Rooted in Africa, SRK celebrates 50 years of global success

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As the world of engineering becomes more complex, the focus on innovation within SRK Consulting grows ever stronger. Image: SRK Consulting

When a trio of South African engineering pioneers started their own consultancy in Johannesburg in 1974, it was innovation that was their guide; half a century later, SRK Consulting is a 1700-strong global network of scientists and engineers that embraces digital and other technologies to further enhance its impact.

From its original South African base, SRK Consulting grew its footprint into the rest of Africa and abroad. This success was achieved despite the cycles and vagaries of the South African mining sector, both before and after the nation’s transition to democracy. The steady expansion into Africa was supported by SRK’s country practices across the globe, especially those in South Africa, the United Kingdom and Australia.

Vital to the energy within SRK Consulting is its innovative culture and its business model based on employee ownership – which were core to the founders’ vision. The success of Oskar Steffen, Andy Robertson and Hendrik Kirsten was based on their complementary talents as “a statesman, an entrepreneur and a scientific mind” respectively.

“They invited bright people to join SRK with these simple words: come and build your own practice within our company,” said SRK Consulting global chairman Alejo Sfriso. Their business model – which was employee-owned with flat reporting structures – drew in the best minds with a shared professional curiosity and commitment to engineering excellence.”

Through this approach, SRK Consulting has always been able to empower its staff to explore their own fields – while discovering the potential for innovation at the boundaries of other disciplines. The company grew organically as experienced engineers and scientists around the world were inspired by its philosophy and the opportunities this created.

SRK’s office in Vancouver, Canada, opened in 1978, and from that year there were also South African branches opened in Pretoria, Cape Town, Durban and Welkom; later, three more were started – in Pietermaritzburg, East London and Gqeberha. In 1979, the first US office opened in Denver, and in 1981 an office was started in Zimbabwe, with another in the United Kingdom the following year.

The company had been active in South America for some time before it opened an office in Santiago, Chile, in 1994 – and that same year an office was started in Perth, Australia. There are now offices in countries including Argentina, Brazil, China, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, India, Mexico, Mongolia, Peru and Turkey.

Today, the focus on innovation within SRK Consulting grows ever stronger as the world of engineering and scientific endeavour in industrial and mining projects becomes steadily more complex. There could be few themes more appropriate for its golden anniversary year than the one it has chosen: ‘Innovation in Focus’. Tim McGurk, group CEO of SRK Global, emphasised that the business and its people continue to build on its legacy of continual improvement and technical advancement.

“It is inevitable that we renew our commitment to innovation in our work, as we reflect on our past and look forward to the future,” said McGurk. The addition of sustainability concerns in recent decades now means that all engineering needs to be underpinned by this approach – using technology wherever possible.

“Our consultants therefore harness machine learning to support exploration projects, for instance, while others use object-oriented programming to optimise field data interpretation and visualisation,” he said. “The impact of climate change is also vital to understand, and we are developing tools for this in fields such as hydrology.”

Importantly, these innovations need to be tailored to meet client’s needs for sustainable solutions. In the mining industry, for instance, where SRK Consulting had initially focused its expertise, the drive towards more responsible practices was requiring various technical challenges to be solved, said Andrew van Zyl, managing director of SRK Consulting (South Africa).

“SRK’s culture supports our professionals by nurturing their passion to solve technical problems in a way that contributes to society and to sustainability,” said Van Zyl. “This has been the force behind our organic growth – as it allows us to attract professionals who are committed to quality solutions for our clients, for communities and for the planet.”

He noted that mining continues to supply critical resources for daily life, and to support the transition to a lower carbon future.

“Through the power of innovation, we believe that we are making a real difference in the industry, to ensure that mining’s social contribution is a priority,” he said. “It is also really motivating to see our people find their passion and their home in SRK – and to watch them thrive.”

Over its 50 years, SRK Consulting has extended its services well beyond mining, encompassing a multi-disciplinary skills base in infrastructure, environment, water and energy. Underpinning its commitment to innovation is its embrace of modern technologies including the development of digital tools to capture and process big data.

According to Tracey Drew, principal consultant and head of data services at SRK Australia, this means giving scientists and engineers the opportunity to collaborate with like-minded creators within the business. One way it promotes this is through global ‘Innovation Workshops’ – where staff can not only present and discuss their innovations, but where the best ideas are internally funded to completion.

“Recognising that innovation thrives on the exchange of ideas, SRK creates an open environment where our experts can adopt a collective approach to the problems that they in the process of solving,” said Drew.

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