Roni Savage has taken her firm Jomas Associates from the kitchen table to leading light in Goldman Sachs’ small businesses programme.
Two years ago, geotechnical engineer Roni Savage had no profile photos on her social media pages. Her business, Jomas Associates, was growing through referrals and raising her profile or marketing the firm simply was not top of her to-do list.
That absence of a photo not only reflected where the business was at, but it also reflected where the industry was at in terms of stereotypes.
“Roni Savage – you make a mental assumption of what I look like and I can guarantee 99.9% of the time it’s not me. I walk into the meeting and say ‘hi I’m Roni Savage’ and their expressions…” she tails off laughing.
New growth path
But since then a lot has changed. Savage has taken the business down a new path to increase its growth rate and, as managing director of Jomas Associates, she has personally stepped into the limelight to help raise the profile of women in engineering and encourage more girls to join the profession.
“Every meeting I walked in to, the other people looked nothing like me. There just weren’t the role models and I think it’s one of my jobs to be a role model,” she says.
Savage started her career as a graduate engineering geologist at Harrison Group, before becoming a senior consultant at Bettridge Turner and Partners (BTP), and then associate director at Parsons Brinckerhoff, now WSP. In was during this time that she began to form the idea of the sort of company she would like to run, particularly inspired by the supportive environment at BTP.
They challenged me considerably, and when you are challenged you step up to the plate
“From day one they realised I was quite ambitious and they wanted to support me as much as I was willing to progress. I was never excluded from any opportunity, I was always put forward to represent the company, they challenged me considerably, and when you are challenged you step up to the plate,” she says.
Savage recalls as a young graduate engineer being given a white van, hi-vis jacket and boots and spending her working week travelling around the country between different sites managing diggers and drillers. Perhaps growing up with four brothers helped, she admits, but she says she learnt to always approach each situation with confidence.
“It does bring challenges. You go back in the van and think ‘how am I going to deal with this?’
“My approach to this is that when you’re faced with a scenario, put your best foot forward. I present my confident self all the time,” she says.
Strong work ethic
From talking to Savage, it is clear that she has a very strong work ethic. When discussing how she balanced having children with her career, she appreciated the flexibility she was given, but repaid it with hard work.
It was when she had two young children that Savage came to a point where she wanted to change the balance of work and home in her life, so she decided to set up on her own in 2009.
“In setting up on my own, one of the critical things for me was that I really enjoyed the BTP set up. I wanted to have a company providing a high level of customer service, with quality,” she says.
Working from her kitchen table, she gained a couple of clients and initially that was as much as she wanted to do. Based on the specialisms Savage had developed, Jomas Associates undertakes site investigations, land contamination risk assessments and geotechnical engineering assessments across the UK.
I spent many years being an engineer, I’m still one because that’s what I passionately enjoy, but now I’m that and a strategic business owner
“What I learnt very quickly is that when you work in a certain way, clients stick around, they refer you on to another two clients, who refer you on to another two and the business grows through referrals. Suddenly I realised I needed a website; things were growing and I needed an office,” she says.
A critical point for the business came when Savage was pregnant with her third child. It was then she realised she needed a permanent structure, so she brought in someone to run the office and help manage freelancers. Savage says this was a major change for Jomas Associates which now has 14 permanent members of staff, with another 20 on drilling and site works, and which turned over £2M in 2017.
Clients include Aitch Group, Genesis Housing, Transport for London and Brent Council.
Throughout, Savage has tried to benchmark the business against the best in the industry in terms of quality and customer service.
Understanding the client
“I can’t find a solution without understanding and caring for the client’s problem. In caring for their problem, it enables me to find a solution with their happiness as a focus,” she says.
A couple of years ago, Savage sat down and reviewed Jomas Associates and decided to go for the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses – 10KSB – programme. It takes small businesses it sees as having high growth potential and helps build the leaders’ business management knowledge.
“I got to learn how to structure, strategise and plan for the future. I got a business growth plan and things have changed for me now, I’m in a totally different place from where I was before. I’m not just focusing on organic growth now,” she says.
“What Goldman Sachs 10KSMB has done is made me into a business owner. I spent many years being an engineer, I’m still one because that’s what I passionately enjoy, but now I’m that and a strategic business owner.”
Part of this has been pro-actively marketing the businesses. It had an average growth of 30% year on year just from being referred.
However, the marketing strategy is to enable the business to grow further. Savage has also put in place an organisational structure, a recruitment plan including graduate programme, and she has developed target markets.
Alongside that, she has used her own profile to foster a more diverse community of engineers. She has won several high profile awards, including Black British Business Person of 2018 and an Everywoman business award, for the most inspirational woman running a business between six and nine years.
Savage says she has had to prove herself and get the letters after her name, but she is hoping her story will inspire others.
“It will take some time to have full change but without us being brave enough to talk about it we will never have that change. I desperately want more girls to take on more engineering degrees or apprenticeships, because that will change the future,” she says.