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Interview with Mathieu Du Plooy, WSP CEO

WSP is a globally recognized engineering professional services firm with a combined 130-year history. Its roots are in companies founded in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. The company employs 37,500 people globally. The South African Professional Services Academy spoke to the Managing Director of the African business, Mathieu Du Plooy, about his personal and entrepreneurial journey.

 

Tell us about your early life

Having grown up in Cape Town and graduated in 1996 with a  mechanical engineering qualification, I initially worked for a local consulting firm and then spent two years in the United Kingdom, working for a contractor.

I returned to South Africa in 1999 and joined WSP's Industrial Refrigeration department. Between 1999 and 2007, I worked on many commercial and industrial refrigeration projects, initially locally, then nationally, and then throughout the African continent and into the Middle East and Far East. In 2008 I moved to Johannesburg to head up our Building Services offering. I took over as Managing Director for Africa in 2010.

What was your training like?

I knew at an early stage in my career that I wanted to be on the business side of things, so I added an MBA from UCT to my engineering training between 2001 and 2002. I went further to do my Masters in Commerce between 2004 and 2008.

What does the role of Managing Director at WSP mean to you?

My role is about broadly offering leadership, to promote the growth of other leaders in our business by encouraging our teams to grow both their technical abilities and interpersonal skills. Our business is relationship driven, making it very important that our people are comfortable in their own skin and are able to support each other as we deliver on the projects our clients have entrusted to us.

How would people describe your leadership style?

I think I am very open to people in that I believe in empowering the people around me. I am there to support rather than to dictate to people. I am a servant leader - I strive to support our leaders in the organisation to perform and excel in what they do.

What have been your highs and lows in your working career?

The highs have included what we call our People Journey - providing various initiatives that help our people to become ever more comfortable in their own skin and capable of achieving their potential. Part of this, for example, is our Personal Mastery programme, which helps our people to develop their self-awareness. It has been a big success. We have also successfully integrated our business in Africa following the global acquisition of Parsons Brinckerhoff in 2014. That brought together two businesses with complimentary technical abilities and client portfolios, with two different cultures that had to be merged to form an organisation that people from both legacy firms could identify with and find a sense of purpose in.

Quote from Mathieu

What keeps you awake at night?

Two things: Firstly, how do we address the technical and people skills base, not just within WSP but in our country. I spend a lot of time thinking about how we help our own people achieve their professional registration and get the relevant experience, as well as on-going need to invest in our people and the industry as a whole. My greatest aspiration is that our Professionals can stand competently and proudly on any international stage.

Secondly, how do we maintain cash in the bank and find that balance of having a sustainable South African business that provides professional services effectively and efficiently to the clients what have trusted us to advise them on their projects.

What legacy would you like to leave behind when you retire?

I would like to see continued growth. I would like to see the company culture, team relationships and identity sustained over the coming years.

How has the organisation fared in terms of business growth?

In spite of a challenging environment, we continue to achieve market-leading positions within specialist sectors. As an example, our power business has grown phenomenally, our operating margins have improved in general, and we have maintained or increased our market share.

How is the company doing in terms of growing the engineering and science profession?

We have effective conversations to support our employees, not only through graduate discussions, but by providing mentoring support to develop our candidate professionals. We have leadership training to better equip our engineers to lead a professional team successfully. I personally support these initiatives and am passionate about development of all our staff.

We have an active bursary programme for tertiary education in engineering and science, and offer support to a number of organisations that promote mathematics and science, as well as career in engineering and environmental science, in high schools. For example, we are fully behind and support Engineers without Borders, where we  have worked with this organisation to grow as both a student organisation and NPO since its very early days. The organisation also supports further training at Honours and Masters level.

How is the organisation delivering on customer service?

Repeat business is high and our customer service is relationship geared.

We are using the seller-doer operating model in delivering projects so that we have senior people on all projects and we ensure we deliver relevant and appropriate solutions.

This also means that our clients are always dealing with the person that is their delivering their project as well, so there's less room for misunderstanding.

We have high standardsin terms of doing what is right in the business in terms of ethical behavior, integrity and professionalism.

How do you personally and WSP as an organisation take part in mentorship?

The organisation supports the Alan Gray Foundation and I personally mentor and support this initiative. I have an Australian colleague who I am guiding in terms of international exposure and best practices.

We have an internal mentorship structure where individuals are assigned mentors within the organisation inline with the employee's aspirations, particularly Candidate Engineers to ensure they achieve their professional registration and future dreams. The organisation advocates for internal coaching dynamics to grow our people within.

Has the organisation won any awards recently?

The organisation is always involved in projects that achieve industry specific accolades, from the PMR.Africa awards to the SAPOA, CESA and SAICE Awards. A recent Carte Blanche expose covered one of our professional executives doing exceptional work in New York.

We are also considered centres of excellence in a number of engineering disciplines. For example, our Stellenbosch-based Coastal engineering team are world-renowned and are currently working on a number of major ports projects throughout the African continent.

When not at work, what do you get up to?

Family life is important to me - I am married with an 11 year-old son and 8 year-old daughter. They  keep me grounded. I also have a passion and keen interest in mountain biking.

This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue of The African Professional. Access the June issue here.