chemical Engineer with the perfect theoretical foundation to succeed in the engineering industry globally. Just remember this, education you gain will always be yours and nobody can take that away from you. Once earned through hard work and dedication it makes having it so much sweeter.  Therefore, keep your focus on your career goal, keep your feet on the ground and stay humble and be thankful,” he advises.

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