In conversation with Ken Smith, UK Chief Executive

Jan. 10 2019

As we enter 2019 with optimism, our business leaders reflect on the last year and how we will move forward into the New Year. Last year, Bureau Veritas UK saw a growth of 5.3% and here the UK Chief Executive, Ken Smith, reviews our continued success and where the focus should lie in 2019.

Having worked with Bureau Veritas for 13 years in ten different roles, Ken has learnt first-hand just how his business ticks and in this in-depth interview, he talks about his career, how he keeps in touch with the business and how he has learnt from previous challenges.

Acquired by Bureau Veritas

Long before the days of becoming the UK Chief Executive at Bureau Veritas, Ken experienced a variety of roles elsewhere in the industry. He began his career studying Anatomy and Pharmacology at University with the intention of becoming a vet.

Ken reflects: “When I came out of University, before I planned to go to veterinary school, I took a year out to go travelling. I did voluntary work in Kenya and then travelled around Africa, India and Australia, where I discovered that veterinary school was no longer my passion and I wanted to pursue a career in environment instead.”

Ken’s career path then went from a Pharmaceutical Sales role, to an environmental role with Anglian Water, following which he landed a job with a consultancy business, before being acquired by Bureau Veritas. All whilst securing two Masters in Environment and an MBA along the way.

“When I worked within the consultancy business, we were acquired by Bureau Veritas and that is actually how I joined the company. Over time I have moved upwards, sideways, across divisions and support functions, and then three years ago, I was honoured to take on this role, UK Chief Executive.”

When asked which of the ten different roles really stood out to him, he said: “Going back to my passion of environment and sustainable development, there are two areas of the business that stand out for me; first, the sustainable development consultancy division and the second being when I managed the certification business. This role spread across six countries and, brought with it significant cultural differences.”

Keeping in touch with the business

The UK Bureau Veritas business has a workforce of 995 employees. With a business so large, understanding where the business is at and communicating the messages consistently and accurately may prove to be a struggle for some. When asked about his communication strategy, Ken jests: “I think what may be annoying for a lot of people is that I do like to talk!” This trait proves to be useful in his quarterly roadshows, hosted by Ken in all of the major UK offices, which provide a business update to all staff.

Joking aside, he goes onto explain that the key is in fact understanding the business: “I spend a lot of time within the business. I change offices weekly and aim to be in all the major offices once every two weeks. I manage my time so that I am actually in the office engaging with people as opposed to being in meeting rooms all day.”

Bureau Veritas is a leading organisation in testing, inspection and certification, which means 51% of the workforce are field based staff. In order to understand activity out in the field, Ken goes out into the field at least once a month to spend time with the engineer staff and consultants to gain a greater understanding of current successes, challenges and issues.  

He adds: “For me, this is one of the most important elements of my role as it informs my thinking. Sometimes what I think is happening in the business and what is actually happening can be two different things.”

Learnings from 2018

When reflecting on 2018, Ken explores what he is most proud of achieving in the business: “A couple of years ago we really started focusing on putting in place a strong sales organisation, by bringing together the sales force and the marketing team and in 2018 we introduced the key accounts team, creating an ‘outside-in’ organisation.

“This year, my Global and European colleagues have really started to recognise this and the UK is now being seen within Europe, alongside Italy, as being best in class in terms of a sales and marketing function. The growth that this has brought for the business is something I plan to continue in 2019.”

In addition to this, Ken talks about this year’s big push on technical training and cross skilling of his workforce. He said: “We have previously done a huge amount of technical training but this year we have really focused on cross skilling. Based on the most recent estimate, we will have completed nearly half a million pounds worth of investment in time and technical training.

“This benefits our employees in terms of career development but also our clients as it means we are being efficient in what we deliver for them. By cross skilling, we are removing the need for multiple visits from different engineers for various services.”

Finally, a key area in 2018 that Ken talks about is the move to simplifying tools and systems that are available to clients. “In certain parts of the business, we have really struggled with the system and tool change which has had an effect on us for nearly two years now. Going into 2018 it has improved but it is not quite where we would like to be yet, so this focus will continue in 2019.”

Crucially, this has taught Ken that the business is not at the right level in terms of systems and tools just yet and that investments will continue. “It is essential that we recognise that it is not just an IT project but also a management project,” he said. “We have some great technical people within the group and also great IT people, so in order for the systems and tools to work effectively, we must integrate these two worlds and understand how to manage that change for our client. This is what the past year or so has really demonstrated.”

2018 also brought a huge change for the Manchester based team. The Bureau Veritas Manchester office had been based in Didsbury for over 15 years and this year saw a relocation of around 200 staff just three miles up the road.

“Moving office was a real significant change for some people so making sure that the new office environment was a great place to work was essential. The move saw an investment of approximately half a million pounds and the teamwork demonstrated in getting everything in place on the day of the move was one of the most pleasing things for me in 2018.”

What’s next?

In any business, leaders are constantly looking ahead at where their business is going in the coming year, and even in the next five years. As a global leader, Bureau Veritas has a presence in a wide spectrum of markets and sectors, but there are some key focus areas for the business.

Ken adds: “Looking at 2019, I think there are a number of things that will be a focus, one of those being food. Although food is something that we do within Bureau Veritas as a whole, within the UK specifically it has never been a priority sector. This is an area of our portfolio that we plan to build.”

A sizeable part of Bureau Veritas service offering is health and safety orientated. Ken explains that looking ahead, there is room for increased focus on the health element of the services, as opposed to the safety element.

“We know that we’re strong in fire safety, mechanical safety and even safety of buildings,” he said. “It is now clear that the health element is something that is growing higher and higher on our clients’ agenda. We now ask ourselves, how can we begin to enable our clients to understand that health agenda much more?”

There is also development planned within Bureau Veritas in 2019 around internal tools. “Similar to what I have said previously, but more from an internal focus, it’s all about the whole system simplification. We work with a lot of systems and a lot of tools but we are gradually removing them bit by bit and allowing systems to interface better. With that brings efficiency and the ability to be more productive for our clients - and in turn, more profitable for our shareholders.”

Digital focus

In a world where digital advances are rapidly growing, it would be naïve to think that the word innovation is not at the vanguard of Ken’s business plans. “Over the past couple of years we have done a lot of work around innovation, particularly drones and augmented reality, and how this can be used to improve and develop our services so that they are more efficient and cost effective for our clients. What we have begun to recognise is that the client will never be the one to ask for innovative products, we have to be the driver of technological advancement.”

In addition to drones, Bureau Veritas have made large investments in other innovative tools, including Realwear Glasses (a live audio and visual feed between auditor and client), and system compliance tools Building in One and SafeOps. These innovative solutions will be a real push for Bureau Veritas in 2019.

“This digital push will bring a different way in how we sell to our clients. We must focus on how we market this innovative focus and how we will position ourselves as a different health, safety and environment organisation, ahead of our competitors,” adds Ken.

Learn from past experiences

Finally, with the experience and the knowledge that Ken has accrued over the years, it is interesting to see if there is anything that he would have done differently.

“No, if you recognise the mistakes that you make, it makes you better as a leader. I think that you can see the negative impact or the down side of the decisions that you make, but this should then inform the way that you think and the way that you do things so that you then do better as you move forward.”

Connect with Ken on Linkedin

To learn about the current career opportunities at Bureau Veritas, click here.