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Strength in the mix

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Book marks 40 years of growth for Witsie-founded engineering firm

“Oskar Steffen, Andrew Robertson and Hendrik Kirsten in the mid-1970s were three very different men…” So begins the story of SRK Consulting, one of the top consulting engineering firms in South Africa, in a book to mark its 40th anniversary (SRK: 40 Years in the Deep End, by Ian Mulgrew).

Hendrik Kirsten, Andy Robertson and Oskar Steffen

Those men, all Witsies, were specialists in open-pit mining, soils and rock mechanics respectively. Together, they built a firm now highly rated for its standards of practice, employment diversity, skills development and corporate social investment. It employs 1400 professionals in over 45 offices on six continents.

The firm’s character is very much a product of its founders’ personalities, experiences and connections.

Complementary characters

SRK Consulting co-founder Oskar SteffenSteffen grew up in Swaziland. His father and grandfather were imprisoned during World War II because they were German; his mother kept the family’s trading store going. When he got to Wits in 1956, he didn’t speak much English, but was fortunate to come under the wing of Prof Jeremiah Jennings, who got to know all his students personally. Jennings emphasised the need for engineers to learn from people – from the labourers on site to the final users of the structure – and not just from data.

Jennings was Head of Wits’ Department of Civil Engineering from 1954 to 1976. He arranged for several black students to graduate as civil engineers at Wits during the apartheid era, and he received an honorary doctorate from the University in 1978.

SRK Consulting co-founder Hendrik KirstenKirsten grew up in Johannesburg, the son of a senior civil servant who dealt with compensation for industrial-related lung diseases. He graduated as a civil engineer and then switched to mining engineering and went into teaching and research at Wits, specialising in structural engineering and rock mechanics.

SRK Consulting co-founder Andy RobertsonRobertson, who had spent part of his childhood on the Zambian copper belt, came to Wits on a mining bursary and switched the opposite way, to civils.  Kirsten was one of his lecturers, and he encountered Steffen in Zambia and in Kimberley. The book says it was in Robertson’s character to take on a big load enthusiastically. In the late 1960s he was working full-time for Frankipile, started his own business, was doing his PhD and had a family.

Perhaps it was time to share the load.

Into the deep end

When they opened SRK in 1974, Robertson (BSc Eng 1966, PhD 1977) was the entrepreneurial one; the salesman. Kirsten, the mathematician and details man (BSc Eng 1963, MSc Eng 1966, PhD 1986), was well connected; and Steffen (BSc Eng 1961, MSc Eng 1963, PhD 1978) had managerial experience and an excellent reputation. The firm was under pressure to succeed: for one thing, the partners were supporting 11 young children between them.

It got started with a concrete pipeline for Rand Water, a mine tailings dam and a railway line, and grew from there. As the commemorative book puts it: “There was a lot of wow-factor in some of the early projects SRK took on – their scope, their impacts, their remote and difficult locations, their staggering size.” The work ethic was such that someone jokingly called the firm “Siberian Rest Kamp”, though it also functioned as a family, thanks to the commitment of the actual families involved.

The business model was unusual: staff were able to become shareholders and grow their own practices.

It soon became important to look beyond South Africa for growth. Fellow Witsie Doug Piteau (PhD 1971) was working in Canada and suggested that the firm expand there, which it did in 1977. Arizona in the US was the next step, then Colorado. More offices and countries followed – as did economic ups and downs – and new areas of expertise were added to the mix. The corporate structure and systems changed in response to the firm’s local and global growth.

The South African office has weathered the challenges of finding and retaining the right people and responding to the country’s special demands. Wits graduate Sue Posnik (BA 1973, BA Hons 1982, PDE 1973) was the firm’s first female partner and director and in the 1990s led its environmental and social impact assessment work.

Reaching the shore

Robertson left SRK in 1994 to form Robertson GeoConsultants Inc in Canada. In 2015 he was inducted into International Mining magazine’s Hall of Fame.

Kirsten left SRK in 2001. He received the SAICE Geotechnical Gold Medal in 2016. Reflecting on the firm’s success, he said that staying close to academia was important so as to attract the best people and learn about the latest technology.

People were what mattered most, Steffen agreed. He received the London Mining Journal’s Lifetime Achievement award in 2010.

SRK Consulting SA was rated among the top five consulting engineering firms in the mining and infrastructure category of the Top 500 Companies Awards in 2017.

SRK Consulting book: 40 Years in the Deep End

The commemorative book is available on the firm’s website (srk.com).

Photos: SRK Consulting

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