Trusting people to make a difference in the world

Engineering, environment and design consultancy Sweco UK has enjoyed a successful 12 months since its rebrand from Grontmij in April last year. Andy Walker visited Leeds recently and spoke to Max Joy, Sweco’s UK managing director.

You can’t help warming to Max Joy. Easy to talk to, personable and honest, the former army man is thriving since he took over at the helm of the UK division of Sweco a year ago. So, how has he found his new role and is it what he thought it would be?

“I haven’t had a lot of time to sit down and reflect but three words describe how I feel about the last year,” says Joy. The first is uplifting. I came from a job that I was in for almost 30 years and loved every minute of it and the decision to change jobs - not professions as I’m a mechanical engineer - was a big decision for me and my family. I wanted to go into a job which felt as if it is making a difference and I can honestly say for the last year I have loved it; the Sweco brand, the company, the culture is fantastic. So, uplifting.

“The second word is exciting, because the people, opportunities and the type of work we do is really exciting and the third is challenging, because for six months it felt as if every day was a school day and I was learning something new,” he says. 

Making a difference

Making a difference is clearly something that’s important to Joy. Coming from an army background, why did he choose this role and what skills and experiences has he brought from the military? “As an engineer we have a broad range of experience,” says Joy. “And when I looked at what Sweco does - we plan and design cities and communities of the future, connect people and carry out sustainable engineering, it’s fantastic. It really makes a difference. I just thought, what a great company to work for. It’s about the people you work with and the work that you do,” he says.

Joy says that the people aspects of his role at Sweco are similar to those he developed in the army. “Consultancy is all about relationships, building them and keeping people engaged. Motivating people and bringing them with me is a key skill so there are parallels there with my previous role. And I have been very impressed with the people here. They are all highly motivated,” he says.

Joy also says that instilling an attitude in people of “being better than our competitors and better than everyone else,” is a key part of success in the consultancy business, but not in an arrogant way, more from being proud of the work that people do. I ask him about his management style. “My approach is pretty relaxed,” he says. “My default is to trust people and to allow people to make decisions and I think the people around me thrive on that, relish the opportunity to make decisions and not to be told what to do,” he says. Joy is certainly relaxed and you feel at ease in his presence. I can’t help feeling that this is someone you’d want to work for and with - an essential attribute for any leader.

Growing the business and changing the culture

Looking back on his first year in office, Joy says that his main remit was to gain an understanding of where the business was, its outputs and key work, and also to get a handle on the company’s relationships with its clients. “I think I have broadly achieved that,” he says. “From a Sweco Group perspective I wanted to understand where the business was under Grontmij, understand where Sweco is, understand how you bridge that gap and integrate the company into Sweco, its culture, processes, and people and start creating firm foundations to grow the business,” says Joy.

Joy says that integrating Grontmij into Sweco was relatively easy because people wanted it. “People were open to change and with Sweco there was a real opportunity - to be modern and fresh and to shout more about what we do,” says Joy. He also says that Sweco’s Swedish culture of teamwork helped the process too. “Swedes are far more ‘teamy’ than the Brits,” he says. “They also talk about simplicity with not too much process. Simple documents, direction and decentralisation is very much the approach. They are saying things that we want to hear,” says Joy.

Notwithstanding that, Joy says that integrating Grontmij with Sweco “hasn’t been painless”. “We are not there yet,” he admits. “The Swedes are very keen on empowering people from the lowest level and we weren’t like that; we were quite hierarchical,” he says. “The Swedes like small teams and work through teams of teams and we have had to restructure our business and move people around. Some people are now leading smaller teams and this empowers as many people as possible. It’s not about leading as many people as you can. Smaller teams mean leaders have more time to manage and talk to people,” says Joy.

Sweco has just over 750 staff in the UK with over 200 based at the Leeds head office. Turnover last year was £57m and the budget for the coming year is £62m. I ask Joy about Sweco’s plans for the UK market and the key growth areas they are targeting. “We are really strong in buildings and transportation and are pleased with the growth and turnover there and will build on that,” he says. “The areas where we are less strong - water, energy, environment and asset management - are areas we are really going to focus on in the next couple of years. We have recently broken out energy and environment to form their own business units to give them added focus,” he tells me.

Building the brand

As a firm based in the north, Joy said that he thought Sweco was well placed to capitalise on the increase in investment coming to the region. “Our brand in Edinburgh and London is good but our brand in Leeds, where we have our head office is less well known,” he says. “We intend to build our brand and up our game in Yorkshire and Leeds. We are well positioned and the Northern Powerhouse and Transport for the North is a real opportunity. We can play a key role in making things happen,” says Joy.

Sweco has big ambitions for its operations in the UK. “In the Nordic countries Sweco are the market leaders, as well known as IKEA,” says Joy. “In terms of turnover we are probably 14 or 15 in the UK. Sweco want us to be a market leader in the UK and that’s a 10-15 year vision. Our challenge is to build our brand, keep winning work and convince potential clients to not go to the usual suspects but to come to us. People are beginning to look at Sweco. Our name is coming up more and more, we are being talked about and we are winning some good work,” Joy says.

That work includes buildings in London like the iconic Bloomberg building, “a fantastic building that we are very proud of” says Joy, the land-based work on the Queensferry Crossing, a raft of Highways England work and Sweco’s work for the British Antarctic Survey, “sustainable, good for the environment and making a real difference,” says Joy.

Sweco is also very active in the water sector and energy sectors where it works with the majority of water companies in the UK and the company is also involved in over 50% of onshore UK windfarm work.

Joy says he is excited by the prospects for the future and in showing the Sweco difference to clients. So what is that difference? “Two things,” he says. “First, the culture. The vast majority of people want to come and work for a company where they feel valued, that they are going to be developed and feel part of a team. That’s what we are trying to do here. The second is the engineering challenge. Join us, work with us and make a difference in the world. Why would you not join Sweco and want to do that?”

Joy says it’s people that make a difference and when you hear him talk about those he works with at every level of the business, you know he means it. 

If you would like to contact Andy Walker about this, or any other story, please email awalker@infrastructure-intelligence.com.