A recession is a hard taskmaster, but it can also be a great teacher.
When Asa Bergman’s career began, her native Sweden was facing its worst slump for more than half a century. In the early 1990s, Sweden suffered from soaring unemployment as a property driven boom turned to bust. It was a portent, perhaps, of the crisis that was to paralyse parts of the global economy 15 years later.
In the years since, Ms Bergman has stuck doggedly to her career path. She is now one of a tiny number of women who have made it to the top in the global multi-disciplinary consultancy world. But she has never forgotten the lessons she learned during the lean years of the early 1990s.
She believes that smart leaders know how to focus on their clients as they develop their staff. Ms Bergman is determined to ensure that many more women find a place in the boardroom , at a time when the engineering world is in dire need of new talent.
As the new global CEO of Sweco, her empire has a Yorkshire dimension. Sweco is keen to shout about its presence in our region following its acquisition in 2015 of Grontmij, which has a long established base in Leeds. Sweco employs 230 staff in Leeds and the business has just been ranked as a top 10 UK civil engineering firm for the first time, by the New Civil Engineer – the magazine of the Institution of Civil Engineers.
In Leeds, the team is providing consultancy services on a growing number of innovative schemes, including the Leeds District Heat Network for Leeds City Council. It is also involved in installing telemetry assets for Yorkshire Water. Nationally, Sweco recently completed work on the Queensferry Crossing over the Firth of Forth and Bloomberg’s new HQ in London.
Ms Bergman was appointed as president and CEO of Sweco in March, 27 years after she first joined the firm.
In 1999, she was appointed regional manager to oversee Sweco’s project managers in northern Sweden, before being promoted to the role of president of Sweco Management in 2006. She took over as president of Sweco Sweden in 2012.
During Ms Bergman’s time at Sweco, the Swedish organisation has grown from 3,000 to 5,700 employees, and operating revenues have grown from roughly SEK 3.6 billion to SEK 7.0 billion. She has been a member of the Sweco group’s executive management team for six years and has played the leading role in devising the firm’s leadership development strategy.
Her efforts have resulted in a framework that places an emphasis on employee development. Ms Bergman has plenty of hands-on management experience. She has helped to deliver everything from sporting facilities to commercial buildings. She has also taken responsibility for delivering clinics, facilities for the Swedish Armed Forces and traffic infrastructure schemes.
Her visit to West Yorkshire was part of a tour of Sweco’s new European markets. It enabled her to see how Sweco is developing relationships in Yorkshire. She clearly believes Sweco’s decentralised structure is a strength. Shortly after being appointed, Ms Bergman said Sweco aimed to hire up to 3,000 extra staff across the company. The company’s culture, which places an emphasis on diversity, will play a major role in delivering this part of her strategy.
She said: “To be really local, we have a really decentralised organisation. It’s really important for us that we have a strong office, with engineers who are really local who have customer relationships in this market.
“We work to create long term customer relationships here. That makes us stronger in the market and we can focus on hiring the best people.”
Ms Bergman is keen to encourage flexible working, which has helped to make Sweco an attractive employer for both men and women. There is a shortage of engineers across Europe. Ms Bergman believes engagement with schools can help to remedy this by highlighting the diverse range of careers within the sector.
She wants all employees to believe that Sweco offers the best place to develop their career.
She added: “It’s connected to being able to develop as individuals, and being able to work on great schemes, and work in a collaborative environment. Making everybody feel valued is a core part of the leadership beliefs I have.”
She decided to work in the sector because she wanted to create something of lasting value.
Ms Bergman added: “When it is tough market conditions you need to develop your own skills to ensure that everyone wants to perform really well in your projects.
“How do you actually develop people? How do you make them perform? The interest in people, and people’s performance, has always been there.”
In common with many managers whose careers began in the early 1990s, Ms Bergman understands the importance of strong customer relationships. These relationships will help you prosper when times are tough.
She added: “You learn that you need to communicate with your customers all the time. You need to be ahead, when it comes to everything. You need to be proactive towards the customers.
“You don’t take anything for granted.”
She wants everyone in senior management to understand that gender diversity creates stronger and more successful companies.
She added: “You need to make sure that you actually hire more women. There are lots of people who want to work for us.”
Ms Bergman added: “Our brand is becoming stronger as we are growing. We still have quite a small market share; there is lots of potential for growing in this market, and we are choosing where we are growing.
“We take it step by step. I’m often asked the question, ‘How do you look at growth?’
“It’s important to grow by hiring people in combination with acquisitions. We are making acquisitions if we find interesting companies.”
Ms Bergman is proud of the rapid growth already achieved by Sweco under her leadership. But she clearly wants to be judged by her capacity to deliver cultural change.
She said: “I hope I will look back and say that we grew successfully and that we implemented a leadership and culture that made me proud.”