Richard Vann: RVA Group and 30 years of decommissioning

By Steve Ducker11 January 2023

In 2022, the international decommissioning specialist RVA Group celebrated 30 years in business. Managing director and Demolition & Recycling International columnist Richard Vann has been talking to us about some of his memories of three decades - and counting - in the decommissioning sector.

Richard Vann, managing director RVA Group Richard Vann. Photo: RVA Group
Before the RVA Group, I was in the demolition contracting business.

I was director of a company called Controlled Demolition Group, and we were working in the power sector and were heavily involved in the early days of high-rise demolition of residential and commercial blocks using explosives.

In 1992 I was working for a couple of organisations and hearing stories about issues clients were having in managing their decommissioning programmes.

And there was no independent middle organisation that could assist these companies. You had the owner of the asset, you had a contractor, and nothing in between.

It was totally opposite to the case that you would have in construction, where you would have a team of structural engineers, project managers, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers and all those professional services that would support the project.

That didn’t exist and I felt there was a window of opportunity to start something that could fill that gap.

In the early days, I was not looking at the international scene.

I had to convince other people that this gap in the market existed and that there was a benefit of an intermediary coming into a decommissioning project that would add value not just to the client but to the contractor as well. In the first two to three years, it was a cottage industry and the focus of my attention was “can I get sufficient momentum to turn it into a business?”

One of the principles I started with, and have kept to, was that all our income should come from owners and operators of assets.

We don’t do any work for demolition contractors as such. That’s not because we don’t like them, it’s because we need a level of independence and integrity, and we can’t be seen to work on both sides of the fence. Also, our employees are directly employed by RVA.

We are not an organisation that uses consultants or independent project managers when we need them. I have always felt that to have stability, uniformity of training, standards, and the flexibility to fill gaps when people aren’t available, they must be part of a company.

The first real project that put RVA on the map was by pure chance.

I came across somebody at an Institute of Demolition Engineers seminar and we started talking. He was the manager of a paper mill at a power plant in Kent in the south east of England. He told me what he was looking for and we went our separate ways. About a year later he called me and asked if I wanted to come down and look at the power station. After a long process, he managed to convince his directors that RVA was the company to go with – at that time there was only me and one other person. And it was that project, not just because of the scale of it, but the complexity. It was a live plant, operational paper mill. The power station to be demolished was only 5 m (15 ft) away from a new gas turbine power station that was now feeding the mill. It was a very confined area. If there was one project that changed us, it was that one. It put us on a very sound footing.

We have won lots of contracts with global organisations where we never thought we would get a look in.

One of the significant milestones was the first project we got in Asia. It was in Singapore, a very large project for an American owned organisation. I suppose in many ways because of the legislative and cultural differences of working in that area, on a completely different time zone, and it was the first significant posting of RVA personnel overseas, taught us a lot about operating at distance, setting up branches and companies overseas. In terms of a leap forward for RVA, that was one of the main ones.

That gave us a lot of learning for when we came to do it in other countries as we are now. For instance, we are undertaking our first project in South America.

Did I think on day one we would be doing projects in South America? Probably not.

From our perspective, the role of the engineer in demolition has evolved significantly in the past 30 years.

We have gone from being the safety net for the client to being involved as part of the client’s team.

We will get involved a lot earlier in projects, not just when the demolition is being done. In terms of developing strategies, looking at long term asset management plans. We are working quite extensively in the nuclear sector at the moment.

While our role has changed, contractors have changed as well in many cases. There is a lot more professionalism across the board; it has become more of an engineered science.

That’s not to say there aren’t still changes to make, but it has come a long way.

  • You can read more from the interview with Richard, including his views on the modern demolition and decommissioning industry, in the January-February issue of Demolition & Recycling International, published next month
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