Brian Nicholls, Managing Director of AAM, a Woolpert Company, is a passionate GIS and mapping professional who combines over 30 years of industry experience with C-level business management and consulting skills. He led the negotiations for AAM’s purchase by Woolpert, which was completed via virtual meetings during the height of COVID-19. The first face-to-face meeting came after the transaction was completed. Tony Wheeler, SSSI CEO, spoke with Nicholls to find out about the acquisition, and how it has changed the way business is done.
TW: What’s the primary benefit of becoming part of Woolpert?
BN: The merger with Woolpert is super-exciting for our employees. The opportunities to work on larger projects, projects in different regions and to combine different technologies are significant. For example, we are currently implementing an AAM project in the United Arab Emirates. The project is led by AAM staff, with equipment and support from Woolpert USA, UK and Africa. We could not have attempted this project solely as AAM.Being part of larger teams and working across multiple geographies affords many opportunities for our people to further develop their careers, and to experience different places and cultures. For example, in Africa, both Woolpert and AAM previously operated separate smaller operations. We have recently combined these to launch Woolpert Africa, enabling an enhanced client offering and career development opportunities.
TW: What are the synergies and differences between AAM and Woolpert?
BN: Woolpert has grown significantly over the last five to six years; the Woolpert team is a lot larger than AAM. In the geospatial sector, Woolpert’s largest clients are government and defence, whilst for AAM, our largest business area is with commercial clients, including mining, energy and infrastructure.Following our first 12 months as a Woolpert company, we are now able to start to take advantage of some synergies. We are taking a gradual approach, working to prioritise key touchpoints and opportunities. From 2023, we will integrate more closely with the Woolpert structure and business systems.The differences in our businesses provide us with opportunities. The Woolpert team are very experienced in delivering large government programs and projects. On the other hand, AAM is very experienced in dealing with clients and projects in mining, energy and energy transition and infrastructure. We have had to learn to be nimble, agile and highly adaptive to survive, let alone prosper in the relatively small Australian market. Harnessing and leveraging this varied experience creates opportunities on both sides. We are also learning from Woolpert’s comprehensive Project Management approach and systems, which in turn is helping the AAM team to better support our clients.
TW: Has it opened up new market opportunities for AAM?
BN: Yes, several new opportunities. I mentioned the UAE project and the combining of our African operations. We have some overlapping business in the Pacific and South Asia where the combined Woolpert and AAM are now able to offer a more holistic and efficient solution, combining global best practice with regionally based client support and project management.Both companies have some technologies and capabilities that the other does not. Combined, we have greater capability, capacity and scale to develop and respond to larger opportunities and initiatives. We are already seeing AAM develop some new initiatives that we would not have previously attempted. We are also assisting our Woolpert colleagues with some global clients, who are looking to extend their services to the Asia-Pacific and Middle East regions.
TW: What’s it like doing business in the US versus Australia?
BN: The US is simply a much bigger market, with a 330-million population versus 26 million in Australia. Traditionally in the US, the government and defence markets have been very large clients for geospatial companies. Large agencies including NOAA, the National Geodetic Survey, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the US Geological Survey all contract significant amounts of work to the business sector. As an example, Woolpert was recently selected by the US Army Corps of Engineers for a US$50 million coastal mapping and charting contract.The US also coordinates and invests on a national basis in geospatial programs like 3DEP (National 3D Elevation Program), which are awarded and administered at state and regional level, based on business cases. Most of the 3DEP work is conducted by the private sector, which in turn helps to develop and maintain the geospatial ecosystem. Another difference is the use of, for example, Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contracts to minimise contracting and transaction costs. The use of IDIQ contracts leads to more efficient contracting than we sometimes see in Australia and ensures a high level of capability and capacity from providers.While there is a growing push for innovation through start-up businesses in Australia, the US business environment is the incubator and growth accelerator for these businesses. Start-ups in the US are supported by government with very real tax breaks, and, of course, through the private sector via a very large venture capital/private equity market that — compared to Australia — actively invests and takes on genuine risk.Australia possesses world-class geospatial skills and some of the greatest minds, yet we are relatively fragmented and dominated by many small businesses with limited capability. To support a bigger picture and more coordinated national approach for geospatial excellence, it would be helpful to have government, business and academia working together on common causes, in order to foster an environment that encourages partnerships and some consolidation of the large number of small businesses. Our state and federal governments have an opportunity to be bolder in their vision, in order to develop policies that increase the capability and capacity of our geospatial industry. For example, targeted procurement could be used to more evenly share risk and reward when new technical capability, such as mapping automation, is being developed.There is great opportunity for government to encourage business to scale to capacity and capability via transparent and consistent programs. This includes more flexible IP arrangements.