Richard George, Group Managing Director of SNC-Lavalin Rail & Transit, on the loss of the Interfleet name and the opportunities that lie ahead.
‘When I last spoke to you, I was probably optimistic and secretly slightly nervous,’ said Richard. Eight months ago, we’d sat down in a breakout area next to his office to discuss the future of one of the most-trusted names in rail engineering and consultancy, Interfleet.
In 2011, the Derby-based consultancy was acquired by Canada’s SNC-Lavalin. In September last year, Interfleet announced that from 1 January 2016 the company would adopt the name of its parent company to become SNC-Lavalin Rail & Transit. It was an unnerving prospect for a company that trades off its reputation and a much more complicated process than printing off a few new business cards.
‘How much business have we lost? None. How much business have we gained as a consequence? We’ll see,’ said Richard, who joined Interfleet in 2013.
‘Around the world the profile has now changed and that will take time to come through, but it certainly has not done us any damage at all and there are some opportunities that have been opened up as a consequence.’
SNC-Lavalin employs 37,000 people around the world, with the majority of those working in oil and gas. For SNC- Lavalin, the acquisition of Interfleet was an opportunity to expand its expertise in rail, which had primarily involved work on light rail systems. For Interfleet and its 750-or-so employees, it was an opportunity to really make an impact on a global stage. Not that Interfleet wasn’t already active overseas. As Richard puts it, ‘I think a lot of people saw Interfleet as a UK company with some offices overseas which isn’t quite the same thing as being a global company.’
‘First of all, globally we now have a bigger clout than we did just as Interfleet,’ said Richard. ‘There are things that we get invited to do, we would never have been invited to do before. There are doors that open for us that would not have opened for us before because it gives us more credibility on the big stage.’
Interfleet was established in the mid-1990s following a management buyout of InterCity’s rolling stock engineering division. With the financial backing of Montreal and a deeper pool of expertise to draw from, will SNC-Lavalin Rail & Transit look beyond its traditional role as the consultant? ‘Yes and no,’ said Richard cautiously. He feels the group has the capability to take on more of a Tier 1 contractor role, but it shouldn’t compromise the company’s ‘bread and butter’ consultancy work.
‘In the UK, for example, virtually all the stuff we do is the consultancy side and there are some jobs we might take a position on, as opposed to consultancy, but we’d be a lot less likely to than what we do in North America because in North America we’ve got the construction teams, we’ve got operation and maintenance teams, we’ve got big project management teams that are used to doing this. We haven’t got those things here.’
But he didn’t rule it out in the future. ‘We could do that now. We will look very carefully at what we do and what we don’t do.’
GREEN CHIPS FOR BLUE CHIPS
The rail industry isn’t a stranger to changing names. In the last 12 months alone, First Great Western has become Great Western Railway and the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) has become the Office of Rail and Road. ‘The key thing is timing’, said Richard.
‘If we had changed the name earlier it would have been the wrong time. We changed it at the right time. We changed it at a time when SNC-Lavalin is feeling far more confident about itself because it had some problems five years ago. And it just feels like everything’s on the up.’
He added, ‘Had we changed the name immediately after acquisition, five years ago, it just would have felt like we were changing green chips for blue chips. It wouldn’t have had the same feel about it.’
In the lead up to the switchover, Richard and his team spent a lot of time meeting with staff. At the start of the year, Richard spent six weeks travelling around the world to different SNC-Lavalin Rail & Transit offices. ‘We spent several months last year, a lot of time, talking to staff, explaining it etc and that was the important bit because it was their buy-in that had to come.’
The concern was that if staff didn’t believe in the name change, that doubt could trickle down to clients. ‘That was the fear. That’s what we had to avoid at all cost,’ said Richard.
That’s not to say that Interfleet has become a dirty word – the main office in Derby is still named Interfleet House. But Richard believes greater integration will create more opportunities for staff: the opportunity to work in other areas of the business or a different country.
‘At the moment I’ve got somebody going from New Zealand to Toronto because we need electrification people in Toronto. We need signalling people in Australia, so I’ve got a guy going from London to Australia. Somebody’s approached me in Toronto who wants to go to the Middle East, and it’s much easier for us to facilitate that now because we’ve got the knowledge within the group.’
He added, ‘For lots and lots of people, they don’t really want to work in another country, and that’s fine, but they like the idea a lot that they could if they wanted to and that’s an important part of the psychology, actually.’
AT THE CENTRE
SNC-Lavalin Rail & Transit is growing all around the world. ‘A phrase that I’m quite fond of saying – because it’s true – is that in all the countries across the world that we operate, we’re recruiting in all of them,’ said Richard.
Recruitment, particularly of graduates, was one of the focus areas for the company during the transition. ‘I think that’s been one of the challenges for us, to make sure that we don’t lose the traction that we’ve had with graduates because we’ve got a fantastically good name on graduate recruitment in the UK, and we’ve had to work hard to make sure that isn’t lost. And that actually, people who are not necessarily tuned into the rail industry – like university recruitment people – understand.’
This September, SNC-Lavalin plans to bring in 12 new apprentices, who will be employed in a wider variety of areas within the business than ever before. When we spoke last year, Richard said he had no fears about Interfleet being ‘flattened’ by SNC-Lavalin. Several months on, he is confident that by and large it is Rail & Transit shaping the group’s processes, not the other way around. Earlier in the conversation, he described it like being at the centre of the process, not ‘tacked on at the edge’.
‘This isn’t the sort of company that needed to be shaken up. This is a company that just needed to be steered slightly,’ said Richard. ‘Shaken up, no. Too much talent, too much native talent. It just needed to be redirected a bit like every company always does, perennially… Shake it up, throw it out? Good God no.’