Just Entrepreneurs interview with Richard Vann

RVA Group

Recently, Richard Vann, founder of RVA Group, was interviewed by Just Entrepreneurs, to talk about his career in the sector. If you missed the feature, catch it in full, here:

Overseeing the demolition of high-hazard manufacturing plants that span multi-hectare sites on almost every continent in the world, isn’t your average day job. But that has been the lifeblood of the career of Richard Vann – the founder of global decommissioning consultancy RVA Group, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this month…

  • Tell us about the founder behind the brand?

With four decades’ experience in the sector, I began my demolition career with a contractor, in 1982. In 1992, I identified a market gap within the high-hazard operational sectors of power generation, and chemical, petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries. As a result, I established Richard Vann Associates which evolved into RVA Group – a specialist project management and engineering organisation providing knowledge-based support to ensure the successful delivery of decommissioning, decontamination, dismantling and demolition projects worldwide. 

Passionate about the development of skills, the sharing of knowledge, and the reputation of the demolition industry, I have spoken at dozens of international industry conferences, and was the keynote speaker at the World Demolition Summit in 2017. I have a regular column in Demolition & Recycling International magazine, and am also a fellow and past president of both the Institute of Demolition Engineers, and the Institute of Explosives Engineers. 

  • What does your business offer its target audience?

We provide a wide range of decommissioning services, ranging from costings studies, through to the design of demolition methodologies, the tendering and selection of contractors, multiple different types of surveys, environmental studies, the complete project management of multi-year assignments, and more. 

The goal is to support clients throughout the operational lifecycle of their assets, so that – when the time comes for decommissioning – they can select, develop and implement project-specific strategies that deliver optimum safety, commercial, and environmental outcomes. 

  • With all the success stories around entrepreneurship and how innovative people have to be to take the leap. How do you think you’ve innovated your sector and why?

RVA was established because I had identified what I believed was a void in the management of decommissioning works. While construction schemes were typically underpinned by robust investment and executed by carefully assembled, multi-disciplined teams, decommissioning projects undertaken throughout the latter stages of an asset’s lifecycle were usually viewed as unwelcome and nuisance events. Resources without the required training and skills – as well as dangerously restrictive timeframes and budgets – were therefore allocated to such decommissioning works. This continued to present avoidable – and at times catastrophic – risks.

This was a challenge of vast proportions. However, bringing together a team of high quality engineers and project managers – leaders in their respective disciplines – was the catalyst that started to change mindsets and completely reshape how complex projects were handled. 

Fast forward to 2022 and RVA Group has nearly 900 assignments under its belt, having worked alongside major global brands including BASF, INEOS, Engie, ConocoPhillips and GSK. We are continually working in new locations too, which shows that even in more developing parts of the world – including countries with far less stringent legislation – attitudes towards demolition are still advancing. 

  • What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt so far as an entrepreneur?

It isn’t always easy and unexpected hurdles will often be encountered along the way. But as an entrepreneur – and someone in a position of leadership – you have to be committed to see through what you set out to achieve, while being willing to adapt and change direction, often many times. 

  • As a business owner, do you know when to walk away from a sale?

Our unswerving priority is that everyone goes home safely, at the end of every single day. 

We’d therefore walk away from a project if the safety of our colleagues – or others – was jeopardised, and have done this on a couple of rare occasions before. If a client is willing to take dangerous risks to save a few pounds or accelerate a project schedule, we cannot and will not condone this. 

  • Any moments where you thought you’ve bitten off more than you can chew?

Challenges are par for the course of any business owner, regardless of the hazardous nature of our operations, so there have been a couple of ‘crunch time’ moments over the last three decades. 

The day before the start of a major international assignment in Singapore, for example, the project manager called to say he couldn’t relocate from the UK. This could have brought a significantly large contract to a halt, and led to potentially irreparable reputational damage, but fortunately another colleague put their hand up to go, which led to a further three projects in the country. Our professional indemnity insurers also exited our market 24 hours before our policy was due to expire, so we had a day to find an alternative or fold all of our operations. ‘These things are sent to test us’ is how the saying goes, isn’t it. 

  • What’s the single most important decision that you made, that contributed to your business?

Probably recognising that for the successful continuation of the business, I needed to find vehicle to take the company over. That’s why, in 2017 – RVA Group’s 25th year in business – I sold the business to Prague-based EPH. In truth, very little changed operationally – and I remain MD to this day – but this marked the start of RVA’s next quarter century in business. We were able to further invest in our team, infrastructure and strategic growth plans, safe in the knowledge that there is a succession plan in place, when I finally withdraw from the company.

  • Is word of mouth working to your advantage?

Absolutely. Bad news travels fast in any industry, and in one as hazardous as demolition, adverse events could quickly lead to the complete collapse of a business. Conversely, a hard-earned reputation – especially in an environment as niche as ours – means you become seen as the ‘go to’ for specialist expertise. 

We’ve never focused on chasing projects or money, but changing hearts and minds when it comes to attitudes surrounding demolition. We’ve almost taken an ambassadorial stance, and are happy and willing to share our advice and expertise. This means word has spread, and a vast proportion of our work comes from recommendation.

  • What’s the biggest risk to your business and why?

A significant health and safety failure, which is another reason why we treat safety compliance as seriously as we do. 

  • Entrepreneurship can be a lonely journey. How are you combating that feeling whilst pushing forward?

I try and stay occupied with passions and interests outside of the business, to take my mind and focus away from work, even if only temporarily. For me, this has been writing and making music. Even if I’m only in the studio for a couple of hours a week, that hour is mine – I don’t have to think about the company, staff, customers (or even my wife, children or dogs!)

  • How is digitisation empowering your business?

We were early adopters of a cloud-based IT infrastructure which promotes remote working with ease. This was crucial way before COVID, as we could have colleagues working successfully across several different continents as a coordinated unit – we still need to be one team.

The very nature of our work means that sometimes we have to be physically present on a client’s site. However, some of our preparatory project work can and is conducted off-site, which keeps programmes of work progressing smoothly, avoids the expense, time and environmental burden of unnecessary travel, and allows us to draw on the right expertise wherever people may be located.  

In terms of demolition-specific technology, on-site equipment is becoming ever more sophisticated which increasingly negates the need to expose people to unnecessary heights and other risks. We are increasingly relying on drones too, which is particularly great when it comes to conducting surveys in aged or contaminated environments where the risks aren’t known until we get a clearer picture of the inside. And computer modelling means we can drive ongoing innovation when it comes to the dismantling and demolition methodologies we design. 

But we’ll never deploy tech for tech’s sake – its usage should always come back to our primary goal of ensuring the safest, most environmentally sound, and best value project outcome.