IMPAC celebrates 20 years
7 May, 2019 | News
This year, the company that Tom Reeves and Richard Gibson founded in 1999 turns 20.
IMPAC is the country’s leading provider of health and safety solutions – but the success didn’t happen overnight. Here, Tom and Richard discuss the early years, trials, tribulations, and triumphs, and what they think the future of health and safety in New Zealand will look like.
How did it all start for you both?
Tom Reeves: I found out about health and safety through my good mate Dave Ford. He was doing a postgrad diploma at Massey in industrial hygiene. I thought that sounded really interesting.
I had previously worked labouring on oil/gas pipelines and was interested in the on/off-shore oil and gas sector so I wrote to all the oil and gas players in Taranaki looking for work and got picked up by Shell Todd Oil Services (STOS). I had already started my postgrad diploma (Industrial Hygiene) and finished it off that year while working full-time for STOS. So, my background was heavily influenced by Shell International Safety Systems and they at the time, and probably still now, are regarded as some of the best in the world.
A role then came up as the HR/Safety Advisor for Tegel Foods, and I thought more experience in something a bit different would be interesting. Within six months I had been appointed National H&S Manager and that was my introduction to building and managing H&S teams.
Richard Gibson: To be honest I never intended to be working in safety. I’m off a farm so have quite a high tolerance to risk. I was doing my Master’s degree and was looking for funding. The forest sector wanted someone to examine attitudes towards safety so I put in a proposal and got employed as a Human Factors Researcher. Safety Culture was not well established back then so I had to design the tool then deliver it across the sector. After completing my thesis and taking an OE break, I accepted a role at ACC as an Injury Prevention Consultant.
A chance meeting at a conference created the business that would become IMPAC. How did this unfold?
RG: I knew Dave Ford from my time at LIRO – I was finishing my thesis just as he was starting his. I ran into him at the conference and through him, met Tom (we later discovered we’d all been to Francis Douglas College in New Plymouth). We started chatting about the conference and the work we each did. This was over a couple of beers and soon there were many ideas about what we could do.
Probably the most amazing thing is that we did follow through on it. Two weeks later we all met and started scoping how we’d work together. Dave had already setup a business (Ergo-Safe) for his work with STOS (where Tom had worked), so we decided Tom and I would join Dave.
TR: Just over a year after that, I was approached by Solid Energy to take up a role with them as National H&S Development Manager for a three year period. Richard and Dave continued with the business and the intention was always that I would come back. When I finished, I was approached by CRM Group (ACC Third Party Administrator) to set up a health and safety division. I instead suggested that they form a JV with the three of us and that is what we did - “CRM IMPAC” was the first step for what is now IMPAC.
Was there a reason why the business was called IMPAC?
TR: Coming up with the name IMPAC was funny. We needed a new name (Dave wanted to keep Ergo-Safe separate).
We were also discussing our values and business plan and two things we all agreed upon was that our approach needed to be pragmatic and we wanted to make a positive impact.
Why not “Impact” we thought, but that didn’t quite feel right so we dropped the “t” and the rest is history. And later that night, we figured it could be short for Injury Management Prevention and Control.
In terms of how we have evolved structurally as a business over the years has been interesting. It really reflects some of the market dynamics like the ACC Partnership Programme. In 2003 we bought out CRM shares in IMPAC, other than 20% which ended up being owned by ACC. We eventually bought out their shares in about 2007.
Has it always been a straight path forward for you?
RG: Not at all! When we started, we were highly qualified (master’s degrees in ergonomics, occ psych/safety culture, post grad diplomas in Industrial hygiene). But we were still young and didn’t have much experience or business networks. Despite the HSE Act requiring H&S to be managed, most employers were not complying. Apart from a few leaders like STOS, few were monitoring exposures to health hazards, considering ergonomics in design or driving behavioural and culture change programmes. As a business, we had to diversify to survive, so we expanded into H&S training and contracted H&S management support.
In those first five years, there would’ve been multiple times every year we were going to give up. The demands of running a business (sales, marketing, finance, administration) plus maintaining constant billable work to keep income coming in, meant I worked to 1am most evenings plus worked weekends. We would laugh that we had almost 24-hour coverage as Tom started work very early (normally 5am). It was not an easy life and profit margins were very low. It was just lucky Tom and I were not on that quit page on the same day. Although this did occur in our third year.
TR: True. We agreed to give it just another six months and if we didn’t start doing better financially, we were going to give up. We weren’t earning anywhere near what we could if we went back to corporate roles. And doing what we were doing was quite isolating, and professional development opportunities weren’t supported like being within a corporate. We really had to do everything ourselves and at times, it was tough.
RG: It took our third year to make a profit of $500!
TR: We’d met up in Taupo, so we went out to dinner with our partners and spent it all!
You were working hard, with long hours. Did you see business expansion as a strategy?
TR: It’s one thing to say “yeah, it’s hard work to get it going but then you can stabilise your business at a certain level” but we never did. We were always saying let’s keep moving. In terms of business growth, when you’re hitting that 1-5 employee level, you’ve either got to sustain it or move it. When you’re stepping up again, there’s cash flow demands and the extra pressure of more sophisticated business systems and internal processes. Next you’re at the 20 employee mark and the same issues come up, and then 40 employees, and then where we are today with more than 65 employees.
RG: Growth was a strategy but many times we got caught out, not by competitors but changes in government policy or approaches by the regulators. For example, ACC being privatised then being turned back.
Then changes in legislation in 2003 requiring health and safety rep training. We were the first provider to develop a course that met the unit standard and was approved. Market feedback was we had the best course and trainers, yet ACC funded just one organisation to deliver Rep training. So it wasn’t a fair market.
We just worked harder and tailored our courses for each client to ensure their staff received maximum value. We continued to be successful and a few years later, ACC was allowed to provide some funding to private providers such as us.
TR: Retrospectively, we’ve been ahead of the curve in a lot of the things we’ve done, and while that is good from an H&S perspective, it can be challenging from a business perspective. This includes developing Risk Manager before anyone else was using cloud-based solutions, developing an Occupational Health business in the early 2000’s (that stayed with CRM), and establishing one of the largest HSNO test certification businesses. And it’s been the same with bringing ICAM, IOSH and NEBOSH into NZ, introducing Bow Tie to wider industry and the development of PREQUAL.
What is the secret to IMPAC’s success?
RG: I don’t feel successful yet – it’s still hard work! But ultimately it has been our people. We’ve had many awesome people work with us over the years who truly believe in our mission (preventing serious harm/illness/deaths).
TR: And our approach. H&S people need to be advocates of workers, but they must also know what it is like to walk in the shoes of those who lead organisations, whether they are commercial or not for profit. Leaders have significant and often competing demands and while health and safety is always the most important thing for H&S people, it won’t always be for those organisational leaders.
Our role is to work with them so that when it really matters, health and safety is the most important thing; and they recognise that and act on it. I think that has been a really big advantage for Richard and me. When we are talking to Execs or Boards, we are doing so on one hand as H&S professionals and at the same time as business people with an understanding of the blood, sweat and tears it takes to establish, maintain, lead and govern a relatively substantial organisation. We have often walked in their shoes ourselves.
RG: I’m devastated if we ever get a client complaint, work has gone out that hasn’t been at the standard I would expect or just projects not going well. I take it quite personally. I also found being an expert witness in court very hard. I just prefer assisting people. But I decided it was better that we try to influence case law.
TR: I’d be similar with regards to client issues. Plus losing some great staff, although it is always good to see ex staff doing so well in other roles.
What have been the highlights?
RG: That would be the great clients that have trusted IMPAC and given us the opportunity to work in partnership to achieve a massive impact in their culture and H&S performance. In the early days this included completing one of world’s first health cases for STOS (including quantifying stressors and fatigue), helping increase H&S capability across Fonterra and Fletcher Building through our training and consulting activities, and working with Department of Conservation to develop on-line auditing and safety planning tools.
Now I enjoy the increasingly challenging jobs that make an impact, such as risk reviews for NZ Police, working with Executive teams changing their perceptions and approach to H&S or designing a new solution. It’s also great when you hear positive feedback about work the team has completed.
TR: Yes – we have worked closely with so many great companies and people – at Air NZ, CHH, Auckland Council, SPARK, the power generators etc. A lot of people might just associate us with one area of our work like training, but we cover a lot of bases. The biggest law firms in NZ call on IMPAC when they and their clients need help. We worked closely with Bell Gully and their client at the time in pulling together the first ever enforceable undertaking in New Zealand, and we have worked closely with the likes of Kensington Swan and Duncan Cotterill. In fact, Richard and I have delivered two papers and sessions on what the HSW Act was likely to mean in practice to the NZ Law Society’s Professional Development days.
Fundamentally, we have always wanted what we have done to make a difference and be seen to be adding value and ultimately helping ensure that people get home from work in pretty much the same condition they turned up in – safe and well that is. I think we have certainly helped do that over the years.
Health and safety has real credibility in most workplaces now. How do you see the future for health and safety in New Zealand?
TR: It is a growing field, with lots of new talent emerging. Things like the Government’s H&S Lead Intern programme highlight that – there will be a new wave of health and safety professionals likely to come through and that is great to see. They have diverse backgrounds and areas of study and that is important in the professionalisation of H&S within NZ. However, companies need to be careful that they don’t lose focus on the proven principles in their rush to be innovative.
RG: Yes – and the skills required to be successful will change as organisations mature and also as technology replaces many traditional H&S activities. Society has become less tolerant of harm, so we all need to up our game, without becoming risk adverse. To succeed in life and business, you need to take risks. We just want to be the best in helping to do this effectively.