ACE needs to widen membership says new chairman Chris Cole

Having taken over as chairman of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering in January, WSP chairman Chris Cole has a clear mission to put the organisation in shape to meet the challenges of the fast changing industry and profession.  

Ultimately his goal to ensure that the organisation is fit for purpose and both ready and able to help guide its members through the changing landscape that awaits over the next few decades.

“I think that the ACE is approaching a defining time,” he explains pointing out that for him the question is “how much does the ACE need to change for tomorrow’s world and be a meaningful organisation?”

“One thing for sure is that if ACE doesn’t continue to change and reinvent itself it will not be there” Chris Cole

Finding the answer, will he says, mean testing some of the ACE’s fundamentals. Is it, for example, just an organisation for consulting engineers? The answer, he says, is almost certainly “no”.

“One thing for sure is that if ACE doesn’t continue to change and reinvent itself it will not be there,” he warns. “The fact is the consulting profession will change dramatically in the next 20 years – they will certainly not remain as consultancy only businesses.”

And having founded and grown WSP from a Surrey based building services consultant to a £1.25bn turnover global firm with 15,000 staff over the last 45 years, Cole has some experience of the need to change and reinvent to succeed as the market shifts.

Following WSP’s merger with Canadian consultant Genivar in 2012, Cole has now stepped into a non-executive role as global chairman giving him space in his diary and mind to devote to reforming ACE and helping to challenge to status quo.

“ACE needs to grow, to provide a wider service, have a wider membership and so have more reach,” he explains. “Membership in itself is not going to be able to fuel growth. ACE has to think about modernising. It must look at other ways to provide a service to members but one that also provides revenue.”

 “The chief executive has done a great job over the last ten years to get people to support the ACE but it is a logarithmic curve,” he explains. “For the ACE to be a community and a service to the industry going forward it has got to be prepared to open its doors and provide value,” says Cole pointing out that this will most likely mean bringing in larger numbers of adjacent professionals, contractors and clients.

“In a world that is increasingly engaging on a global basis, who can stay UK focussed?” Chris Cole

And while he accepts that the ACE must continue to provide a strong voice and knowledge service for the industry in the UK, he is also convinced that to truly serve the industry of the future, ACE must spend more time in supporting its members beyond the UK.

“In a world that is increasingly engaging on a global basis, who can stay UK focused?” he asks. “What company of any scale or ambition will tell you ‘I’m not going to do anything outside the UK?’. That would be a fairly unusual strategy. Diversification provides opportunity and resilience. Everything will become more international and less parochial.”

Of course he is also aware that the ACE represents a large number of smaller firms for whom global ambition is not so high up the agenda. This range of size, activity and ambition across the membership does, he accepts, provide a significant challenge when it comes to meeting member needs. 

However, he points out that widening ACE’s services and reach would not necessarily spoil or undermine what they currently get from ACE.

“You have to remain relevant to small members but who is to say that small firms are not ambitious,” he says, pointing out that despite the economic upturn the ACE must continue to underline and justify the amount that member firms pay each year in subscriptions. 

“It would be wrong for the ACE to even contemplate things getting easier just because the market is turning up,” he says, highlighting that the habits of scrutinising every piece of expenditure will not suddenly disappear. 

“People will continue to review the value that they get,” he says. “The whole idea is that people want to be members because they get something out of it rather than because they feel that they ought to be.”

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