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Fireside Chat with Ben Bradford
Intro: Ben is the proud founder of BB7, an outstanding fire and security consulting firm that advises architects and design teams throughout the design and construction process, but also building owners and operators with single or multi-site portfolios enabling them to strategically manage risk in the built environment. The firm now has seven offices nationwide and is backed by BGF. Ben is a Chartered Engineer and Chartered Surveyor with an MBA and a love of business
- How have you been affected by COVID-19?
Sadly, we have colleagues that have lost family to COVID. Thankfully, I’m a survivor of COVID-19. I’ve had it, my family has had it and from a BB7 perspective, we’ve been doing relatively well. I’ve found it tough as a CEO in that, when the pandemic first started there’s quite a bit of pressure to make serious decisions about how to direct the organisation through a pandemic and what could become a global financial crisis, and not quite knowing what that is going to mean. No CEO regrets making decisions early, all CEO’s regret making decisions too late, I felt quite a bit of pressure to make sure I was taking it all really seriously.
So, when we didn’t see anything in the numbers I just thought, we will carry on business as usual. I also wasn’t 100% sure how working from home on-masse was going to go, but actually it’s fine and there’s no going back. We’re embracing flexibility like never before, but we aren’t going to drop offices as we need offices to be able to train graduates and community is important.
Fire safety is increasingly becoming a multi-disciplined profession where we need fire safety engineers, fire risk assessors, fire modellers, fire surveyors and people with passive knowledge. So, we need offices to ensure we have a community in the workplace, but the 9-5 is dead. I think the 9-5 died when the iPhone and Blackberry phones were invented. Emails impinge on our personal lives because people are checking emails at all sorts of times, so I think we’re moving to an environment where work and personal lives are intertwined a bit more and full flexibility is the way forward.
- Do you have any pets?
No, I don’t. I used to have an English bull terrier named Sheila and I’d love to have a dog again, but it’s just the time and clearing up after it is the thing. I have enough of a job looking after the kids, let alone an animal. My daughter is 16 this year and my son will be 7 and is autistic so he requires a bit of maintenance. My daughter is the oldest in her year so next year she’ll sit her GCSE’s and it’s been quite tough as she’s been studying from home and has been missing her friends and all that kind of stuff.
- What’s your favourite movie of all time?
The Fighting Temptations, it’s a Beyonce film, she’s one of the main actors in it and it’s about a Gospel choir and a gospel competition and it’s a feel-good movie. I’m not an action movie person.
- Describe yourself as a teenager in 3 words?
Entrepreneurial, determined and immature.
- What is your biggest pet peeve/hate?
I have a few things. Materialistic people, selfish people and any kind of animal cruelty or cruelty in general. I’m not a big fan of cruelty.
- If you could be from any other decade (or era), which would it be and why?
I think I’d go for the 1950’s because of that post-war era where living standards are gently on the rise and BlackBerry’s and Iphone’s haven’t been invented, we used to write letters to people and we used to have more time.
- If you weren’t in the fire industry – what would you be doing and why?
I think property and construction. I started in property and construction and the fire industry is closely linked to it and I think the property was my first love. I’ve always loved creating stuff and building things. I love a project, I’m always tinkering about with, not practically, but planning to do something to my house. I’ve always got some sort of scheme or scam on the go to do something with my house. Regarding my background, I left school and did a sport course, I didn’t do particularly well at school, so I left school.
I started a sport course and then had to swap and do carpentry and joinery and then I went from carpentry and joinery to site fixing and then I went from site fixing and carpentry and joinery into building control and became a building inspector. Did an undergraduate degree in building surveying and then I did a Master’s in building engineering and then kind of transitioned from building regulations into Fire and then from Fire I started thinking about security. I was really lucky in that I became a carpenter and joiner and was useless with my hands and I’m not practical at all. I’m the worst tradesperson ever.
I went for an interview with a local building control department for a youth trainee control programme. The guy that ran the department was really into his sport, running, triathlon and martial arts. I had a black belt in kickboxing and I used to teach the local kickboxing club in the town that I used to live in. I’d done all sorts of martial arts from Russian wrestling to judo to Jui-Jitsu, all sorts of things and much of my interview with this man was spent chatting about that. He even asked me a question about if he got me in a headlock how would I get out of it, so he actually got me in a headlock in the interview and I put my hand over his shoulder and removed him and got the job.
He was a great leader, he did an MBA he was a major in the Territorial Army, he was a British Army triathlon champion and then sadly a couple of years ago he died of cancer suddenly. So, he was a great first boss and an inspiration and when I look back, I went on to run the London Marathon once and I did an MBA and so I didn’t think “Crikey, am I following in this guy’s footsteps?” he clearly had an impact on me. He was a great first boss. His name was Ian Webster.
It is undoubtedly easier to be a good leader if you have enjoyed the benefits of good leadership earlier on in your own career and I was really lucky to have worked with Ian Webster, and then Pat Carey. Pat was and is, one of Fire Safety’s original Jedi masters there at the very dawn of the profession.
- What’s on your Spotify or iTunes?
I’m a bit of a saddo, I listen to Podcasts and I really like the Rich Rolls podcast and I listening to HBR which is Harvard Business Review. Ideas cast which I enjoy, but in terms of music I listen to absolutely anything from Kings of Leon to Grime to Classic to you name it I listen to it, Afro beats to Mumford and Sons. I’m happy with the variety. A favourite track is Dave – Location (ft. Burna Boy). I love music and I’m always listening to music in the car or when I’m relaxing at home and I will just listen to most things. I tend to listen to it an hour before I go to bed if I go to bed early and just to relax for an hour or so, it’s a bit of time to chill out before sleeping.
- If you could have any three people (dead or alive) over for dinner – who would they be?
Barak and Michelle Obama, I’ve just listened to his BBC Iplayer story, I haven’t actually finished that but I am currently reading his own book which is brilliant, it’s called ‘A Promised land’. Bob Marley, if you have a nice dinner and a few drinks and you rolled into the whiskey’s afterwards, Bob might bring something else. But great entertainment, he’d be fun and it would be fascinating to hear his stories. He was shot in an assignation attempt and I’m sure Bob would be a really fascinating guest.
- What is your favourite quote and why?
I am not sure this is a quote, but I read something recently about Leadership that “Most leaders do a decent job of managing the numbers but only the best leaders manage behaviours to get the most out of people”. That really resonates with my idea of Leadership.
- What two things would you take to a Desert Island?
A machete and perhaps a hammock. If I was allowed one more it would be a fishing rod.
- Name a book, movie or tv show that has positively shaped you and why?
Recently, last weekend, I watched this Netflix documentary on near-death experiences. It’s cheery because as more and more research has gone on regarding near-death experiences, these have been happening since the dawn of time, and when CPR increased in popularity, bringing people back to life had been on the rise! Since the 70’s the rise in near-death experiences has been huge, and people’s near-death experiences are really similar. There are 100’s and 1000’s of cases of people all over the world in different countries, different cultures and all that kind of stuff about their experiences, pretty much saying the same sorts of things, which is fascinating.
Universities have been studying thousands of cases and found that consciousness continues after the body has died and no sign of life in the brain but consciousness continuing. They also found that all of the near-death experiences have this seeing yourself thing, meeting relatives and all that kind of stuff and then coming back completely changed. They found that the survivors of near-death experiences being quite challenged, looking at the world differently, their friends and family differently and from there on it is quite a challenge to integrate into normal day to day life.
- If you were an animal, what would it be and why?
Leopard. I think they’re probably quite intelligent creatures and quite clean who maintain themselves well. Climbing up a tree and sleeping and watching the world go by and not getting rattled by anything. That’s not a bad life they seem comfortable in their own skin.
- What is the best gift you’ve ever received?
My kids. I think they’re a bit of a gift and change you in all sorts of ways.
- What's your favourite thing in your closet right now?
My old boxing gloves are at the bottom of my closet and they come out after a few drinks at BBQ’s.
- If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I’d like to be able to fly. Sometimes when you’re a kid you dream and stuff. I think flying would be great. I’d love to do hand gliding. The first place I’d be flying to, it wouldn’t matter where I’d be going to, just up the road would be fine, just to the shops to get used to it for a bit. Just work out how far you can fly beforehand.
- What's the best piece of advice you've received?
My Dad used to say that ‘all bonds are built on trust and if you don’t have trust you’ve got nothing at all and I think that’s really important. It’s something that’s not massively tangible but hugely important. From a professional services firm when you’ve got intelligent well educated, chartered people, they want autonomy, which is freedom of course and with trust comes freedom. Then you can allow people to get on and do what they want to do if you can trust them to do the job as well.
It’s incredibly important if your anyone in a leadership position to be able to maintain people’s trust. No one is going to follow you if they don’t trust you. As far as trusting somebody to do a job for me and worrying if they’re going to be able to do it right, I find that yes, it’s a worry and I wonder if people are going to do it exactly in the way that I would like it done but you’ve just got to put the time into people to coach them to take on your approach and the style that you’d like to deliver to the customers.
- What time did you get to work this morning?
9.30 am but that’s because I did the school run. I started at 5.30 am with emails. I’m up early every day.
- What does your usual day look like?
So, I tend to get up and do a few emails, do what I can in the morning, maybe work on some documents or something. Then, start getting my son ready for school. Drop him to school and then make my way into the office. This is a typical day from a lockdown perspective. It’s a new experience. As far as it varying from what I was doing before, there’s less travel, fewer meetings in the cities and less travel to offices around the country. But, other than that, my day consists of telephone calls, emails and team meetings it would seem - millions of them. In terms of going back to the way we used to work, I don’t think there is any going back to how we used to do things. I think we are going to continue to have more virtual meetings than ever, but I am looking forward to normality returning, I look forward to getting into London again and meeting people in person.
- What makes you excited about the future of this industry?
I think fire engineering is becoming more multi-disciplined and there is now a recognition more than ever before, that we are required at the design stage of a new building, for the engineering of a new building, for the construction of a new building for the operational handover and management of new buildings into the future.
That’s certainly a change that has started happening in 2016 and then received greater attention post-June 2017 in our post-Grenfell world and I think that was an important point to recognise that fire safety needs to embedded into the entire building life cycle. I think people are starting to understand it now and get it.
The external environment is becoming more litigious than ever before and I think Brexit is kind of contributing to that. We’re becoming more and more like the United States of America in terms of having a litigious culture and that is bringing more of a focus to competency and people making sure that the scope of services is right and terms and conditions are right and hope that people are doing a better job.
I do think that the downside of where we’re at now in fire safety is that society’s tolerance to risk has reduced and we’re not doing as good in engineering as we once did and that’s a bit of a shame because people are taking less risk.
Everyone’s kind of scared of trial by media. It’s a shame in many respects because our knowledge of fire science and engineering remains the same. The first principles have not changed. People aren’t willing to try new things because everyone’s scared of getting something wrong and then being lambasted and being hung out to dry. It will come back but we’ve got to go on this journey first. That’s the downside to it. The upside is that there is a greater recognition that there are lots of different skills and niches within fire safety. The other thing that’s disappointing is that we haven’t been very good as a profession in coming together and showing real leadership for the profession, it’s quite fragmented and that hasn’t helped us in the post-Grenfell response. The broad consensus from the one voice is not there yet and that’s a real problem for the fire sector. Hopefully, the thing’s in the future will change. Everybody kind of protects their own empires and their own fiefdoms and not everybody realises that if you have a body or a group and you’ve only got 2 members and no money you haven’t got a very loud voice. I wish we had a strong credible professional body for fire safety that really understands the profession its constituents and has the financial muscle and commercial acumen to be able to show real leadership.
What is the latest technology/invention/innovation you would like brought into the fire industry?
I haven’t really got the latest technology that I think we need to bring in, other than, I think more consolidation of providers that offer fire risk management systems software, so, the software that enables fire risk assessors to do data capture and then a back end platform that allows the end-user to make sensible decisions using that data, that sector needs to improve, come together and mature. There are lots of one, or two, man bands that offer this and we need to offer better digital platforms and consolidation and investment is needed in that space.
- What do you like about the fire industry?
I like that it’s in many ways so immature, so, there’s so much to do. Immature in the sense that fire safety is a bit like a teenager in its growth journey. Having lot of temper tantrums with each other. Not knowing quite who it is and making some mistakes along the way and so I think from a fire safety engineering perspective, fire safety engineering in the UK came around in 1984 when performance-based legislation came into play and in 1984 I was at school and that isn’t that long ago for a profession.
We compare that with civil engineering or structural engineering that’s been around since the time of the pyramids or even building surveying that’s been around for 100 years or so. These professions are more mature because they’ve had more time to mature and go through experiences that the fire safety industry is going through now. Structural engineering went through it’s watershed moment in the 1970s when subsidence cases were on the rise. I don’t think it had an entirely positive effect because now we’re digging deeper trenches for foundations than ever before because we’re petrified of what a tree root might do and petrified of a small hairline crack in a masonry skin but I think the immaturity of our profession is both a blessing and a curse, it’s a curse because we haven’t fully matured and we’re not able to speak as one voice, but it’s a blessing because people like me that didn’t do particularly well at school can make a successful career out of it.
Watershed moments should make you want to try other things to try to prevent bad thing’s happening and not cause us to be reticent to take risks in certain areas due to worry. It should make us want try other things to prevent it rather than stopping doing things because we’re worried about it. We shouldn’t rush to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But yes, I think we should still be bold because fire engineering in the United Kingdom was world-class and can be world-class again; but we have done ourselves a disservice and also there seems to be quite an opinion that Grenfell was just a fire safety problem, it wasn’t just a fire safety problem, it was a construction problem, it was a quality of construction problem.
It was systemic failings in the process. All of that stuff, we should look for efficiencies and we should still seek to be world-class fire engineers and do world-class fire engineering.
- How does your work and family life come together?
Well, I guess, I try to do as many school-runs as I can and I’ve been quite fortunate to be able to travel with my family, when I’ve gone away on business. I’ve been really lucky with being able to go to Australia, New Zealand, Asia, the Middle East, over the course of my career. I try to keep a balance. In regards to the last year helping to towards being at home and such. To be honest, having COVID-19 helped with family stuff because I actually did have to stop and be ill during that time, so that helped.
But the Lockdown hasn’t helped because there’s an office and there’s a lot of team meetings to do and life continues and then it brings more stress on regarding who’s going to spend time homeschooling the kids or being asked to take the ironing out. If anything, the volume of communication, so the number, duration and frequency of team calls have gone through the roof, that’s the biggest impact. My wife can never get to me because I’m always on the phone or on a Microsoft Team’s call and I’m always having to call her back and if she wants to ask something quite trivial, that can really upset her. All this stuff is our new normal.
- What matters most to you?
Family matters most. Then BB7, this company, it was founded in November 2009 so we have been around for 11 years and this year will be our 12th year. I founded the company and the first person to join me was a chap named Steve Michael who’s still here now, on one of the floors below me, he’s probably the nicest bloke on the planet, a really wonderful fella. We’re now 110 people in 7 offices. In the last 3 years, probably 40% have joined us. We do a graduate scheme and we’ve maintained it through COVID-19 and we have headcount targets for 2021 and 2022 and we have consistently taken on graduates and staff throughout 2020 and into 2021. We take people from diverse backgrounds with diverse qualifications, to be honest, the thing that I focus most on is if the individual is a good fit for our culture above their qualifications and experience. Culture is King. We’re definitely a culture driven firm.
- What would you tell yourself at the age of 21?
Grow up, slow down. Be comfortable in your own skin.
- What motivates you?
I just love pairing opportunities with talents and seeing others grow personally and professionally. There are several people in this business that I am proud to have been able to facilitate their entry into the profession, and then provide them with career opportunities, challenges and seen them flourish. This really floats my boat. It gives me a sense of reward far greater than any other. To be honest there are even some folks that have left BB7 which I still see or hear use some my thinking or phrases in their presentations or writing and I feel good because I can see the influence or impact BB7 has had
- Where do you want to be in 5 years?
I’d like to still be CEO of BB7. I’m 44 at the end of this month. I’ve got a bit of time on my hands and I’m enjoying it and I’m learning and I’m growing in the role that I’m in so yes, I’d like to be CEO of a successful BB7 in 5 years time. There is so much more to do and to be honest, BB7 is just getting warmed up.
- Why is the FIA important to you and the industry?
I think the FIA is important because it’s got scale and it’s got the funding, the resources and the organisational structure to be able to make a difference. Some of the other organisations, which are run by well-meaning volunteers that give their time freely, but lack the commercial acumen the structure, the resources, the funding, aren’t able to successfully represent the fire industry or the profession in quite the right way. I used to be quite heavily involved in the Fire Risk Assessment Council and the Fire Engineering Council and in fact, the Fire Engineering Council was one of my initiatives.
We need to have one voice, resources of scale that have got the resources and structure to be able to invest in the industry and be able to invest in the profession. You need organisations of scale if the entire sector is made up of small-scale organisations that are working on a shoe string budget, with a few volunteers then it’s not going anywhere.
Moving forward the meeting of the professions and the trade is an important thing that we need to get right as well. We need to get this collaboration going and stop people persistently wanting to stay in their own silo’s or protect their own empires. The Fire Safety profession and trade needs to consolidate and stop having so many disparate groups all trying to do the same thing with a handful of members.
- What do you want to say to the readers?
Wearing a BB7 hat we’re open and collaborative and we’d love to hear from anyone who wants to work with us in whatever capacity. We are open to Strategic Alliances, open to Partnerships and open for business. Let’s get collaborating and make a difference.
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*All answers given are not reflective of the FIA views and thoughts and are that of the individual who was interviewed.