Five minutes with…John Walsh, Group Head of Technology (CIO) at Finlays
SCAPE Group are a name synonymous with the UK Construction sector, and an organisation that in recent years has enabled the effective procurement of £Billions of some of the UKs most important infrastructure and regeneration programmes. An incredibly commercially focused organisation, not everyone knows that SCAPE is in fact owned wholly by a number of local authorities and arguably one of the most successful arm’s length companies.
Ahead of MIPIM 2023, Marek Dobrowolski caught up with Group GCE, Mark Robinson, to discuss his views on where the sector is heading and how SCAPE has evolved and kept its core fixes on delivering social value.
SCAPE was established 17 years ago, and during that time it’s become an incredibly well known brand and organisation within the built environment sector. You’ve been at the helm for much of this time – looking back, what has this experience taught you?
That an organisation can thrive in an adverse environment. Over the last 14 years at SCAPE, we have continued to grow the organisation through the uncertainties of a recession, austerity, Brexit, a pandemic and now a European war. The ability to manage uncertainty and change has now never been more important as a GCE.
SCAPE is also now a Group, with three framework businesses but also an architectural practice and a property & regeneration joint venture. How did the expansion come about how does each business compliment the group?
I love to innovate and take calculated risks when the environment is right, the role of a GCE is to help evolve the organisation, which we have consistently done in the last 14 years through bringing new products and services to the market as well as setting up new companies and joint ventures. The ability to manage growing complexity is key in leadership and can be demonstrated when SCAPE moved into a group structure with six subsidiaries and a parent company. The focus on governance was crucial in this process and is another strength a GCE should have.The running theme through all our companies is ‘effciency’ whether its procurement, design, sustainability or property and regeneration delivery.
When SCAPE turns 20, in 3 years time – what might have changed?
Well depending on the political landscape, we will have new challenges, the financial situation may have changed (for better or worse) this means SCAPE will have adapted to the needs of its customers. I like to think our products and services will have addressed these needs and responded effectively. I also know we would have widened our reach and portfolio of services by then.
SCAPE is a fantastic example of an organisation that works in an incredibly commercial manner but retains a real focus on public sector values and social outcomes. How does it achieve this balance and from a leadership perspective, what has that meant for you as GCO?
I’ve always advocated that if the public sector acted more like commercial businesses, we would be operating public services more efficiently and effectively. That doesn’t mean we change our ethos or values as an organisation, just recognise we must consider commercial perspectives as part of the day job. I’ve always thought of SCAPE as a philanthropic organisation, that enables a return to UK taxpayer for the benefit of our communities. As GCO, you must recognise this and lead by example by living our values, making balanced judgments, and always thinking of the long-term objectives.
What have been the biggest challenges you have faced in this perspective?
As I said earlier, making balanced judgments that doesn’t swing the pendulum in one way or another, leadership is about steering the organisation in line with the strategic direction that’s set by the Group Board.
How would you describe the culture of SCAPE? How would you say this is evolving?
Inclusive and welcoming from a people perspective, which has been reflected in both our employee surveys and external visitor feedback. We are learning to be more commercial and are evolving in terms of support systems to help that transition. I think the hybrid working is still a challenge for parts of the group, particularly when we are direct delivering services to the public sector, but we operate on a flexible basis, and we will continue on that journey.
If someone was considering their career, why would SCAPE be a good place to join?
If you want to do more than just make money and have a purpose, I think SCAPE is the perfect place to make a difference. No two days are the same, and it’s not always a bed of roses, but we work hard for our customers, and we have the pleasure of our hard work being recycled back to the general public and taxpayer. It gives you a different kind of satisfaction and something to be proud of.
Not everyone who has engaged with SCAPE might know, but the Group is actually owned by six local authorities, its arguably one of the most successful arms-length bodies of its kind.
What has that public sector ownership meant for SCAPE?
Well, it has kept a cohort of Local Government collaborating and working together for the benefit of the wider public sector. This means we have direct access to an important sector we operate in, and we have challenge and scrutiny from some of our key customers. The six shareholders have been the foundation of SCAPE’s success to date, and I hope that will continue.
What do you think it means for your delivery partners and the end client?
It gives us credibility and integrity compared to some of other options a delivery partner or end client could use. This is significant when you think about it…public sector for the public sector? It’s hard to argue with that and our partners also feel part of the SCAPE family, which is important to me.
It’s an incredibly dynamic period for the construction and built environment sector at the moment, what has been the impact across the SCAPE Group and what kind of issues are you wrestling with?
I think industry is experiencing project and programme delays due to inflationary pressures, security of supply and logistics. This is frustrating for everyone involved because SCAPE is set up to deliver projects and programmes efficiently and the last 12 months has been difficult for all parties. For SCAPE, this has impacted our pipeline by nearly 200 projects being delayed into next financial year, but SCAPE is here for the long term, our order book is £6.8bn and still growing, so we expect these projects to be delivered over the next 12 months.
Any time of change also brings with it opportunities, what do you see for the sector and for SCAPE?
Loads of opportunities, and public sector customers need SCAPE more than ever. Their own challenges with budget cuts and staff shortages means the knowledge and expertise is leaving the sector. Also, the construction industry needs to see the opportunity and rise to the challenge of supporting public sector customers more. We can do this together, in partnership, utilising SCAPE as the vehicle to enable this to happen.
It’s been a little over a year now since the publication of the Mosey review – 12 months on, what are your reflections, what has changed, what needs to still change?
Difficult to say at this stage, it’s too early…I have personal perspective on this, and we are just trying to change too many things at once, the public sector and construction industry doesn’t operate in that way. I would just focus on the three things that would make the most impact. In my opinion we should standardise profit margins for partners; use a single form of contract; and mandate sustainability as a key evaluation criterion. I would mandate these three changes across all Government contracts.
Your own career is quite fascinating, so you started as a YTS apprentice in Local Government, had roles in construction ops, strategic planning and corporate procurement and then you went into the housing sector and set up an ALMO and became a Chief Executive at the age of 32. I suspect there have been lots of people of my ilk that have called you up about moving to the private sector over the years, so what is it about SCAPE and this sector that’s kept you motivated?
I’m not sure it‘s fascinating! but my parents both worked in the public sector, so I guess I have that DNA to serve. I’m not saying you don’t get that in the private sector, because our partners are just as passionate as me to deliver for our customers. Building SCAPE has been a great experience but one day…I will leave so we need the next generation of leaders to carry on for the next 15 years and beyond.
Finally, if you could take me anywhere or ask me to speak to anyone – about the impact SCAPE has made – where or who would you point me to?
That’s a difficult one…we have served 1200 clients over the years so hopefully I could name a few…Nottinghamshire County Council is the first that springs to mind and our work with their property and regeneration teams, and more recently their civils and highways company is a good start. Then I think to our partners, and Wilmott Dixon is our longest serving partner, we have grown together over the years, developed our services and innovated together. Both are great examples and something I’m really proud to be part of.