SSH: Expansion and expertise by design

May 8, 2017 in Infrastructure

Change can be thrust upon a company for any number of reasons. For SSH, a business with a long, proud history in Kuwait, the past five years has seen extraordinary and unmitigated success, as the construction consultancy firm has expanded its geographic footprint.

Overseeing the ongoing transformation has been Bob Hope, CEO, who joined the company in 2012 and has implemented strategies that have significantly grown SSH.

Since 1961, Kuwait-headquartered SSH has played a leading role in shaping the built environment and infrastructure of the modern Middle East.

The company is considered one of the leading master planning, infrastructure, building design, construction supervision and project management firms in the region, with a reputation for design integrity and a portfolio that includes some of the landmark projects in the region.

In its rich history, SSH has completed more than 1,000 projects and in 2015, was ranked amongst the Top 100 Architecture companies in the world for the fifth consecutive year by World Architecture 100. It has become a byword for quality of design on a myriad of iconic projects.

However, in 2012, the company faced challenging times and was, as Hope describes, “in something of a rut”. Hope came on board as CEO, having worked in the region for 20 years and having worked on a similar venture before, successfully developing a business portfolio across the region with a shrewd plan.

That experience, along with that of several people who had previously worked with Hope, proved key factors in turning SSH from a local into a regional player with a significant workforce armed with local knowledge, as Hope explains:

“The company has changed radically and has expanded from 300 staff to 1,400 now. The catalyst was to take a predominately Kuwait-based company across the MENA region.

“The idea was that I would come in with a hybrid model and bring an international calibre top team with world class experience and skills to work with people who had long term experience and specific knowledge in the local markets. A key aspect was to also work as the partners of choice across the GCC for a select group of world class consultancies to give our clients a ‘one-stop shop’ and become their consultants of choice.”

SSH had long established credentials in Kuwait, working on major projects and equally importantly, had a much-cherished culture to uphold. Hope’s challenge was to blend these strengths with a new management team that had international skills and local knowledge in new countries.

“We were essentially looking to take the prevailing SSH culture and to bring in a high-calibre top team that could foster market opportunities across the region. It was essential that we have local knowledge and were able to understand each local market in depth and the culture in each country. We also received tremendous support from the Chairman and SSH Board to bring in the right people to achieve this.

“We set out to be the ‘go-to guys’, to become the regional clients’ consultant of choice. What we created was a one-stop shop for clients as SSH in our own right, but also with a reputation as a trusted partner to bring in world-class niche collaborators.”

The changes and subsequent success of SSH in new territories, as well as its traditional base in Kuwait, have certainly been measurable. This year sees the completion of the first five-year plan, although this was re-assessed a couple of years back and new targets were set, which the company is now working towards.

“In 2012 as much as 90 per cent of our work was in Kuwait, although we had just finished work on the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi and operated a small office in Oman,” says Hope.

“The Chairman gave me the challenge to aim to change our regional revenue footprint so that Kuwait was accountable for roughly 50 per cent of our business, with the rest in other countries in five years. This was partly because of the lessons learned from the Kuwait invasion of 1990, when the company was nearly lost. It taught us to diversify around the GCC and now into MENA whilst also taking SSH up to the required capability levels to achieve this.

“Last year around 38 per cent of business was derived outside of Kuwait and this year we will achieve our five-year 50:50 target,” he continues.

But it is not only the expansion of the company’s customer base into other countries that is impressive, it is also the size of the business. Hope says that last year the work outside of Kuwait totalled more than the original company size in 2012.

The expansion was implemented in stages, with a focus on the Kuwait business in the first year, followed by the move into Bahrain and Oman – markets that Hope knew well from his previous venture – and perhaps tellingly, markets that knew Hope well and were delighted to welcome him back.

It was really only after SSH had established itself in these markets that the company took on the high-end competition located in the UAE market.

“Our big question was: ‘Can we beat this competition and win the top UAE clients?’ and in the last couple of years we have become established as a consultant of choice for top developers in the UAE and the wider region. We are a regional player, but we are working alongside and beating some of the world’s biggest companies in both tenders and competitions,” Hope says.

Along the way SSH has worked on a number of iconic projects including: the Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Cultural Centre (including the Kuwait national opera house); Kuwait University infrastructure; the ongoing design of the Kuwait Children’s Hospital – the largest in the world; the Oman Convention Centre; and several UAE projects.

In 2013 the company established a design centre in Cape Town, South Africa, initially with a focus on the healthcare sector, but as that business has grown to nearly 300 people, it offers support across the group.

“We also opened an office in London, which provides certain niche skills in interior design and landscaping that were not available to us locally. We are also now working in Algeria and Morocco as we look to expand our presence in North Africa,” affirms Hope.

But how manageable is growth at such a rapid rate and how challenging is it to maintain the tradition and culture of SSH’s illustrious past?

“In my previous consultancy I opened offices in Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and KSA and so we had some valuable experience from which to draw upon, learning not to grow too quickly and from previous mistakes. It is all about understanding how fast you can grow sustainably.

It was imperative to bring in people with regional experience and at the time as SSH was struggling a little one of the urgent drivers was for bringing in new teams and to blend this high-end experience with our existing workforce.

“I spoke to the existing staff and they were ready for expansion and to embrace change. People wanted to see SSH grow in new areas and markets and to dominate the local Kuwait market at the same time.”

“The business was founded around the same time that Kuwait was founded, so it has evolved over time with the country.”

“We have retained staff and have two members of staff who are celebrating 50 years with SSH! So, we also had the legacy (of the company) to protect and consider as we focused on taking the business to a new level but keeping the ‘one big family’ culture.

“There have been difficult decisions to make along the way, but the bigger picture is that the SSH family and business will carry on for another 50 years and more, we hope.”

Of course, by 2012 a number of the markets SSH sought to target were already fiercely competitive. However, a sense of stability and a knowledge of the markets proved hugely beneficial, as Hope explains:

“The headwinds of the world might rock the region still and in terms of navigating the challenges, there have been incidences where people rushed in and didn’t understand the particulars of each local market and its dynamics and culture.”

“I think that the GCC markets are much more mature now and the people that pulled out did so through lack of understanding what was expected from our regional clients particularly in terms of deadlines and ability to cope with change. Our advantage was the approach that we took. We were able to take what we had learned in business previously and we kept lean by offshoring back end delivery, maintained competitive price points and we didn’t need time to learn as we had recruited local people with local DNA embedded already and experience within the local markets.

“Our inherent market knowledge, ability to recruit people with local knowledge, plus our own company heritage and experience have all stood us in good stead.”

“Over time the deadlines for projects have become tighter and the weaker firms have fallen by the wayside. In the region, you cannot just dip your toe in, you have to build a five-year plan and work hard to enter and be committed for the long term to truly succeed, in my view.”

Hope says that the company has also helped to reduce its risks by developing a broad portfolio of projects. There is roughly a 50:50 split between government and private sector business, which has undeniably helped to reduce the risk of cash flow issues – with on-time payments an inherent issue within the consultancy sector.

The company has also had to have its finger close to the pulse of technological advances and utilizing the latest 3D, Revit and BIM design software and is working on virtual reality modelling programmes.

“Many clients now want to be able to visualize their new building, to walk through it in 3D, so we have made some investments in cutting-edge technology and partnered with a couple of universities in the UK. We have to keep an eye on technological evolution.

“We are also seeing issues like approvals being completed electronically while the UAE is going online as E government. I think that the next ten years will see a rapid technological development in our industry so we are always keeping an eye out on future optimising design implementation strategies.”

As for 2017, the first quarter of the year has been encouraging, although Hope senses a slowing down at present:

“We have the same backlog of projects as we did at the start of 2016, plus we have new projects. We have more repeat work with our clients, which has really pleased me as it fits in well with our long-term strategy.

“The last couple of months have been tighter and there is more reticence with a number of global factors at the moment including what Mr Trump will do and elections in France, Germany, Iran and now in the UK. All of these political headwinds are making clients more cautious at the moment but I believe things might start to improve from September and into 2018.

“Going forwards, we have a balanced portfolio of projects now and are not reliant on one area such as residential or commercial. We of course have our cultural and heritage projects in Kuwait and the wider region now, which helped attain us, our world rankings, while healthcare and education have also proved successful areas for us and remain a key focus in the region.

“Our portfolio is now nicely balanced; we are working on hotels in Oman and Bahrain and retail projects in Qatar and residential and commercial in Dubai as examples. We are very proud of that; it is not easy to just push into these sectors and gain traction as quickly as we have. It is a testament to the high quality of talented designers, supervision staff and management that we managed to bring into SSH.

“We have several clients who want major mixed-use projects and we can now masterplan a plot and provide its infrastructure design and then add the residential and commercial properties with retail and healthcare elements included and all by SSH at the same time if required.

“We have finished our first five-year plan and reached our target to hit over £100 million a year revenue with around 1,500 staff anticipated at year end. We have opened offices across the GCC and are now moving into North Africa. I think we WILL hit our five-year goals and we will be looking to consolidate and grow at maybe a more modest rate of five to seven per cent over the next couple of years to ensure that we continue satisfy our current client base and get repeat business with them as the bridgehead to further success.

“So I see a little levelling off into 2018 and then ahead of 2019 we will be looking at growth again in Morocco, Iran and Iraq, all of which offer great potential when they are ready to build.

“We have built a footprint and client base and these new markets are on our doorstep, and we will be ready when they come on line. We will look to enter these regions with our current clients and we will look to local partnerships with local consultants within those new markets.

“Because of the talent we have already brought in, we will need to grow again in the medium term to help further develop the careers of our talent pool.

“I think that one of our greatest strengths is that we are covering all of the GCC markets and have that depth of local experience with world class skills available in country. I don’t think any other regional consultancy has got that strength in depth. We are committed to local markets but have the talent for reaching beyond in the future to keep the SSH story going strong for years to come.” he concludes.