John Woodcock CEng FIFireE (Life)

Member of the IFE’s Engineering Council Division (ECD) and subsequently was awarded CEng in April 1999. In 2000, joined the Education and Professional Development (E&PD) Committee of the ECD and became Vice Chairman. In 2002, John was elected to the main ECD Board and in 2004 became its Chairman, which gave him a place on the main IFE Board. Highlights included: 2004 to 2012 on main IFE Board, ECD then IFE Registrants Group (IFERG) representative until 2009, heavily involved with Graduate and Rasbash lectures, facilitated transition of ECD to IFERG and streamlined systems and processes of the strategic plan.

Location: London

Organisation: Institution of Fire Engineers

“I believe in doing things properly. That means doing it first time properly and taking the time and trouble to get it right. There’s no room for failure with a capital ‘F’ but there is room for small failures,” John says of his deeply held belief taken from his early career introduction to fire engineering with the Factory Mutual System, now FM Global (one of the largest property and business interruption insurers in the world).. These fundamentals are something John returns to repeatedly throughout our conversation.

“There was nothing to be gained from skimping on any job. That’s what I got most out of that time; the fact there was a premium on doing the job properly – proper research, analysis, conclusions and reporting.”

Starting his career as an acoustics research engineer with Westland Helicopters, “an interesting job in theory, but in practice less so,” he was soon tempted to join FM, and train in the United States − an 18-month course that gave John a grounding for life. “I only spent 12 years with FM, but I still have huge affection for them. I have never worked for a better organisation in terms of people doing what they said they were going to do and doing it efficiently and effectively. It’s remained a benchmark of mine for other organisations.”

The FM training blended well with John’s engineering education. “At university, we were taught to work from first principles – although it is important to get the answer right, it is more important to use the correct method and derivations.” 

John’s grounding in engineering principles, coupled with experience and opportunity have helped shape his career. “As I moved from FM, I found these to be helpful in allowing me to explore other areas of risk, not just related to property and business interruption. The engineering principles provided the unshakeable foundation of risk assessment. If you structure the assessment and ask the right questions, you can evaluate just about any risk”.

Steeped in Accountability
John recounts the process which provided him with a comprehensive education in risk management: “The role I had at FM was driven by their insurance arrangements, which were then unique. They only covered property and business interruption insurance. It was ‘big ticket’ but a very specific class of insurance. The insured company had to be committed to understanding its property risks and then doing something about them, in return for very broad cover and low insurance premiums.”

This meant that all insured businesses had to be inspected regularly by engineers. “There was a high level of accountability for those engineers doing evaluations of risk that could lead to fire, explosion or other property-related losses. They had to be able to assess what the current loss potential was, how much it would cost to protect it and what would be the resultant reduction in loss potential. So it was essential to do mathematical and logical assessments for every single risk and for every single recommendation, using empirical evidence”

All fires had to be investigated. “The objective was to determine what happened and in particular whether the loss could have been foreseen and anticipated via recommendations by the engineer who did the previous regular inspection. Repeated failure to anticipate potential losses could mean loss of your job. Thus, there was a high level of accountability but this approach encouraged professional behaviour.”

Risk Profiling
John’s career path was a journey with a great variety of risk assessments, for example: uranium mining in Canada, salt refining in Israel, fish farming in the Philippines, car manufacturing in Iran. “It was necessary to be accurate and observant in describing the processes, the risks and what could be done about those considered unacceptable. We had no fire modelling, no accepted fire sizes etc, so we had to build our analyses using basic engineering principles and present the reports in an appropriate format for non-technical readers. We relied heavily on FM’s extensive fire loss data to build credible fire scenarios, often having to determine equivalence between these and the situation actually presenting itself.” 

In 1987 John moved from FM to work for Sedgwick Risk Management Services. Starting in fire engineering, he used his experience and creativity to move into business continuity, crisis management and strategic risk assessment (Risk Profiling). He applied loss prevention and risk management knowledge to every aspect of business across a wide variety of industries. The importance of fundamentals is reinforced by John. “Whereas loss prevention and risk management were core to FM and their clients, with Sedgwick clients, each risk management recommended improvement had to be justified by cost/benefit assessments. So I had to use my experience and knowledge to relate risk management needs to business drivers. It was tough and good ideas were often knocked back on cost grounds alone. However, gradually, we were able to build a strong risk management consulting business.”

By showing how risk management measures could protect their business, not just their assets, the relationship between Sedgwick and the client improved to one of a business partner and thus long- term relationships were established.”  By 1996, Risk Profiling was a business stream within Sedgwick  and John become the unit’s Director.

“First principles and logic, systematically applied comprise the core of a risk profile. For it to work efficiently, it starts with the Board, then the strategic objectives, then business plans and finally processes. From these, a set of key risks can be established, how likely they are to occur and what can be done practically to reduce the likelihood and/or impact  of an incident.”

As an example of a project, John applied his engineering principles to working on a large product risk project for a major drinks company. “It’s a long way from dealing with property risk control to product contamination, but the principles are still the same. What are the potential risks to the business, what scenarios could develop and what can you do about them? I’ve used that engineering approach, even though I wasn’t a product contamination expert.”

Sedgwick merged with Marsh & McLennan and in 1999 and John then worked for Marsh Risk Consulting. He became a Managing Director in 2002, served as Chief Operating Officer from 2003 to 2005 and European Risk Consulting development leader in 2006.  Having decided to retire in 2007, he was asked in 2006 to restructure the property, health and safety and fleet risk management teams. At the same time he developed and project managed a million dollar contract to provide a strategic risk review for a Russian telecommunications company, which would be one of John’s greatest achievements. “I was particularly pleased with winning and managing the largest risk consulting project that Marsh Risk Consulting had ever undertaken. This was an enormous project to bring in on time, on budget and in an unfamiliar country.

“The culmination was a list of risk being accepted by a previously sceptical Board of Directors. I managed a multi-national team which had to consider risks in areas as diverse as: regulatory environment, human resources, competition, finance, product innovation, IT, legislation, and shareholder issues”

It was an exciting and interesting project before entering retirement.

John applied his working philosophy in his role on the IFE Board, which he joined in 2004. “The decisions we made were based on sound, logical foundations and an understanding of the risk of action or inaction. The process should always  be professional.

“My contribution to improved governance comes from something that I’ve always taken pride in and something that was reinforced during my time at FM: always to do things to the best of your ability, take time to do them right first time and don’t shrink away if it gets difficult.”