Reflecting on the journey

What initially drew you to join the RSK Middle East team?

Well, actually, it goes back a long way, to 1978 to be exact, when I first came to the United Arab Emirates as a young engineer thrown in at the deep end on engineering materials control for construction of the massive Dubai aluminium smelter (now EGA), followed by another two years doing similar work across the region. I guess I fell in love then with the desert, and when the opportunity came in 2013 to return to lead RSK’s growth plans there, I felt my career was destined to go full circle.

Can you share some key milestones or memorable moments from the last 25 years?

My 25 years started when I joined STATS Limited as laboratory director in the UK, moving to managing director there two or three years later. STATS was a small to medium-sized UK environmental consultancy, and its acquisition by the RSK family in 2007, and integration into all that is RSK, was a highlight for sure. Within a couple of years helping STATS integrate into the group, I was somewhat surprised to be asked to lead the RSK Geosciences business in the UK – I remember very well being in a workshop with our CEO, Dr Alan Ryder, and some of the RSK leadership team, agreeing the reorganisation of the wider Geosciences business to accommodate STATS, to be told out of the blue that I was to take over the entire shooting match.

The first major milestone with the RSK Middle East team was the step change in justifying our large investment in Iraq by the award from Shell in 2014 of our contracts in the Majnoon oil field, shortly to be followed by the appointment of the environmental framework with BP on the giant Rumaila oil field. The next milestone was Adam Foss (then project manager on Majnoon, now our geotechnical and operations director) announcing breaking $1 million on project sales for the month of November in 2014.

We were all immensely proud in 2016 when the work we were doing on the rebuilding of Iraq helping Shell, BP and other international companies meet their environmental obligations in those Iraq oil fields led to RSK’s recognition with the Queen’s Award for Enterprise: International Trade.

For other reasons, the impact of COVID-19 on the business and on all our people was a milestone, and one we wish did not need to be marked. At the time, business fell off a cliff, but we made the decision then that if we were to come out the other side stronger, we needed to stay together so that we had the skills and experience to re-engage when the time came. I am eternally grateful that, from A to Z, our great people endured real hardship through the necessary safety measures that had to be put in place, and it is wonderful to see those same people, and the many who have joined us since as we have exponentially grown, enjoying the reassurance driven through renewal of almost all our environmental framework agreements in Iraq and by new environmental and sustainability framework agreements across the megaprojects in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Has anyone in particular influenced or inspired you during your career?

Oh, so many. The great Alec Sandberg OBE, who led the traditional materials consultancy Messrs Sandberg, which I joined in 1982 (he could see I was nervous when introducing myself to senior people in client organisations and confided in me that he was too but that a stiff Scotch usually did the trick); John Glanville, the chairman when I joined STATS, who somehow married his deep faith with a core of steel; Professor Peter Fookes, who was a consultant geologist who taught me the need to be open to the unexpected and meticulously to trace the root cause; and not least our RSK CEO, Alan Ryder, certainly the most practical and fact-searching entrepreneur I have ever met, and (mainly) fun with it.

Professional growth

How has your role evolved during your tenure? Can you highlight any specific projects or initiatives that you are particularly proud of?

We were a small team in a shared office in central Abu Dhabi, mainly with a view to serving the local market when I arrived but already with an eye on the opportunity to follow RSK’s International Oil Company clients as they were taking over the oil field concessions in Iraq from the state companies. The first major breakthrough into the Iraq market by working on and winning the tender for the three-year geotechnical and topographical services contract with Shell for the Majnoon oil field in late 2013 was a major milestone and step change in the fortunes of the business. Majnoon set the scene for development of a major technical services establishment in Iraq and provided the basis for our ability now to employ and develop the careers of more than 100 local national staff.

Some years later, the opportunities to support the Saudi Vision 2030 were on everyone’s lips. I was greatly concerned we might miss that boat, as our initial tenders were unsuccessful, but learning lessons and with perseverance, we were eventually rewarded with the award of the NEOM environmental assessment support consultancy in 2021, and what started as an 18-month contract has been extended and renewed, so we remain securely in that key place today. The breakthrough into NEOM was just that and has underpinned our success in building relationships and securing our place on a string of framework contracts with not just NEOM but Red Sea, AlUla and AMAALA under the Saudi Public Investment Fund banner. I am proud of those initiatives and the growth into that exciting market that has materialised, which has resulted in progressing now to a full business establishment in that remarkable country.

Industry impact

How have you witnessed the industry change over the past 25 years? What role has the company played in shaping the industry landscape?

I should think the main industry driver for change has been the slowly gradual awareness and acceptance of the influence of climate change and the concurrent campaigns for moves from the reliance on fossil fuels. My life in RSK was strongly influenced by our work in the oil and gas sector, and indeed it was a desire to follow great clients such as Shell and BP into the frontier market of the Iraq oil industry that played a major part in encouraging me back to the Middle East. What I have seen since in RSK from day one is an enthusiasm for innovation and change, coupled with a willingness to invest in renewable energy sources, be it in a company specialising in ground source heating or in changing the way that RSK offices are energised through biomass boilers. On the wider scale, leading the way through an immediate commitment to devising and implementing a road map to align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including a direct linkage of the company financing to the achievement of sustainability KPIs, has, I believe, shaped the landscape. Certainly, that commitment has guided our own strategy to diversify our business targeting to more sustainable development.

Company culture

How would you describe the culture at RSK Middle East, and how has it contributed to your work life? Are there specific values or principles that you believe define the organisation?

When I joined RSK as part of an acquisition in 2007, we were subjected to a challenging due diligence process, not only from a business perspective but also individually as people, and through this we came to know how existing RSK people ticked and what was important to them. What stuck with me was that the family ethos that had germinated when Alan Ryder set up the business almost 20 years earlier was clearly still at play in 2008. We brought RSK numbers to around 700 then; now it is 20 times that, and the ethos remains.

I think and hope that in RSK Middle East we mirror that ethos, and it has certainly helped sustain me here for more than a decade. Indeed, given the work pressures that prevail in this part of the world, it would have been difficult to sustain high energy and drive if it were not for that culture and our great people.

Challenges and solutions

What were some of the significant challenges faced by the company during your tenure, and how were they overcome?

As I mentioned earlier, in RSK Middle East the stand-out challenges were the oil price crisis commencing in 2015 and the COVID pandemic that began to hit in early 2020. The one thing we realised early was that downturns almost always eventually lead to upturns and that if we were not prepared for the upturn, we would be lost. Of course, we had to cut costs to survive, but we also knew that if we were to have the skills to come out the other end, we had to retain them. Our staff were great, and while we were all grumbling, there was an eventual acceptance that these measures were key to survival. Those challenges also brought a new focus to diversify and to look for new markets so that over time we are spreading, and to some extent shifting, focus to the environmental and sustainable services opportunities that live under the Saudi Vision 2030 and the mega projects that feed that vision.

Innovation and technology

How has RSK Middle East embraced innovation and technology during your time with the company? Can you highlight any technological advancements that have had a transformative impact on the business?

RSK is, to some extent, defined by innovation, being led by a CEO who is a strong entrepreneur and a challenger of technical detail, and through that drive RSK has in recent years introduced its annual Innovation Awards. Our commitment to the rebuilding of Iraq, and our Queen’s Award for Enterprise, had and has a large component focused on environmental clean-up of legacy oil fields, sometimes amidst remnants of war. For the last decade, we have been using innovation to alter the standards for the clean-up of land and have invested in technology to treat those waste materials that are so disfiguring to the landscape, damaging to the environment and potentially harmful to human health.

The future

Looking to the future, what excites you most?

First, keeping what we hold dear excites me, in terms of our people and our clients, relationships and opportunities. Of course, the future across the region, supporting bold but sustainable developments, and specifically finding the means and wherewithal to realise our ambitions in Saudi and provide big and exciting opportunities and experiences for our people, excites me.

We now have a formal business entity in Saudi, established in Riyadh and expect shortly to direct recruitment of our first Saudi national staff as we champion Saudisation and support Saudi Vision 2030, and we have reached the next milestone by the  opening of our new office in Tabuk.