[Part 1] Interview: ACE's Chief Executive Hannah Vickers

Posted by Ananya Kripalani on October 15, 2019

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Hannah Vickers was appointed chief executive of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE) in June last year. A civil engineer by profession, Hannah joined from the Institution of Civil Engineers where she led the policy and public affairs team, and prior to that she acted as an adviser to Ministers at HM Treasury on infrastructure delivery policy. I recently caught up with Hannah to get her take on the current challenges and opportunities facing the industry - below is the unofficial transcript of our conversation.

Q1. The political climate is creating opportunities but also headwinds. How should industry and government interact given the current gridlock with Brexit especially in terms of international collaboration?

"Yes you’re right there are definitely headwinds at the moment, it’s quite turbulent, and actually this has been going on for quite a while now and to some extent we have become accustomed to it. It is also focused around our relationship with Europe and I think it’s important we don’t blow that out of proportion. Looking at our export markets, we export services, and our biggest export market is the US, then Europe. So, yes it is political turmoil and it’s affecting our businesses, but actually in terms of the markets and particularly the larger consultancies that are global firms, they are based around the world and this is just something that is affecting our domestic market. I think it’s important to put it in perspective. So I guess the biggest impact we are seeing is just the lack of decision making and the impact it is having on domestic politics.

In terms of what our members should be looking to do, obviously it’s important to prepare. There will be some things that change, particularly perhaps for firms that are based in Northern Ireland, working in the Republic. There are going to be some very specific things that our members need to do. But actually it’s probably important to put it into perspective and really try to put some pressure on the Government to do more to help the industry, through things like the sector deals, because they are really valuable.


"There’s a real opportunity there if you look to the positive side - the industry can set out a vision for its own future and then look to Government to enable it."


For civil servants and parliamentarians as it is looking, and perhaps if we head into another referendum or a general election, then for the foreseeable future, next 6-12 months, they are probably not going to have a stable Government with enough air time to make domestic decisions. So what we are starting to see through things like the sector deals, is some of that decision making and leadership actually coming from the private sector. This is actually one of the reasons I came into the private sector and out of Treasury, out of the referendum. I could see that civil servants were going to be entirely diverted on to Brexit policy, because it’s quite big to untangle.

There’s a real opportunity there if you look to the positive side - the industry can set out a vision for its own future and then look to Government to enable it. More so than being a dependent waiting on Government to make policy decisions. There is clearly some friction around major infrastructure projects and some of the decisions that might get delayed, so there is some space there where we need to be lobbying and pushing for government to make decisions. But actually it does give us a bit more freedom to perhaps come up with the solutions and ask Government to enable them for us rather than the other way around which is how we would have worked historically."

Q2. It’s lovely that you see it as an opportunity, a nice positive take on what companies can be doing and speaking of your members, the ACE represents the unified voice and interests of over 440 UK Consultancy and Engineering companies, and I know these companies have worked on some of the most high profile infrastructures to date, but how does the ACE stay on top of trends and opinions in such a fast-paced business world?

"It’s quite interesting and quite exciting, it’s really all about our members. I spent my first year getting to know our members, what they are good at, what expertise they have and they themselves can see. They are very, very close to their clients and they can see the opportunities that are there. 

I think the role for the ACE is to try and bring in learning from other sectors. I’ve been meeting my counterpart in the automotive and aerospace sector, just to try and look at what they’re doing. Because they are being disrupted by exactly the same things we are, technology, data. So it’s actually how are they learning, how are they adapting to it.


"I think the role for the ACE is to try and bring in learning from other sectors."


What is interesting is that although we perhaps get a bad reputation in the press and from some of the reports, from the Management Consultants about Engineering and Construction being quite backwards or at the back-end of the digital transformation curve - comparing some of the stuff with Automotive and Aerospace, there are some areas that we can learn from them but there’s also some areas they can learn from us. Some of our vision and thinking around systems, infrastructure systems, networks work together and how we might model that, so our national digital twin and things like that, are streets ahead of what they’re currently doing. They still work on products, they still work on individual assets, and we are looking at how to get the most out of our existing infrastructure networks rather than making the next brilliant product that someone’s going to buy. So there’s interesting and different perspectives. 

And the other area where we might start to see a quicker evolution is around business models. So you just have to start to look at these things like ‘we work’ coming in and offering accommodation as a service. You could see how that could take off into the residential part of our sector and again that is streets ahead of where, for example, car manufacturers are, in terms of their business model. They still again focus on selling the product and then there’s a little bit of after-market - it’s not really a whole-life service. 

There are some interesting comparisons when you look at the other sectors and I don’t agree that we always come out bottom, we are not. Maybe we’re just worse at PR."

future of consultancy

Q3. Speaking of what companies could be doing more of, what would you say are the biggest challenges facing Consulting Engineering firms today? Taking your opportunist approach, how can firms lean into their expertise, embrace change from an opportunistic stand-point and adequately prepare for a future that is increasingly being led by technology?

"This is an area where we have undertaken some research. We’ve done a piece looking at the future of consulting and what we’ve tried to unpick, is what it means for our domestic market and our export market. What we’ve identified is there will be three markets in the future for consulting firms and they are, as you say, probably driven by devolution. So we will see more local decisions around infrastructure and property investments, and the amount of data that’s going to be available. Not the data we’ve relied on historically, the cost data, although that’s important.

What’s going to be much more valuable in the future, is the asset performance data and the customer use data which is starting to be made openly available. For example, the national infrastructure commissions report on data for the public good which is really starting to push some of the public sector into opening up their data sources. Now that’s really exciting, a disruptor.

We need to think about how we use that (data) and build that into our blended expertise and in doing so, get more technology at our disposal to be able to understand, model and analyse this data to give us and our client’s deeper insights.

As I mentioned you’ve got three markets, the design market and how that’s going to change and be disrupted, in terms of offsite manufacturing which is a major disruptor potentially to a traditional bespoke design market. But also there are two other markets we’ve identified around policy and strategic planning, where firms can move up-stream and be advising clients on making the right investment decisions. And a secondary market on the operations and asset performance, so using data to actually bring these insights to the client and advice on how they operate their existing asset base. So those three markets give plenty of opportunity.


"What’s going to be much more valuable in the future, is the asset performance data and the customer use data which is starting to be made openly available."


Going forward, there’s an interesting role for ACE because there’s quite a lot of effort, investment and vision required to get us there. Some of the sorts of things we can be looking at with our member firms is getting that vision published for them so they can really start to look at where they fit within that and deploy their capabilities accordingly. Also showing collective leadership as an industry, and as businesses, to say this is where we are headed, this is what we could be doing for ‘you’ the client. Voicing the same to all those that support us, the professional bodies for example, that do our training and accreditation. To say look, if this is where we are headed, than we need you to give us the skills and help us to develop our people to get there.

This also gives us more remit within ACE by sorting out some of the industry wide enablers to that, so the contracts, professional indemnity insurance, and how all of these things work in the new markets. Sure, it’s going to be a long term effort to get there, but actually I am really proud of the piece of work we’ve done because we are a really valuable industry and for us to be able to set that out and take a leadership position for where we are headed, I think is the right thing to be doing. Particularly as we referred earlier, in the vacuum of any steer from Government. So let’s get on and tell Government and the client what they should be enabling and buying from us."

Keep reading:

[Part 2] Interview: ACE's Chief Executive Hannah Vickers

[Part 3] Interview: ACE's Chief Executive Hannah Vickers

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