Ground Control has appointed a new managing director, as Jason Knights steps into the role of former MD Marcus Watson – big, and environmentally friendly, shoes to fill. We speak to Marcus about why he’s stepping down and to Jason about how this transition was achieved smoothly, as well as how he plans to grow the company over the coming years.
Marcus, what made you decide to step down as MD?
If someone had told me 10 years ago the things we would achieve together and the fun we’d have, I’m not sure I’d have believed them. I’ve had a blast.
Longevity and experience give an enormous advantage in certain situations – it was a huge advantage during the pandemic – but it also constrains you. It’s no bad thing to get a fresh pair of eyes to look at our context and offering, and build on the stuff that works and is relevant, but then give it a different flavour and emphasis. I’m absolutely thrilled and relieved that we were able to attract someone of Jason’s quality to the business.
After 10 years, I’m ready to take a look at something new, that’s as exciting and fun as Ground Control.
What do you feel was your biggest achievement as MD of Ground Control?
You know the film Monsters University? I think Ground Control is a little bit like that. It attracts and welcomes people from all walks of life, with different experiences and different talents. What I love about Monsters University is the message that people coming together actually achieve more than was ever thought possible. That’s something that has happened on a number of occasions at Ground Control – whether it’s how we entered the winter maintenance market and really made a difference, whether it’s wining the BALI Principal Award for designing the fantastic children’s garden at Kew, or even the phenomenal growth we’ve experienced and the great customers we’ve attracted to the business – all of it was achieved because people came together.
Winning the Queen’s Award for Enterprise was a huge honour – we’re a company who cares for our environment, we design and create beautiful landscapes, we maintain beautiful landscapes, yet we’ve got an innovation award, how does that compute? But that is what happens when people come together.
You’re not saying goodbye to Ground Control though, what will your role there be now?
I’ll remain as a non-exec director of Ground Control for the foreseeable future. It’s an incredibly different role, the tempo of the non-exec role is much slower – in a good way – it gives you the opportunity to detach yourself from the urgent aspects of the business and take a longer-term view. I’ll be focusing on where the world might be in five to ten years’ time, and what we need to put in place to help mitigate this risk, or capture the opportunity.
One key focus is what climate change in the UK really means for Ground Control. We benefit from the Gulf Stream and if that’s directed somewhere else because of climate change, then the temperatures in the UK are going to drop, not rise.
I’m starting to enjoy a slower tempo. I’m enjoying taking lunch with my wife and dinner with my children, which is not something I’ve done for ten years. I cycled a little in the past, and so I’ve dusted off the old bike and started cycling for a bit.
I’m also looking to invest into another business. I don’t know what that is yet, but it certainly won’t be in landscaping or grounds maintenance. Chances are, it will have an environmental, people, technology feel to it. I’m really passionate about making sure that I contribute, even in a small way, to tackling the most important issues that are facing us at the moment. The environment, sustainability and climate change are right up there. I really enjoy working with people, so I think buying a people related business sounds right up my street.
What was the handover process like, Jason?
I initially got offered the role in early 2020, but then lockdown hit and we felt it was best that we helped our companies through the trauma of that. I started in September and my only responsibility was to listen and learn. Over the next four months there was a planned phased handover process where I got to know the business and the sector, and lastly met individuals external from the business.
It worked really well, because it enabled me to enter the business calmly without the panic of having to make decisions right away. And, while I got an induction as managing director of Ground Control, Marcus was able to have an induction into his role as non-exec director. This meant there was no break point in our relationship which was really powerful.
What role were you in before this, and will the skills you gained in that role benefit your position as managing director of Ground Control?
I was managing director of SES Engineering Services for four years and part of the Wates Construction Board during its acquisition of the company in 2016. SES has over 500 staff members, so things like management, strategy, marketing and customer engagement plans are very similar to Ground Control. Growth was also a huge factor where I’ve come from – taking organisations into new markets and growing them. The value in terms of people, technology and growth which I have focused on in my previous role, aligns with Ground Control.
However, Ground Control is a complex, well thought through business which is multi-service, and multi-disciplined and has a huge history that’s important to learn – so it’s taken a bit of navigation to understand that.
How do you plan on building on what Marcus has achieved? What are your plans for the future of the company?
In truth, what a great handover. Ground Control is in a great state and what really demonstrated that was that even during the pandemic, the status and performance of the company has been really good. So, the focus is, in many ways, more of the same.
Ground Control has had to be internalised in the past. There have been a series of great acquisitions and so Marcus and the team have been forced to internalise to maintain a smooth operation, take the company into the fold, and ‘Ground Control-ify’ it. We’ve also made some great investments into IT and business development. We’re now in a great place to externalise what we’ve done, focus on organic growth, invest in our people, and sell a bit harder to the market.