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Face to face: Steve Ramsden and Paul Weaver, ISG

Paul Weaver and Steve Ramsden explain how ISG Middle East secured 60% of its target trading budget for 2017 before the end of January

INTERVIEWS, Projects

To say it’s been an interesting 12 months for ISG Group would be an understatement. In Q1 2016, Cathexis, a US-based investment firm, secured a $106m (GBP85m) takeover deal for the UK-headquartered construction outfit. In Q2, ISG veteran Paul Cossell was appointed to the position of chief executive officer following the departure of David Lawther, who stepped down after a decade at the company’s helm.

There has also been a changing of the guard at ISG Middle East, which operates out of the UAE. In August 2016, Steve Ramsden (lead image: left) became the regional division’s managing director. Ramsden, who joined ISG Middle East as general manager in February 2016, replaced Alan McCready, who had fulfilled the role of MD for almost eight years.

One could be forgiven for assuming that a transition of this nature – which saw ISG Group shift from a publicly listed company to a private entity – would entail a few teething problems. Impressively, however, the firm appears to be moving from strength to strength, not only in the Middle East but also at a global level.

Commenting on ISG Middle East’s performance in 2016, Ramsden says: “Last year, the market was clearly difficult for a lot of companies [in this region]. But we delivered some really good projects, and this has left us in a positive position for 2017.

“In December, we were heading into the new year with an order book of approximately 40% of the budget we intended to trade in 2017. As of today, we have reached 60%,” Ramsden reveals, speaking to Construction Week in January. “Of course, we would like to exceed our target.”

Also present at the interview is Paul Weaver (lead image: right), ISG Group’s UK-based chief operations officer. Having travelled to Dubai earlier that day with the sole intention of speaking face to face with ISG Middle East’s 100-strong team, Weaver plans to fly home the very next morning.

In reference to an in-house conference that he and Weaver plan to host later that day, Ramsden says: “I talked to Paul about this session late last year, and I explained why I wanted to hold it. The purpose of today’s event is to express the support of ISG Group for its global workforce. Paul insisted that he was here; he said that if I wanted to talk about how ISG Group supports its workforce, it was important for him, as COO, to come along.”

Weaver elaborates: “I am practical when it comes to my accessibility but, whenever possible, I definitely prefer to meet our people face to face. I want to lead by example; to demonstrate ISG Group’s values. This is an important part of our strategy; it helps us to set the right culture within the business.”

To secure almost two thirds of your annual trading budget before the end of January is no mean feat, especially in the Middle East’s current construction climate. So what is ISG Middle East’s secret?

“I think that dissatisfaction with quality is what’s driving us forward,” says Ramsden. “And I do believe that we have to be of the opinion that good is not good enough. Even if it’s good enough today, it’s not going to be good enough tomorrow.”

“This is a demanding business environment,” Weaver concedes. “However, people who operate efficiently within this type of environment aren’t worried about [having demands placed on them]. Through Steve’s leadership, ISG Middle East has established an efficient business that is ready to face those demands.”

Ramsden and Weaver point out that ISG Middle East’s present situation was not easily won. Instead, it is the result of hard work on projects past. “The start of the year has been fantastic, but it’s the result of the positive steps we took in 2016,” Ramsden notes.

Weaver continues: “ISG Group is mirroring this performance at a global level. We have worked to become specialists in certain fields, and this has left us with a nicely spread global footprint. We’re continuing to strengthen our reputation as a technology-led business.”

ISG Middle East divides its core business into four key fit-out sectors: corporate office, healthcare, leisure, and hotels and hospitality. The firm is also looking to grow its new-build capability in the region. Ramsden explains: “Clearly, we are not looking to build towers in the Middle East. However, we do have the capability to perform construction works, and we will – on a case-by-case basis, when it adds value – take on small construction projects. This may be in the form of an extension to an existing project, which then leads us to the fit-out works. If a contract is likely to result in a project becoming more aligned with ISG’s capabilities, we’ll certainly consider it.”

Weaver points out that ISG Group’s global pool of expertise – and clients – can only serve to assist Ramsden’s team in this respect. He continues: “ISG Group operates horizontally as a business. I think that what clients are looking for – and what we offer – is that best-in-class experience during the construction of a project and afterwards. They’re looking for consistency.

“So when clients speak to us in the UK, and they know the level of service we provide there, they’re expecting those same values to be mirrored in the Middle East, or anywhere else in our geographical footprint.”

During the past year, ISG Middle East has worked on a series of high-profile projects, including Mattel Play! Town Dubai, Ford Middle East and Africa Headquarters, Honeywell Dubai Offices, Aji – The Palm, and several healthcare clinics for Majid Al Futtaim Properties. Following the completion of fit-out works at Kempinski Mall of the Emirates, the firm has also continued to make headway in the hospitality sector – and not just within the five-star segment.

“We’re currently working on a hotel in the Barsha Heights area of Dubai,” Ramsden reveals. “This is a really interesting project for us. It’s clear that the UAE’s five-star hotel portfolio is well developed, so our strategy is to also focus on the value end of hotels, which we feel is coming to the fore. The project we’re delivering in Barsha Heights, for instance, is a four-star hotel; one of many that we hope to deliver in the near future.”

There are several advantages to specialising in four distinct sectors, according to Ramsden and Weaver. This strategy enables ISG Middle East to remain resilient in the face of market fluctuations. It can also lead to repeat business in previously unexplored segments.

Majid Al Futtaim Properties, for example, enlisted ISG Middle East to work on Kempinski Mall of the Emirates. This initial collaboration led to additional contracts from the developer’s healthcare portfolio. Ramsden and Weaver are confident that by continuing to focus on best practice, ISG Middle East will remain top of mind for clients, regardless of the market segment.

“Customer experience is really important to us,” Ramsden emphasises. “People may forget what we said, or even what we did, but they will never forget the way we made them feel. We will continue to push ISG’s customer-for-life ethos; we want to win work from customers, give them a good feeling, and work for them again and again.”

But in today’s construction market, with its tight margins and low liquidity, is it possible to submit competitive bids while exceeding clients’ expectations? In Weaver’s opinion, it is – as long as you focus on efficiency.

“It’s a challenging dynamic, but most of our clients expect both,” he explains. “They want high-end delivery, but they’re also looking for optimisation of efficiency. They’re looking for ISG to work to schedule, operate productively, and build it right first time. Value and quality are not contradictory; in many ways, I think they’re complementary.

“With this in mind, we focus heavily on optimisation of operational efficiency,” he continues. “Everything is about best practice and consistency. We endeavour to act as one, sharing ideas and innovation horizontally across the business. We need to take the best of everything and apply it everywhere. That’s the type of continuous improvement loop that ISG Group is really good at.”

As for the remainder of 2017, Ramsden plans to grow his team in line with its expanding project portfolio and the firm’s five-year business plan, reiterating ISG Middle East’s importance within a global context.

“ISG Middle East will grow in terms of its people,” he says. “We will grow in 2017, and we plan to grow every year for the next five years. I also want to emphasise the importance of the Middle East to ISG Group’s overall operations. Our growth isn’t just a positive for our customers; it’s also a positive for our people. And ISG is a people business.”

In turn, Weaver will continue to build on the long-term strategic thinking that has taken place since ISG Group reoriented from a publicly listed company to a private entity.

“As a privately-led business, we have a long-term strategic plan that will allow us to focus on our specialisms,” he notes. “We’re really driving into sectors such as fit-out, data centres, science, healthcare, and construction. And of course, we’re absolutely committed to optimising operational efficiency.

“There is a definite empowerment that comes with being [a private entity]. It makes the decision-making process clear. You can stand behind your decisions, you can set long-term goals, and you can specialise. And that’s what ISG Group is going to do, particularly when it comes to innovation and technology, which is our biggest growth sector globally” Weaver concludes.

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