ACE’s new chief executive Hannah Vickers started her new role last month. Andy Walker spoke to her to find out about her plans and her thoughts about her new job.
I met Hannah Vickers at ACE’s London offices and asked her first, what made her want to take on the role of chief executive of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE). “I think it’s a really interesting time for consultancy and engineering, with a lot of potential disruption and change,” she said. “We’ve seen things like Grenfell, the collapse of Carillion and we’ve got disrupters entering the industry around digital transformation which will have a huge impact on what our bread and butter is as a consultancy sector. So, I thought it was a really exciting time to come and be part of that,” Vickers says.
Vickers says she is keen to see ACE using its collective strength and voice to influence the industry. “One of the things I’d like to focus on in ACE is collectively how we can move our industry forward, how we can be progressive and look at how we can apply our skills and expertise to different areas of the market in future,” she said. “Although our firms might be competitors in a commercial sense, if we are looking to sell services and expertise we need to market collectively what we contribute to the overall built environment sector. If we fail to do that we may start to lose our influence because the market and the recognition of the value that consultancy adds won’t be recognised universally across all clients,” says Vickers.
Amidst all the current talk about disrupters and change in construction, Vickers sees the potential disruption as a challenge but also an opportunity for ACE members. “If you look at the long-term infrastructure pipeline there is a lot of opportunity and there’s a big prize there for someone who starts to move into this sector or an existing player,” she said. “Look at some elements of detailed design for example. Something that would have taken three weeks historically, now with new technology this can be done in about 15 seconds. That sort of disruption is ultimately going to have to have an impact on industry business models and you’ll probably start to shift towards being paid and being valued for the outcomes that you add to a particular project or asset rather than the amount of time that you spend on the job,” Vickers said.
Vickers believes there is a big role for ACE and the industry to act collectively in this area. “We have a really big opportunity to use the collective expertise of ACE members to start to shape what we want our market to be in future and to be able to sell it consistently,” she says. “Don’t forget that this also going to be a big disruption for clients and the way they buy services and expertise. We will be in a much stronger position if we have a collective understanding of what the opportunities are and are able to bring clients on that journey,” says Vickers.
"We have a really big opportunity to use the collective expertise of ACE members to start to shape what we want our market to be in the future and to be able to sell it consistently. We will be in a much stronger position if we have a collective understanding of what the opportunities are and are able to bring clients on that journey."
Hannah Vickers, chief executive, ACE
Civil engineer Vickers’s previous experience includes leading the policy and public affairs team and the Institution of Civil Engineers, advising ministers at HM Treasury on infrastructure delivery policy and also working as a consultant to senior stakeholders on a number of major projects. So, how will she bring her lobbying and policy experience to bear at ACE?
“In each of my previous roles I was moving into areas where I was able to undertake more lobbying and influencing government,” she told me. “Having been in the centre and advised the chancellor on infrastructure policy and having worked on commercial strategy for a client, it gives me a really deep insight about how those decisions are made and what you need to do to try and influence and change the direction.”
“I have been there and done that and understand what is going through decision makers’ minds and what they have to weigh up, so I will be able to go in and sell the ideas, concepts and outcomes that ACE members want in a way that is appealing. In the same way that you market to clients, it is marketing ideas back into government,” said Vickers.
Influencing at the highest level is a key role for all modern business associations and Vickers is keenly aware of this. “Trade associations are uniquely placed to act on behalf of their corporate members and to do this effectively requires an independent corporate voice to speak to government,” she said. “Of course, we have to change and adapt with industry and business challenges, but that core role is absolutely critical,” said Vickers.
Vickers says there are three main areas of focus that will be at the top of her in-tray at ACE. “Firstly, things that are in members’ interests that need to change quickly and are immediately impacting on their businesses. These will include the immediate impacts of Brexit and bad practice around procurement and I will be spending my first months at ACE listening to members and getting up to speed on those things that are stopping firms doing business and affecting their bottom line,” she said.
“Secondly, are some of the industry changes, the future of consultancy and engineering, new business models and what this means for clients. Finally, how we retain and enhance the visibility of consultancy and engineering with external partners, like government and clients to make sure we have a high profile and demonstrate the value that we bring as an industry,” Vickers said.
As the first woman to be chief executive of ACE, I asked Vickers about her thoughts on diversity in the industry. She told me that she was impressed with the refreshing approach that the ACE board had taken in appointing her. “What I did find refreshing about ACE was the fact that the member firms on the board were very welcoming and supportive and considered it positive rather than a risk that they were going to get a different blend of skills and expertise than they might have seen in the market before.
"What I did find refreshing about ACE was the fact that member firms on the board were very welcoming and supportive and considered it positive rather than a risk that they were going to get a different blend of skills and expertise than they might have seen in the market before."
“That was a refreshing attitude and something that a lot of organisations could learn from. It’s good to be open to new approaches and to broaden things out and there are lessons to be learned in addressing the skills gap. If the industry looks outwards and broadens the range of people it chooses from, then that would go a long way to helping with the skills crisis. We need to attract more people from different backgrounds into our industry,” Vickers said.
Vickers is keen to see ACE and the industry be open to a more diverse approach. She enjoys the collaborative approach and is looking forward to “being able to piece together and to learn from the best of what we already have in the industry”. “It’s important for us to be able to take the expertise of individual members, pool that and create something that is better than them acting alone,” Vickers said.
ACE’s new chief executive is also keen to strengthen the organisation’s international links and her first job in her new role was to attend the FIDIC global infrastructure conference in Berlin. “Knowledge transfer and learning from around the world is important and we need to be linked into that network,” she said. “We also need to cultivate the links that ACE has with the Department for International Trade, articulate what we have to offer as a sector and then sell this overseas, which will be especially important in a post-Brexit environment and hugely valuable for ACE’s member firms,” she said.
“I will also be trying to join up our work programmes and our lobbying to coordinate our efforts where we can with other industry organisations. Having been on the receiving end of it, I know there is a lot more that we should be collaborating on to give a single voice to government,” said Vickers. Collaboration and influencing change are sure to be key priorities for Vickers as she embarks on her new role. It will be interesting to watch her progress and that of ACE in the months and years ahead.