Dominic Browne speaks to Steve Cobb, one of the most connected and successful commercial figures in the sector and the newly appointed head of sales and marketing at data and survey specialist, R3
For me, everyone has a story. I genuinely love hearing about people’s journey: what brought them into the highways industry, how their career developed and where they want to go,’ Mr Cobb tells Highways.
One of the leading commercial figures in the sector over the last decade and among a handful whose work has had a positive effect right across the industry, Mr Cobb’s impressive highways CV stretches back some 15 years. Along the way, he added not just to the growth of every company he worked at, but to the wider sector, its commercial power and its knowledge of itself.
From his work as a commercial manager on Surveyor and then Highways magazines, Mr Cobb has built up one of the most extensive personal networks in the sector. He co-created and launched the Cold Comfort Scotland conference and was key to the commercial evolution of the Highways Awards.
After his success in publishing and events, he went to work at product supplier Rennicks for a short spell, before becoming head of business development at Gaist and leading the company to its most successful year ever, taking on work from 19 new local authorities in 12 months, including major counties like Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire.
He says of his approach to sales: ‘It’s about listening to the problems that people are having and trying to solve their problems with them. It’s also about being nice. It’s not hard to be pleasant, to give people respect, and just to ask the right questions when you’re with people as well.
‘I think it’s just really paying a personal interest in people and finding out where I can potentially support them. I know lots of people, and if I’m able to find out what problems people are having, I might be able to solve them or I know other people in the industry that might be able to. So I’m very proud that I can do lots of introductions and connect people through my contacts.’
Mr Cobb is one of those people who cannot make it across a conference floor without having to stop for a chat with old friends and clients, and there is not a person in the world who doesn’t enjoy bumping into Steve Cobb.
It’s not that big a sector and it is hard to work anywhere for 15 years without occasionally rubbing someone the wrong way, but not Mr Cobb, who seems immune to such things.
Everyone in business has to walk some kind of tightrope and every now and again we fall off either side – bluntness or sharpness, anger or cunning, domination or manipulation. Mr Cobb’s natural genius is that he never falls: he has an effortless gift for perfect personal balance. As you stagger along the tightrope of public sector service delivery or private sector growth, sweating and clenching at the sheer pressure or risk of it all, you might find Mr Cobb in the middle of the rope, sitting comfortably with his legs dangling over the edge, a smile on his face: ‘You look like you could use some help.’ Honestly, it would be infuriating if he wasn’t so damn nice.
His latest move to R3 will keep Mr Cobb at the cutting edge of the sector. Called by clients ‘the Rolls Royce of surveys’, R3 is probably most well known for working across everything from the Formula One circuit to runways, to local roads and sharing knowledge between them.
The company uses LiDAR mobile mapping scanners mounted on vehicles that drive along a route to capture a million data points per second to within 2mm accuracy.
‘Trust me, that’s a lot of data,’ Mr Cobb says. ‘It’s an incredible piece of kit.’
He adds: ‘Our mobile mapping solution, carrying the LiDAR, means there’s no need for traffic management. We capture the data and we can put it into CAD drawings, 2D or 3D. And off the back of that, we can pull off International Roughness Index information, asset collections, and asset conditions; we can also pick up things like contour analysis, slope analysis, crack identifications, pothole analysis, and lots of different outputs.
‘While we’re known globally for the work we do in Formula One and motorsports and runways, I think all the innovation and technologies that we use have actually come from our highways laboratory at Ulster University. So, it’s now time to bring this back into the highways industry, where the innovation started from.’
Mr Cobb is already in talks with major contractors about applying the knowledge from R3’s brain trust – Dr Campbell Waddell, Dr Shaun Friel, Dr David Woodward – to the local network.
It is not hard to see why they might be interested. The company is fresh from success at Donnington Racetrack, where it employed the ‘Smoothride’ workflow service in tandem with the supply chain to support the resurfacing of the track.
‘We wrote the specification for the material. We also wrote the methodology. We used our LiDAR scanners to capture the data and create the design for the racetrack and we automated the milling machines. We used grip testing for the friction testing. All this created a high-definition point cloud. So we looked at all the heat maps, which showed the stresses on the surfaces. In the end, we created an exceptionally smooth racetrack. Donnington has said it’s the best racetrack they’ve ever had. And since we’ve done the work, records have been broken.
‘Now we are bringing Smoothride, with Topcon, into the industry, which has lots of huge benefits because it creates a road that is much smoother and flatter. It ticks a lot of boxes from the environmental side of things – a smoother road profile on the International Roughness Index reduces rolling resistance, reduces unnecessary over-milling of existing materials, it reduces unnecessary over-use of asphalt materials. There are major opportunities for measuring carbon savings and quality. It increases the lifespan of the surface as well and finally gives a more comfortable driving experience for road users. It’s safer and less expensive and you get more data collected for the design.’
As we saw on the A12 recently (see highwaysmagazine.co.uk), where works had to be resurfaced as there was a problem with the height of the original job, resulting in further closures, the type of technology R3 provides could really make a difference. Lay the road right first time and you will save a lot of money in the long run and quite possibly the short run too.
So what would the boy who grew up on a council estate in Edgware, London, think of the man Mr Cobb has become?
‘I think he wouldn’t recognise me. I’m very lucky that along my journey I have had support. My sister was the biggest support to me. She’s the one who made me believe in myself and always pushed me to do better. And now I have a wife and kids; you need to get your head down and make sure that you do your best for your family. I honestly believe that life’s a bit too short. But, you know, what do you want to look back on? Are you going to look back and think, okay, I didn’t really push myself, I just cruised? Or are you going to look back one day and think, I pushed myself and I kept growing and I kept learning? Having that young family motivates me to do better and to provide them with better things that I didn’t have growing up.’
You see… almost infuriating…but in the end, just too damn loveable.