Knowledge, expertise and quality

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The nomination of Stephan van der Biezen (born 1970) as director of Witteveen+Bos N.V. was confirmed by the Annual General Meeting of Shareholders. He therefore joins Managing Director Karin Sluis to form the Board of Directors with effect from 5 April 2017. Stephan succeeds Henk Nieboer, who is stepping down after eleven years in the position. The company’s articles of association stipulate that a director must make way for a successor in the year he or she reaches the age of 55. Henk Nieboer will continue his long association with Witteveen+Bos as a senior consultant, while devoting two days a week to his role as director of the Ecoshape foundation.

Stephan van der Biezen studied hydraulic engineering at Delft University of Technology, graduating in 1995. He then joined the university’s Coastal Engineering research group, specialising in international issues. ‘Many graduates used to work in splendid isolation,’ he recalls. ‘I decided to promote teamwork by setting up a Morphology study group. It is in my nature to seek connections and to build knowledge by working together. They were good times. However, I wanted to put my knowledge into practice, so in 1998 I decided to make the move into the private sector.’

The choice fell to Witteveen+Bos, where Stephan became involved in computer modelling. ‘At that time, very few engineering consultancies used numerical models to study the effects of currents and waves. Most still relied on physical scale models and empirical principles, ‘rules of thumb’ in other words. Computer modelling has come on by leaps and bounds since then. We now work with several advanced systems such as XBeach, which we used to assess the effectiveness of Belgium’s coastal defences. We enjoy a very strong position in this field, largely due to our focus on knowledge and quality. We also have a firm basis which we continue to expand by training and coaching young engineers.’

‘Listening and connecting are important to me,’ Stephan continues. ‘In my work, I like to involve other people at the earliest possible stage. The first major project I worked on was the design of artificial islands in the Caspian Sea. People would come to me with all sorts of questions. My role was to introduce them to the people with the answers. That is what I mean by ‘connecting’. It is a question of knowing what everyone can contribute and how they can help each other. I dealt with Kazakh engineers working for our project partner NIPIneftegaz, their counterparts at WorleyParsons and Shell, many of whom were British, and the Italian ingenieri from Agip. My experience as liaison engineer in London and Milan proved very useful. I was a junior at the time, but I was working alongside some very senior engineers in the oil and gas industry. That could have been rather intimidating, but I knew that I understood the project and I could listen well. That is how I earned their respect. That project did much to establish the very strong reputation we now enjoy in Kazakhstan.’

In 2007, Stephan became head of the Coasts, Rivers and Land Reclamation PMC. He was also involved in projects such as Maasvlakte 2, the Hondsbossche & Pettemer Sea Dike and the Bangladesh Delta Plan. Stephan is proud of them all. ‘Take Bangladesh for example. It has a population of 160 million and every year some 60 % to 80 % of its land area is flooded. We’re talking about the future of an entire country and millions of people. That is a huge incentive to produce a good plan which not only provides for flood protection but also safeguards water quality and the availability of fresh water. Our long-term vision includes future management and maintenance based on a ‘climate-robust’ approach. The project team is made up of Dutch experts from a number of different companies, as well as local experts representing various disciplines. Their input is essential in order to create the necessary local support. We can come up with a wonderful plan but if the decision-makers in Bangladesh are not behind it, it will never be implemented.’

As a director, Stephan intends to set a course for the future and invites everyone to join him. At this stage, he considers the process to be more important than having a clear-cut vision. ‘I want to build upon the existing strategy, which is largely based on our corporate culture. This is the secret of our success; it has brought us where we are today. In our culture, everyone participates and everyone contributes. Knowledge, expertise and quality are all very important. These factors, in combination with enterprise, form my incentive to excel. I am pleased and proud when I see that other people feel the same way. Our ownership structure is also a very strong connecting factor, and I look forward to exploring ways in which our international offices can become more involved.’

Stephan feels a strong sense of responsibility for maintaining the position of Dutch engineering consultancies in relation to the knowledge institutes and government. ‘We all need each other if we are to innovate, train new talent and continue to meet society’s demand for a safe and secure living and working environment. I intend to play my part, both here and within the Dutch Association of Consulting Engineers (NLingenieurs). I have long been a member of various committees which bring together the ‘golden triangle’ of private-sector companies, knowledge institutes and publicsector authorities. I consider the international dimension to be very important, too. There is stiff international competition in all water-related disciplines. How should the Netherlands respond? Cooperation is absolutely essential if we are to establish the necessary connections and play a winning game.’

Lastly, Stephan stresses the importance of authenticity, ‘not only as individuals but as Witteveen+Bos. There can be no false modesty. We must tell the world that we are experts in what we do, and that we are reliable and committed partners. And we must constantly work to ensure that this is indeed the case.’