Insider Insight: Mark Fermor

Mark Fermor, director of ESI and chair of GeoSmart Information, shares his career insights

Mark Fermor. Photo: ESI LtdWhat helped you get where you are in your career?

As a geoscientist involved in catchment science, one thing that has helped me get to where I am in my career has been to pursue a specialist path in hydrogeology. 

Groundwater is a fascinating multi-disciplinary endeavour. It has been the key to developing a coherent framework and conceptual understanding to make sense of many different catchment processes including flood, drought, water resources, water quality, contaminant migration and fate.

This insight has yielded across such a diverse range of environmental challenges, and led to me founding and developing businesses solving problems across numerous industries.

Who have been your role-models/mentors?

One of my significant role models has been Professor Ken Rushton.  Ken was a visiting lecturer at University College London during my time there doing my hydrogeology masters. His approach to combining field observation with evidence-based common-sense numerical analysis was inspirational.  Later in my career, I was very privileged to spend some time with Professor Rushton and benefit from his advice on the use of modelling techniques in catchment studies.

What qualifications are the most necessary/most beneficial in the flood planning sector?

This depends what sort of career you seek.  As a consultant I would advocate a suitable masters degree in the specialist field of interest as the most effective way to get your career started. The MSc in Hydrogeology currently offered by the University of Birmingham is a good place to start.

However, this is relatively niche in terms of flood and planning careers, and it is more likely that you are coming from a mainstream geography or engineering background.  If so, a hydrology masters qualification such as environmental engineering is a very widely recognised vocational qualification. 

It is important to choose a course that is accredited by one of the professional bodies involved such as the Institution of Civil Engineers, Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management or the Geological Society.

What have been the stumbling blocks or barriers along the way? And how did you adapt to these challenges?

One of the early barriers I encountered was a difference of opinion between where I wanted to focus my practice, and the nature of the work my employer wanted me to do!  I was well utilised in profitable water resources work so it was natural that they would wish for this to continue, but dream projects in contaminant migration and fate, and groundwater modelling, kept passing me by. 

After a few years waiting, I made the decision, after a lot of soul searching to leave the firm and take an opportunity where I could get this kind of work.  This was a formative experience for me, and since then I have always listened carefully and responded to the career aspirations of my staff.  Harnessing the ambition and talent of your team and empowering people to fulfil their own aspirations is fundamental.

What have been the pivotal moments in the field?

For me, the establishment of the Chartered Geologist recognition through the Geological Society was pivotal. For the first time in the UK, hydrogeologists could be recognised on an equal footing to more established qualifications such as that of Chartered Engineer.  We have come a long way in the following 25 years but the Geological Society still has challenges to overcome to achieve a true professional body capability alongside its more traditional roots as a learned society.

What stages of your career have been the most rewarding?

It’s the whole life cycle of consultancy that I find the most rewarding: nurturing relationships with clients; understanding their problems and developing technical approaches to solving them. Then, implementing technical methodologies and doing the analysis; presenting recommendations for implementation; and seeing the solutions successfully adopted.

After 10 years in practice, I founded and developed ESI Limited as a technical leading specialist consultancy. It has been hugely rewarding to build our growth and reputation to one of the leading UK firms in our niche.

How do you get the most out of your team/colleagues? 

You have to start with a respect for people and their professionalism, and I believe in setting high expectations.

You also have to trust your team, and allow them to work their own way rather than seeking to impose too much structure.  It is also important to have good metrics in the firm to measure progress and signpost clearly what the priorities and targets are so everyone can see how they are doing.

Where do you think there are the most job opportunities in the sector?

Currently, there is a divided regulatory structure and this leads to compartmentalised work programmes.  However, with DEFRA currently working towards a 25-year plan for the environment there is an opportunity for a truly sustainable catchment approach.

We should see significant opportunities developing in more holistic and integrated catchment assessment and modelling, which will be very exciting for those wanting to work at the cutting edge.

Technology is, of course, the driving force. I have spent the last three years establishing a start-up in environmental information services, GeoSmart Information Limited. This is now growing rapidly, through innovation using Open Data and modelling on a national scale to create new generation data and products. 

The scope to develop and deliver better solutions is huge and the internet enables rapid transformational change, which will satisfy career aspirations, whether they are technological or entrepreneurial.

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