In the dynamic landscape of business, particularly in sectors such as the built environment, leadership plays a pivotal role in shaping organisational success.

We’re curious about what makes businesses great, so in our new video interview series, Built On, we speak with the leaders of some fast-growing SMEs across the construction and property management industries. We want to share their experiences and insights to help other businesses navigate challenges and build success.

In our second interview, we’re joined by Asa Whitfield, Managing Director of Whitfield Consulting Services (WCS), an award-winning SME engineering consultancy specialising in projects that contribute to the UK’s Net Zero goals. The company specialises in sustainable transport infrastructure, particularly railways and metro systems and their electrification and also in power and energy projects such as grid connections and renewable energy projects.

Watch the full video interview, or read a summary of our conversation below.

The 3Ps of business – people, process, product

Asa outlines how his beliefs regarding the 3Ps of business—people, process, and product—are rooted in his company ethos. He believes that people are the cornerstone of his business; they are driving force behind the quality of product (civil design support) WCS provides its clients.

Asa believes that WCS’ product is a direct reflection of his and his team’s expertise and efforts, and achieving this level of quality requires robust processes in place, to ensure consistency in deliverables and to adhere to strict project timelines.

To achieve this, he seeks out employees who are proactive and collaborative, with strong technical backgrounds and excellent communication skills.

Does a business leader need to have a clear vision?

Asa believes that a business leader should have a clear vision, but within the context of an SME, this vision does not need to be a fixed entity; having defined goals is essential, but being open to adjusting course as necessary is equally as important.

He states that as an SME owner – and as his company grows – he has come to realise the importance of clear and consistent communication, to ensure that his vision is not diluted and remains well-understood by his team.

He shares how his decision to venture into entrepreneurship stemmed from observing the provision of similar services by others and recognising the potential for improvement. Seeing firsthand the opportunities for a more efficient and effective approach was a key driver in his decision to start his own business.

Does a business need to fulfil a purpose?

Asa shares his belief that businesses should serve a purpose beyond financial gain, and at WCS, the team is driven and passionate about finding solutions to its clients’ problems:

“It is not just about the commercial side of things at all. You need to have a purpose, and for engineers, it’s about solving problems: our clients’ problems.”

What values underpin the way your business operates?

Agility and responsiveness,” answers Asa. “We can solve our clients’ problems quickly, and if it’s urgent, we’ll try our best to get on site that day or the next, and get started unravelling their problems. We have the experience required to understand problems and come up with pragmatic solutions.”

Collaboration is another core value that guides the business’ operations. Rather than relying solely on email exchanges, Asa explains how he prefers to have direct interactions through calls and meetings to understand his clients’ preferences and objectives fully. This collaborative approach allows him and his team to co-create solutions that align with his clients’ goals and contribute to their success.

What was the first signifier that you had a business with potential?

Asa states that WCS received an almost immediate influx of inquiries from companies seeking its expertise.

“It was a validating thing, that people were coming to us to say: we’ve got an engineering problem here. And we’d like you to help solve it.”

He explains how early inquiries tended to be for smaller projects, but they paved the way for larger opportunities, with inquiries soon coming in for more significant projects – high-value infrastructure projects worth millions of pounds – that were previously beyond its scope.

“For us to play our small but important part in those big infrastructure projects is really satisfying,” he adds.

How do you celebrate success?

Asa states that celebrating success is an important aspect of his company’s culture, as well as recognising the commitment and dedication of the team and fostering connections with engagement days and team socials. He describes how it is heartwarming to see strong friendships develop among team members, extending even to former colleagues who have moved on to other roles.

“We’ve got a very nice community here. There are real strong friendships. Bonds are made within the business,” he says.

When times get tough, what drives you forward?

Rather than becoming overwhelmed by a situation, Asa shares how he breaks challenges down into manageable parts and works through them steadily, and the importance of keeping a level head.

“Over the years, I’ve learned that almost nothing is insurmountable; you need to approach a problem with a rational approach and work through it piece by piece,” he states.

How do you think emerging technologies are changing your industry?

Asa describes how one of the most significant advancements affecting the industry is Building Information Modelling (BIM). Traditionally, drawings were done by hand for construction purposes, but now engineers have transitioned into computer-aided design (CAD) and firmly into the realm of BIM. This means his team is working with 3D models stored on cloud servers and collaborating in common data environments. Multiple designers can work on the same model simultaneously, allowing for collaboration with clients and other suppliers to deliver integrated projects.

“The more this evolves, the more exciting it becomes; you effectively have a digital twin for a building that can span the entire lifecycle of a structure, from design and construction to facilities management, says Asa.

Metadata can be captured, providing valuable information about components, serial numbers, and even carbon footprint.

“We now have intelligent models and that’s quite exciting; as that develops further and further, we’re trying to be on the forefront of that,” Asa shares.

How do you take action on sustainability as a leader?

Asa describes how he is committed to taking meaningful action on sustainability.

“As an organisation, we do everything we can to work towards sustainability. In a conventional sense, this means measures such as reducing our carbon emissions and reducing waste. But we believe our greatest impact lies in the projects we deliver: targeting projects that promote sustainability and help to achieve Net Zero goals,” says Asa.

WCS’s focus on sustainable projects is evident in its work within the rail sector, where the team specialise in railway electrification—a vital component of sustainable transportation. The team also support renewable energy projects, such as designing grid connections and providing civil engineering expertise for solar installations, battery energy storage systems, and synchronous condensers.

Their expertise and work in this area was recognised last year when the company won the Environmental, Social and Governance Leader at New Civil Engineer Awards (read more here).

The Morton Waters Communications team has secured two thought-leadership pieces for WCS in New Civil Engineer on the issue of sustainability: Sustainability should be at the heart of businesses and Leaders – are you making the most of your greatest sustainability resource? 

Who supports you?

“We have a close-knit senior leadership team; they are very supportive. That’s something to learn as a business leader: that problems need to be shared, you can’t take it all on alone.” Asa says.

Asa shares his belief that cultivating a strong team of senior leaders is essential for business growth, as it not only distributes responsibilities but also fosters skill development and elevates the capabilities of the entire company.

Do you have any advice for anyone else building a business?

Asa’s most valuable advice is to recognise the importance of delegation. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of trying to handle everything on your own, especially when you have poured your heart and soul into creating something from scratch. He believes that learning to delegate effectively is a skill that allows both yourself as a leader and your team to thrive.

“You can’t do it all yourself,” he says. “You need to surround yourself with people that are capable and willing to take on challenges as well; it can become a bottleneck to growth if you do try to do everything yourself.”

Asa explains how this approach not only lightens the load for you as a business owner, but also creates opportunities for personal and professional growth amongst your team members. According to Asa, while it may not come naturally at first, embracing delegation is essential for scaling your business, achieving long-term success, and creating opportunities for growth amongst your team.

For more interviews with leaders in the built environment visit the Built On homepage or subscribe to the newsletter.