Staff Spotlight: John Booth, Managing Director
How long have you been involved with Geotechnics?
Since 1993. I was made redundant by a firm called Exploration Associates, and made a phone call about five minutes later. I spoke to Terry Clark, the Commercial Manager in the Coventry office, and he said “There is a God! I’ve got a marine job down in Dartmouth and I didn’t know how I was going to run it. Will you come and run it for us?”
So I went down to Dartmouth and ran that project. After that, Terry and Len Threadgold - Geotechnics’ Chairman - asked me to set up an office in the North West. I started off on my own – just me and a serviced office. Within 3 or 4 months I’d got a graduate engineer working for me, and then the team started to grow and everything became bigger from there.
How have you seen
Geotechnics change from those early days to now?
When I first came along, it was a company that was based around consultancy work. Geotechnics did ground investigations, but it also did consultancy work on the basis of those investigations. Terry and I widened the company’s opportunities. Both our backgrounds were in traditional ground investigation, so we were able to grow a company that could do a desk study, a site reconnaissance, a ground investigation, laboratory testing and then we could write a report. So it became a one-stop shop.
It grew steadily in that mould for quite a long time until the credit crunch came along. A lot of the interpretative work was then held back by consultants and clients. Now we’ve become quite a large specialist contractor.
People know us for our technical ability within that contracting role, and that’s what they like about us. We don’t just want to be one of the people who can drill a hole as cheaply as possible and fill it in again. We bring a lot of added value.
What was your career like before you joined Geotechnics?
I was very lucky because I knew what I wanted to do when I was about 15. I had an inspirational geography teacher at school, and I got really interested in physical geography: landscapes, rivers, glaciers, mountains… But as I got more into it, I realised they were only the surface expression of what was going on under the earth. I realised that I wanted to be a geologist and I went to Liverpool University to study.
As you come up to the end of your time at university, you have to think “Where is this going to take me in terms of a career?” I knew that I didn’t want to go into the oil industry, and there weren’t many opportunities in mining. So I went into engineering geology. I worked for a firm called Osiris Cesco for around 4 years doing site work, report writing… There were quite a lot of marine ground investigations involving pontoons, jackup platforms and ships. I even worked in Libya for four months, which was quite exciting.
I left them because I thought I needed to work for a consultant civil engineer, but the role just didn’t suit me. After that, I got my job at Exploration Associates. I did a lot of interpretative report writing with them, and I was very fortunate that they helped me to do an MSc in Engineering Geology at Leeds University.
I then went to work for a firm in Manchester. I lasted with them for about 2 or 3 years, but the journeys to Manchester were really interfering with family life. It was very difficult with a young family coming along.
In the interim, Exploration Associates phoned me up and asked if I’d go back as the Regional Manager at the Deeside office. It was a heaven sent opportunity - they made me an offer I just could not refuse. But unfortunately the market changed, and 5 or 6 months into that I got made redundant. Whilst it was a knock to my confidence at the time, I had a job within two hours of being made redundant and my career hasn’t looked back since I joined Geotechnics.
Geotechnics is a big enough company that we do exciting and interesting projects, but it’s small enough that, as Managing Director, people actually get to know you. It has a family feel to it. I worked as Regional Manager for some time, and then I was asked if I would work as a Joint Managing Director. After that, I became Managing Director in my own right and have worked with Len to have a significant shareholding in the business.
What’s a typical day like for you as Managing Director?
I don’t have a typical day - I think that’s what I really like about it. My days can be quite varied. I enjoy the process of solving problems as they come in. I do some tendering too, which I’ve always really enjoyed. I find that quite a technical challenge, and I really get a buzz out of trying to win a tender.
The day-to-day managing of the business behind the scenes can be time consuming. I’ve got to manage things like insurance companies, the bank, strategic level planning for the company: where it’s going and how’s it going to get there. Then I’ve got to talk to the marketing team; I’ve got to talk to the laboratory; I’ve got to be a mentor and a sounding board for the Regional Managers. All that takes a lot of time.
I’m also on the Council of the Geological Society, which is giving me a chance to give back to a profession that’s given me a career for the past thirty five years.
Can you tell us a bit more about your involvement with the Geological Society?
There’s the main Council, which meets four times a year and makes the final decisions about initiatives that the society is carrying out. But I also sit on the Science Committee, which focuses on promoting the society as a voice for earth sciences - not just in the UK but worldwide.
It’s a very well-respected body. What I bring to it is a bit of real life experience, because there needs to be a balance between people from industry and people from academia. Academics have their view of the world and the industry has their view of the world, and we need both to take the Society forward.
You’re a keen advocate of the Geological Society’s Chartership program as well. What can you tell us about this?
Once you qualify and graduate from university you’ve proved your academic abilities, but that doesn’t show your professional ability. Your professional ability starts the day you get your first job, and throughout your career you have to demonstrate that you are taking on additional experience, additional responsibility and additional capability if you want to show a career progression. I think it’s good to have that progression tested and recognised at points in your career.
The Chartership is a 4-5 year post-graduate process that allows you to build up experience in whichever part of earth sciences and geology that you happen to find yourself in. You then have to write up your experience and be examined on your understanding and your experience. If you get through that process, you can proudly say “I am now a Chartered Geologist”.
And even then I don’t think that learning stops. You still have to keep up to date with what’s going on; you have to widen your experience as much as possible. But then you get to the point where I’m at, where I feel that I can then mentor and give my experience back to those who are coming up through that process and show them ways forward, encourage them and give them skills.
Geotechnics has four offices around the country – in Chester, Coventry, Exeter and Yorkshire. How do you manage such a big logistical challenge?
One of the things that you learn as you go up in your career is that you have to delegate. You have to put people and systems in place that allow the business to run without you there. If I go on holiday, do I worry that the business is about to fall down around my ears? No I don’t, because there are people in place who can run the business.
If you start to micromanage then you’re only using your own capabilities. If you allow other people to take on responsibility, then you add their capabilities into the mix as well. That’s the only way you can run such a diverse business: you have to give people responsibility. My experience is that the more responsibility you give people, the more they give back. A business of this size does not work unless you delegate.
What is your favourite part of your job?
On a day to day basis I like tendering. I find it an intellectual challenge, because it’s pulling together everything I know about geology; everything I know about this industry; everything I know about project management, logistics, organisation, equipment, techniques, people… You have to somehow meld all this into understanding what the job is, how to do the job and how to do it well.
On a more strategic level, the most important thing is to make a success of Geotechnics, to drive it forward and to make it one of the leading specialists in its field. When people say “Oh I know Geotechnics, they’re always really good,” that is a great source of satisfaction. It’s good to be able to generate that sort of feeling and be proud of what we’ve done and where we’re going. I also feel a responsibility for 105 staff members and their families, and subcontractors who rely on us to keep them working as well.
What advice would you give to someone looking to get into the geotechnical industry?
I would say that you certainly need to get your academic background sorted, and then I would say that you need to be open to all sorts of different experiences. If you can find a job, then get into it if you can. Find yourself something that gets you to use your earth science qualifications - whatever sector the job is in - and see where it takes you.
Find out what training you’re going to get, and what mentorship is available from the company that you join. If somebody asks if you want to go to Libya – or anywhere! - say “Yes please!” Go and do anything you get offered.
What do you like to do outside of work?
My wife and I both really like to travel. We’ve had some great experiences over the last few years!
The kids – well, I say the kids! – they’re just coming up to 26 and 23. We see them when we see them; we help them out when they need it; but it’s great to see them making their own lives for themselves.
I like to keep busy: gardening, jobs around the house, keeping fit… I like to play tennis two or three times a week.
What are some of your favourite places you’ve been to?
My favourite place without a doubt is Myanmar (Burma). We were very fortunate - we went on a trip where we had a week in Cambodia, a week in Laos and a week in Burma. And Burma was absolutely stunning. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to - fantastic temples, culture, wonderful people and just a great experience.
We’ve done some other stuff off the beaten track. We went to Namibia and spent a couple of weeks driving on gravel roads around the country. You could drive for half a day and not see a house, or another person. We’ve done quite a bit in South America too, though South East Asia is probably where we’ve most enjoyed ourselves. In fact, we’re planning to go to Indonesia next year!
What is a surprising fact that most people would not know about you?
I once scored six baskets in the English universities’ basketball final!
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