Meet the Boss - Simon Witney
We are back with another interview from our 'Meet the Boss' series, and this time we are meeting long time business owner Simon Witney from Witney Futures Group. Here at The Business Owner, we're strong believers of sharing your knowledge, experiences and stories with fellow, and aspiring, business owners and entrepreneurs, so we want to thank Mr Witney for taking the time to spread his thoughts and advice with our community.
Name: Simon Witney
Company Name: Witney Futures Group
Position: Managing Director
Industry: Environment and Development Consultancy
What was your first job or role after education?
I started out in local government, working for the former South Glamorgan County Council in Cardiff. I had completed my Masters Degree in Urban and Regional Planning, but there were very few jobs for graduates at that time. My first job was as a Minerals and Development Control Officer, but I soon gravitated towards countryside management, built environment conservation and environmental enhancement projects. This set me on the path towards the career direction that I eventually took.
Could you describe your career path for the reader?
I spent six very formative years at South Glam, then another three at Leicestershire County Council. I benefitted from rapid promotions and began to manage teams to design, construct and manage environmental and public realm enhancement projects. The logical next step was to deploy the experience that I had gained in consultancy, which was rapidly developing as an alternative career option; though it is reasonable to say that I took a few mis-steps along the way!
The big breakthrough was to secure a role with Arup in London. All of a sudden, I was managing the environmental impact assessments of some very significant development and infrastructure projects, finally deploying my very particular knowledge of EIA: I had written my thesis on its introduction into the British planning system some years before it was enacted, so this was to become my principal technical skill. Managing some very large projects involving lots of experts came with a number of pressures and the need to think on one’s feet, but I thrived on those. I also felt that I was doing some good, helping to ensure that development proposals contributed to the environmental, social and economic circumstances associated with them.
I then began to take roles with some of the largest international, multidisciplinary companies in the consultancy world, including Hyder (now Arcadis), Oscar Faber (now AECOM), Jacobs and Mouchel (now WSP) – note how even large consultancies get taken over by even larger ones! – as well as enjoying three years with comparable consultancies in Australia. This enabled me (directly or indirectly through technical specialists) to enjoy direct involvement in some interesting, high value and often controversial projects – the more complex the better, as far as I was concerned. Then having been a Director for over half my career by then, I was appointed by Parkwood to be Managing Director for five small consultancy businesses. This turned out to be my last employee position.
What is your current role and what is your favourite part about it?
I have now ‘come out of the other side’ of consultancy and run my own virtual environmental, planning, development, energy and infrastructure consultancy business, Witney Futures Group, from my home in the Cotswolds.
After initially using the Group as a vehicle for contract work, for HS2, Transport for London, private concerns and larger consultancies, I realised that more could be made of the considerable skills and experience of likeminded people – friends and colleagues alike – who were also deploying their skills as small businesses and sole traders like me. I therefore gathered together Associates (14 at last count) to join the Group and offer services which are complementary and overlapping to my own environmental planning skills, such as ecology, landscape, acoustics, air quality, environmental management, hydrology, land contamination and ground conditions. Most of us have worked and can work on projects overseas, not just in Britain. We also have a number of collaborators who broaden the scope of our skills and our service offering. I like to think that our offering is unique in its own way.
And therein lies the main pleasure for me. That is, being able to deploy some wonderfully capable and experienced people, with the right attitudes to work such as flexibility, dedication and humour, for some interesting projects, whatever and wherever they may be. With a range of skills now available to the Group, this makes my job of trying to match client needs with appropriate resources much easier.
Were you optimistic, realistic or pessimistic about 2021?
From the economically suppressed condition that we were all in, I am becoming increasingly optimistic as the year progresses. 2020 couldn’t have been worse in so many ways after all!
For us as a business, there is increasing confidence in being able to contribute to larger energy, infrastructure and environmental projects after they have been put on hold for a while – though as suppliers to larger consultancies in the main we may have to be patient a little longer.
For me as a human, I’m really looking forward to increasing relaxation of restrictions, for travel, entertainment and just meeting up with family and friends. The mood of the whole country will continue to lift, which can only be good for everyone’s feeling of wellbeing as long as we remain safe and don’t make a mess of the places that are dear to us.
What is the most important task you carry out each day?
In our very personal business, it’s all about communication. This means continuous networking, catching up with people informally, both clients and Associates alike, and interacting with others through social media on a regular basis including generating original content. I’ve recently received social media guidance, and am much more savvy than I was, and I am working up some innovative ways of getting our messages across to third parties. Watch this space!
What advice would you give to your 21-year-old self about your career journey?
When I was 21, the job I do now simply didn’t exist. So, the lesson to the younger me would be to adapt and be opportunistic; look out for new opportunities which may suit me and spend time and energy exploring them! If that isn’t successful, try another thing that I may be good at or have an instinct for. Conversely, I would also tell myself to stick with something I am actually good at and enjoy doing, and to not chop and change jobs or directions too much. It’s a tricky balance sometimes!
Have there been any positives about Covid-19 and lockdown for you?
Definitely. It has been really good to see how people have really enjoyed accessing open spaces and have appreciated their surroundings and positive changes such as clearer air, less noise and reduced pollution during the lockdowns. This seems to have added momentum to the drive towards more sustainable lifestyles and attitudes – higher level recognition of the climate change agenda, need for biodiversity gains, facilitating walking and cycling and so on.
Better still, governments, businesses, funders and investors are all beginning to insist on sustainable principles and accountability as a central part of their functioning. I’ve been wanting such things to happen for a very long time now, so for me it is strange that it has taken a global pandemic to precipitate such radical changes to how we behave and expect to live in the future.
What causes you the most stress at work?
I can’t abide it when people say they will get back to you about something and then they don’t, even after you’ve chased them up about it. Or overpromise and underdeliver against expectations. How often do those things happen?! And not just to me I suspect. Otherwise, I take most things in my stride, and don’t get too stressed. I try to keep my sense of humour alive.
If you could instantly change one area or thing about your business, what would it be?
Getting our messages across more clearly and effectively. Offering a lot of services to a diversity of potential customers, both B2B or B2C, can be both a great strength and major weakness. Targeting of messages to specific audiences is therefore not always easy, particularly when you have to reduce such messages to a 1-minute soundbite on a Zoom networking session! If I had a magic wand to wave, I would use it to know exactly which part of our business the particular audience is most interested in every time.
What do you do to unwind?
My family living at home and in other places keeps me busy in lots of different ways. Otherwise, I love to travel to new destinations, and try to visit at least one new country a year. In 2019 it was Sweden, Cyprus in 2018 and three other new countries in 2017. I am trying to get better at still photography, and my lockdown hobby was wildlife filming using a trail camera. I also write for and act in local theatrical productions, comedy revues mostly. And there is never any end to the gardening and DIY projects!
If you could give a single piece of advice to a start up entrepreneur what would that be?
At the end of my first year at University, the Dean of my College summarised my year very succinctly, giving me this advice: “Mr Witney, you appear to be very busy, and you spend too much time playing sport. (Both were true). Just be sure to see the wood from the trees.” And that was all he said! I haven’t forgotten that very simple advice, which is very good for busy people with a diversity of interests and who are specialist-generalists like me. However I have frequently disobeyed the Dean’s sage advice since then, for better or worse.
So, for those starting out, just stick to the knitting before thinking about diversifying, even if it looks bigger and better. That can come later once you’ve got good at the main thing that you really wanted to do when you started out.
Thank you Simon for sharing these pieces of advice, and your business story. We love reading all the stories that come our way on The Business Owner. If you have been inspired by Simon's story and wish to share yours with our community, please don't hesitate to get in touch with the team via firstname.lastname@example.org.