As a family business, McGowan Environmental Engineering has continued to grow organically and is fully committed to nurturing, training and developing its workforce. Based in the UK’s largest National Park, it has grown to become a valued local employer where the majority of the team live in the surrounding rural area.
McGowan – Sam Hesling
My name is Sam Hesling. I’m a contracts manager for the environmental projects at McGowan Environmental Engineering Limited based in Aviemore in the Highlands of Scotland. I run the environmental part of our business alongside my colleague Kyle McGowan, with civil being the other part. The two of us run our business unit and we undertake quite a significant level of environmental restoration projects across Scotland and sometimes further afield.
What steps has your organisation taken to improve nature-based solutions?
We work with our customers to implement nature-based solutions for them. There are three sectors that we are particularly active in: with regards to nature-based solutions, there are peatland restoration, river restoration, and also the creation of wetlands as well. For example, across our portfolio of flood and restoration projects, our customers are essentially trying to either reverse or at the very least reduce the rate of decline of peat bogs that are under their care and or ownership. For the river restoration projects we undertake, typically, we’re helping our customers in flood alleviation or flood prevention, both downstream and upstream of where it is where we’re working.
This sort of project could entail connecting a river to its floodplain. What tends to happen and as a result of doing that is you end up creating a more diverse river. We incorporate standing water where possible, pools, and backwater features within the newly created flood plains.
There’s a double benefit there. One is related to flooding and the ability of that landscape to store water in the event of high rainfall. And the other is a biodiversity benefit as well, by creating habitats for invertebrates and other wildlife.
What drove you to take these steps and how does this align to the purpose of your organisation?
We’ve seen an increase in interest in undertaking projects such as restoration and nature-based solutions. There’s certainly an increased demand in the industry so as a business we’re responding and growing to adapt to that increasing market. We’ve also got the benefit of having been involved in these markets from a relatively early stage as well in Scotland and further afield. We have a lot of expertise and we’ve got our techniques that we’ve developed as a company, which we can then roll out across our projects for our customers.
And all these techniques are with a view to one of two things: reducing the environmental impacts of implementing these solutions for our customers and/or providing a better outcome for our customers as a result of the work we undertake.
What have the benefits been for your business?
The benefits that we have found are that setting out to undertake a project with a clear goal of wanting to deliver a really good quality product to specification or beyond specification and at the same time minimising that project’s environmental impact during construction has benefited us enormously.
One benefit is that we get a lot of repeat business, and we like to think that that’s a testament to the approach that we take. We have customers ask us back year on year to undertake projects on their landholding or on behalf of others. We feel that’s a real benefit to our own company because repeat business is far more straightforward than having to go out and tender for new business again and again.
How easy and affordable was it to take these steps?
It’s been relatively affordable to move the company in the direction of nature-based solution projects. The reason being is we’ve got an established track record of delivering projects over a number of years in environmentally sensitive areas for customers, who stipulate and demand the highest standards, wherever they are as a business.
It’s worth pointing out that we go over and above in what we provide for our customers. We’re running a self-funded research-based project in the background, looking to develop techniques and products for the peatland restoration market.
We’re looking at product development and we just self-fund that in-house. We see it as a potential business opportunity, but we’re taking it upon ourselves to self-fund the research and development required to bring that to market.
Recently, we were announced as the lead corporate sponsor for the reintroduction program in the Cairngorms National Park for cranes. There’s a project called Cairngorms Cranes, which is all about the reintroduction of cranes, which are a large wetland bird species that have been absent for many hundreds of years from this part of Scotland.
What do you wish you knew when you started down this route?
I guess one thing we wish we’d known maybe was the speed and the scale at which the nature-based solutions industry was going to develop. It has really ramped up to such a degree. I don’t think many foresaw how quickly the industry was going to evolve and grow and just how mainstream it was going to become, particularly through the media. I guess that would be one thing that we wish we had known was just how quickly the market was going to take off.
What skills have you had to grow within your organisation to adapt your business? And did you get advice to help you get started on this work?
The skills involved in growing the company and adapting to the new opportunities that come up were many and varied. We’re blessed and extremely fortunate in McGowan to have a really capable workforce on the ground delivering schemes for our customers.
We feel that we offer our staff the level of training and development that they require to allow them to develop as professionals and increase their knowledge base. It’s a kind of blend, I guess, providing them with the training that they feel they need. We can provide them with the training that we feel that they might need or that the customers specifically demand and then that gets combined in amongst the reality of learning by doing as well. The more you do the more you learn: the greater increase in your knowledge base and the greater your confidence develops as an individual and a professional.
We’ve received training for example through the organisation Peatland Action, through the Carbon Crichton Centre. We’ve done training courses through them to increase our knowledge and awareness of people restoration work. We’ve attended several conferences over the years – for example, the River Restoration Conference is an excellent conference where professionals get together from all over the UK and we give presentations, case studies on specific projects or techniques which are being trialled or implemented or proposed for river restoration schemes across the UK.
The other thing which is also maybe not so broadly talked about or advertised is just having a really solid professional network that you can rely on. We’re fortunate that we work with a lot of people now and a lot of times when faced with challenges we have maybe not seen before or faced with challenges where we feel we could add value by doing things a little bit differently. We can reach out to professionals and colleagues within our network and ask them for advice on ways for tackling certain things and vice versa they come to us as well.
Any advice for SMEs looking to do something similar for nature-based solutions?
Really if it’s something you are passionate about and you care about it that comes across naturally. For somebody setting out on this journey if you do genuinely care about the environment, it will make your life a lot easier. If staff genuinely care as well that will be communicated through their everyday interactions be that with stakeholders, consultees, customers, or regulatory agencies. The key thing is to have passion for it and employ people who have passion for it too.
The Crichton Carbon Centre undertakes grant-funded projects and commercial commissions, working with individuals, communities and a wide range of organisations, including businesses, social enterprises, schools, colleges, universities and public institutions.