EM Highway Services: At the helm

9th June 2014


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Fergus Taylor

EM Highway Services uses IEMA's leadership training course to help embed sustainability

All environment practitioners know that organisations can gain huge value through the strategic management of environmental risks and opportunities. Issues such as climate change, resource scarcity and the cost of dealing with pollution and waste are of paramount importance to businesses.

Companies seen as exemplary in this area are not those on the fringe, but huge household names such as B&Q, Jaguar Land Rover, Marks & Spencer and Unilever. One thing these organisations have in common is that they have made sustainability a central part of their business strategy rather than a bolt-on or seeing it as purely a compliance issue.

This sort of approach cannot happen without the vision of certain people within the business and almost certainly not without the buy-in from the leadership team. These are the individuals who can join the dots between strategy and practice across the organisation’s value chain, free up the requisite resources and provide top-down commitment to do business differently.

Moves to “mainstream” sustainability in an organisation present some challenges for environment practitioners, including: engaging decision makers, securing commitment and resources and setting a meaningful strategy that makes the best of opportunities.

All too often, specialists have difficulty making the business case for action because they do not articulate the benefits in a way that grabs the attention of leaders. In these circumstances, any tools to help professionals are welcome.

Leading sustainability

Last year, IEMA launched its “all jobs greener” suite of training courses to help the whole workforce understand sustainability issues. The “leading with environmental sustainability” course (see panel, p.xiv) is designed for directors, board members and those responsible for setting the strategic direction of an organisation. There are various drivers influencing this group, including accountability for compliance with legislation and increased reporting requirements, particularly where businesses are reporting environmental and social performance alongside their financial accounts.

The forthcoming changes to ISO 14001 – which are due to be finalised in 2015 – are also a driver, with new requirements for business leaders to play a greater role in their organisation’s environment management system (EMS) and for the EMS to be integrated into organisational strategy. The “new” 14001 will also require environmental performance to be considered in a company’s strategic planning process.

In discussing the motivation behind developing the all-jobs-greener training courses, IEMA chief executive Tim Balcon says environment and sustainability should be at the core of business, but that is being held up because of “a mismatch between supply and demand for environmental skills”.

“This stems back to gaps in the curriculum and continues right through vocational education,” says Balcon. “Businesses cannot access the right skills at the right scale and I want to see that become a thing of the past.”

In practice

Specialist road maintenance company EM Highway Services (EM) was in the first wave of businesses to train its senior management team using IEMA’s course on leading with environmental sustainability.

EM was formed in 2005 and now manages 28% of England’s motorways and main roads on behalf of the Highways Agency. The firm has contract offices and depots throughout England, from the southernmost tip of Cornwall to the northern extremities of the Lake District; a head office in Manchester and a dedicated design centre in Enfield, north London.

As one of the country’s largest highway maintenance companies, EM is at the sharp end of environmental issues, such as adapting the nation’s road infrastructure to be resilient to climate change, protecting roadside natural habitats – through its pioneering work on ecosystem valuation – and reducing reliance on fossil-fuel derivatives, including bitumen, in road construction.

Sustainability is not a new concept to EM, and for a long time “green” ideas and initiatives have been undertaken at contract level. In 2009, for example, EM’s contract with Transport for London won a London Green500 award for reducing carbon emissions in the capital. Meanwhile, rainwater harvesting systems have been installed at several EM depots and all the regions regularly hold health, safety and environment fairs.

The company also has an established approach to social responsibility and engaging with local communities. In Cumbria, for example, EM contracts Recycling Lives, a local charity, to collect its waste. Recycling Lives offers accommodation, education, training and work experience to homeless and long-term unemployed individuals.

The speed at which EM has expanded is another driver for a more coordinated approach to the environment. In 2013, EM’s turnover was more than £294 million, compared with just £4.3 million in 2006, and it now employs more than 1,200 people.

One planet action plan

As part of its desire to become more strategic in managing environment issues, EM created its “one planet action plan”. The concept of one-planet-living provides a framework based on 10 core principles, such as being zero-carbon and zero-waste, to find cost-effective solutions to reduce environmental impacts and demonstrate commitment to sustainability.

From the outset it was clear to EM’s board of directors that their support would be vital to the success of the strategy and action plan.

One definition of leadership is: “A process of influence by which a person or group can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.” With this in mind, sustainability is championed at EM board level by Lucy Anderson, the safety, health, environment and quality director, and features heavily in the board report, which Anderson produces every month.

Wanting to get the board “on board” with sustainability led EM to approach Workplace Law to deliver IEMA’s “leading with sustainability” course to the key decision-makers.

The course is designed to last about half a day and covers five main learning outcomes with the material adapted to the organisation. It is a facilitated session and requires active participation from all attendees building to a set of commitments that are agreed among the group.

The process involved Workplace Law meeting EM before the session was delivered to:

  • understand the company’s key risks and drivers;
  • undertake a situational analysis of EM’s main stakeholders; and
  • identify relevant case studies.

IEMA requires the course to cover certain issues – such as how sustainability can improve resilience, what organisations are leading in this area and compliance obligations at director level – but the content can be tailored to fit the organisation. In this case, it focused on the contents of EM’s “roadmap to sustainability”. Launched in October 2013, the document sets out EM’s vision for the future and includes the firm’s sustainability strategy and its “one planet action plan”.

Although awareness of sustainability issues was relatively high among the EM board, it was important to the individual members that they engaged with IEMA and Workplace Law to reinforce the company’s environment management capabilities and check its approach to incorporating sustainability into its practices. EM’s directors attended the course on 31 January 2014. Interaction and engagement was high and the feedback positive, confirms James Haluch, EM’s service director for the Highways Agency: “I thought the course was worthwhile. I found the case studies, one focusing on a competitor and one on a potential client, of real value.”

The training required at this level is less about sitting and listening and more about encouraging discussion. The exercises in the course are designed to invoke dialogue on the company’s core activities. At EM’s session, for example, the topic “accounting for the environment” sparked a discussion about natural capital and the firm’s work in Devon and Cornwall, where it is piloting a new software programme called i-Tree, which provides forestry analysis and tools to assess the benefits provided by ecosystem services.

Mitesh Solanki, EM’s service director for local authorities, found several other exercises helpful. “Mapping out EM’s value chain was particularly useful because it highlighted the key role that the supply chain can play,” he explains. “Also, the exercise where we plotted EM’s position on the ‘sustainability continuum’ helped to clarify exactly where we are and where we need to be.”

Communication plan

After the EM board completed the course, EM’s “roadmap to sustainability” became the subject of an extensive communication strategy. EM quickly realised that it had to explain the strategy effectively to its workforce, which includes engineers, senior managers, project managers, quantity surveyors, tunnel specialists and a team of highway operatives.

Considerable thought was required to tailor the delivery method to the audience and stimulate enthusiasm. The first step was the distribution of an A4 brochure document, which covered the strategy in full, as well as an A5 summary booklet. A “sustainability roadshow” then communicated the strategy and action plan to all EM employees through a series of interactive workshops, extended toolbox talks and an ongoing poster campaign. EM’s communication efforts were recognised in March 2014 at SustainabilityLive, when the company was shortlisted for an environment and energy award in the “sustainability communications campaign” category.

The interactive workshops were used to draw out innovative ideas that could be used to meet sustainability targets and to call for volunteers to join contract-level sustainability groups, which will drive forward the action plan. These groups are chaired by sustainability champions, who are the visible and accountable face of sustainability. The champions are supported by a network of volunteers across the organisation itself, as well as its clients and suppliers.

EM has long recognised the importance of client and supply chain engagement, and understands that companies can often achieve much more by cooperating than by working alone. EM has taken a leading role in this area, being the first UK highway maintenance contractor to be awarded BS 11000, the standard for collaborative business relationships.

Dave Wright, EM’s managing director, explains: “We recognise that this strategy needs to be led from the top down if we are to achieve real buy-in from all business areas. Our aim is to embed sustainability into all the disciplines covered by our business.”

A new era

EM is already seeing results from the strategy. It has become the first highways maintenance service provider to be awarded the Carbon Trust Standard and has created its own “sustainable highway design toolkit”. This can be used by engineers and designers to tackle issues such as carbon emissions, material use and waste.

“We are moving into a new era for sustainability within EM and, while our past achievements are a credit to the individuals and contract teams responsible for their delivery, the future will see an expediential increase in our sustainability performance,” says Anderson. “EM has taken a strategic approach to sustainability by offering a framework for sustainable development, while also encouraging and empowering our individual contracts to set testing and optimistic targets. This approach is led from the front by our top management and encapsulated in a clear strategy with objectives and targets.”


Peter Watts is head of environment at Workplace Law. Lucy Anderson is SHEQ director and Matthew Tompsett is environmental solutions manager at EM Highway Services.


Leading with sustainability

The core components of IEMA’s “leading with environmental sustainability” course are:

  • What environmental sustainability means for the organisation? This introduces the concept of environmental sustainability and highlights the organisation’s current approach.
  • Is the strategy fit for purpose? This involves determining what the strategic drivers are for sustainability, as well as a critical assessment of the organisation’s existing approach and how effective it is.

Which organisations are leading with environmental sustainability and why? This element of the course involves examining best practice from organisations across a variety of sectors. Those covered include:

  • manufacturers that have used lifecycle assessment to reduce environmental impacts and generate marketing benefits;
  • financial service companies that have used pioneering approaches to environmental and social governance policy
  • in investment; and
  • companies that have undertaken a financial valuation of ecosystems and are actively using the knowledge gained.

As with most of the course material, this section is customisable, so EM Highway Services, for example, could chose to examine additional case studies of a competitor and a client business.

Understanding the implications of complying with environmental law. Directors are answerable for the environmental performance of their organisations, although some are not aware of the main aspects of regulation. Further, compliance with environment legislation is often not as high on the corporate agenda as compliance with health and safety regulation, for example. This part of the course outlines some of the crucial pieces of legislation that apply to the organisation and how directors are ultimately accountable.

What a new strategy would look like. This part of the course requires participants to agree five strategic environmental sustainability outcomes for which they will take responsibility. These will be the drivers in the organisation’s journey to become more sustainable.


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