“The loss of lives and destruction of livelihoods associated with the COVID-19 pandemic has been painful to witness. Like everyone else, our business has had to do everything possible to survive the pandemic,” says Richard Vries, Group CEO of engineering firm GIBB.
Vries says the challenge is far from over. “The construction industry is currently the worst performing economic sector in South Africa. As a share of nominal GDP, fixed investment has fallen to critically low levels, down to 15%, which is similar to the troughs experienced towards the end of apartheid and after the emerging market crisis of 1997/98 (Nedbank Capital).
“The consulting engineering industry market size has shrunk from a peak of R27 billion in 2017 to R10 billion in 2020. Our concerns are not only the lost economic opportunities and reduction of inequality in our society that would come from fixed investment, but also the loss of the globally recognised talent pool available in South Africa. It might take us many years to regain the lost engineering and architectural know-how necessary to create a globally competitive South Africa,” he adds.
Within this milieu, GIBB has drawn strength from its heritage and people to use the opportunities presented by the pandemic to build resilience and institute new ways of doing business. “We have found ways to optimise our operations while also creating a better work-life balance for our people and we are actively transforming our business to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the digital evolution,” notes Vries.
Despite the various market challenges, Vries says history has shown that the market will improve. “Now in our 65th year, our company has not only survived six decades of construction and engineering industry boom and bust, but our people have first-hand knowledge of many facets of the industry and the challenges related to developing sustainable infrastructure solutions. Because of this, we see opportunities when others may have lost hope. This understanding has set us on a new path to ultimately evolve into an infrastructure asset owner and operator,” says Vries.
Reflecting on the company’s history, Vries says he invited one of the founders of the South African chapter of GIBB, David Hill, to join him at the company’s excellence awards celebration in Cape Town in 2014. “Notwithstanding his frailty due to his advanced age at the time, Hill shared his immense pride in how GIBB had become a leading success in the field of engineering and reminded me that good people built great companies. This was the motto of Hill Kaplan Scott (HKS), the company that became the cornerstone of GIBB in South Africa, from its inception in 1956.”
The British firm, Alexander GIBB, founded by Scottish engineer Brigadier-General Sir Alexander GIBB, subsequently merged with an Atlanta based American company, LAW to form LAW GIBB. LAW GIBB (now part of Jacobs) acquired HKS in 1994, just as South Africa entered the miracle of its new democracy and set in motion a step-change for Hill Kaplan Scott to become an Africa-based world-class engineering house.
The company was rebranded LAW GIBB and immediately adopted an international best-practise approach to project delivery and client services, reflected in its recognition of being one of the first engineering companies in South Africa to become ISO9001 accredited.
Vries attributes the company’s success over the years to its people talent who carried the GIBB brand as it executed some of the most complex engineering projects on the African continent. “Today, having returned the ownership to South Africans in 2002 and becoming a 100% broad-based employee-owned company in 2006, we still view ourselves as competing with the best in the world.
This was aptly described by former Chairman, Dr Don Mkhwanazi when he stated in his 60th anniversary message: “GIBB demonstrated with distinction that black economic empowerment can be implemented with dignity and pride that is beyond reproach. A shining example and a beacon of hope for the South African industry, GIBB competes in a space dominated by multinational firms, but remains wholly South African owned.”
The journey over 65 years carries with it many stories of success, disappointment, ingenuity, courage, transformation and agility. From its early days as a partnership in Cape Town, providing electrical and structural engineering services, GIBB evolved into a leading multi-disciplinary company, offering services across power,
transportation, property, water, mining and now more recently the oil & gas market.
“In line with our ethos to always be agile, the GIBB Group of Companies has evolved its role in the delivery of engineering and infrastructure projects. Through our subsidiaries and affiliates, we now partner with project developers and owners to finance early-stage project development in the water sector, undertake joint development of renewable energy projects and provides life cycle services, such as asset management and operations & maintenance of infrastructure projects. We believe this integrated offering makes us an attractive partner for developers and owners of infrastructure assets,” adds Vries.
GIBB has to date delivered some of the largest and most complex infrastructure projects, from the design and building of a new 500-bed ICU hospital in 30 weeks during COVID; to being an integral part of the team overseeing the building of the first rapid-rail project in South Africa (Gautrain); leading the team designing and delivering the largest pump-storage scheme in the southern hemisphere (Ingula Pumped Storage Scheme); leading the team designing and delivering a dam to supply the economic hub of South Africa (Lesotho Highlands 2); being an integral part of the teaming planning, designing and delivering a new 68-000 seat world cup stadium in record time (Cape Town Stadium); designing the signalling system to ensure that millions of passengers are safely transported across the country on our rail systems (Prasa Signalling projects); designing key components of a new mine with critical time constraints and a limited budget; helping to solve the power problems in SA; and developing a detailed plan for transforming an existing highly populous African city to a modern and world class city (Port Harcourt, Nigeria).
When GIBB and EDF (a global French energy company) joined hands in 2018 to form GIBB Power, it was from the realisation that South Africa (and the rest of Africa) is in great need for both local and global expertise to respond to the power challenge. “Similarly, we work closely with SAIPEM (Milan based oil & gas EPC firm) to find climate change solutions to industry in Southern Africa. Our project development initiatives are being supported through a partnership agreement with Crede Capital Partners (a financial and investment services company),” concludes Vries.