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Interview John Quist (CEO)

Unica is a fast-expanding business that works hard to ensure a safe, healthy and sustainable future. An interview with John Quist, CEO of Unica.

Looking back, how would you describe 2023?
For Unica, 2023 was the best year in the company’s 90-year history. We achieved further autonomous expansion and concluded several attractive acquisitions. For us, market prospects remain favourable. There were of course a number of difficulties, such as problems in the supply chain due to the reduced availability of microchips. That was a cause for concern, but we were well assisted by colleagues and partners. The lead time of some projects was occasionally extended due to lack of components, but broadly this was not an issue. We were able to reach good agreements with our loyal customers about the higher energy and material prices. It was mainly a question of indexing, and almost everyone was very understanding.

This excellent performance is in part due to our solid business culture, based on shared family values and entrepreneurially minded individuals. Once again in 2023, the entire workforce put their best foot forward.

So what are we talking about in terms of revenue and earnings?
We once again succeeded in achieving double figure growth. In 2023, we generated revenue of €843 million, an increase of €87 million as compared with 2022 (€756 million). We have now recorded this solid level of revenue growth four years in succession. But it is not a goal in and of itself. Our objective is above all controlled growth, to provide a solid basis for continuity. We also attach much importance to sustainably improving the rate of return. Our EBITDA rate of return percentage at 12% is a healthy foundation that offers every opportunity to continue to invest in our companies.

Unica has a clear growth scenario which in addition to autonomous growth is also based on acquisitions. Can you tell me a little more about the acquisitions in 2023?
When it comes to acquisitions, we go in search of solid businesses that deliver excellent performance, with a view to expanding our regional presence and reinforcing our specialisations. Of course also subject to the condition of a cultural match and shared values.

In 2023, we added several more attractive businesses to the Unica Groep, which will be discussed later on in this report. I would like to pick out the acquisition of Tenergy. Tenergy has developed a software platform for energy balancing. Up till now, the platform has been focused on greenhouse horticulture, but we see opportunities to further expand into other sectors. Balancing supply and demand on the electricity grid is a vital link in the energy transition. Without finding a solution to this problem, we will be unable to start phasing out fossil fuels, especially not in energy-intensive sectors like industrial manufacturing. Through this acquisition we have both broadened and deepened our knowledge of the energy market, with expertise and solutions in the field of emergency and control capacity.

What are you particularly proud of when it comes to increasing the sustainability of Unica’s activities?
Our mission is to realise a safe, healthy and sustainable future, together with our customers. I am therefore justifiably proud if we can truly assist them in becoming more sustainable, above all through renovation and transformation in the built environment. Existing buildings are responsible for 40% of the nation’s emissions, so with our extensive knowledge of sustainable renovation, we can make a real impact.

One excellent example is De Koepel in Haarlem. The former prison has been fully transformed into a multifunctional complex with shops, hospitality outlets and housing. It was an extremely difficult building in which to optimise the climate. However, by working with aquifer thermal heat storage (ATES), we have succeeded in realising a comfortable climate. We were also asked by a hospital to assist them in becoming independent in meeting their energy supply needs. The solution we offered is based on hydrogen. Although these are just two eye-catching examples, we can also make a real difference in smaller projects. Improving the energy label of a building from F or G to an A label is always a performance to be proud of.

And what about the sustainability performance of Unica itself?
In our own operations, our clear focus is on reducing energy consumption and CO2 emissions. For example, we now purchase Dutch green electricity, have improved the energy efficiency of our office and business locations, we are electrifying or vehicle fleet and are working to improve the sustainability of our home-work travel and business kilometres. This year, our efforts have resulted in certification at level 3 of the CO2 performance ladder, a management system based on CO2 reduction. But we still have some way to go. Just like our customers, we wish to improve our sustainability performance, and must find a sound balance between our resources and the impact we are able to deliver.

Could you describe a few trends and developments relevant to Unica?
We are facing ever more rules and regulations in a number of areas. For example the requirement that from 2023 onwards, all office buildings must have achieved at least label C. Regulations of this kind offer us opportunities to fully remove the concerns of our customers, through the services we provide. We have the knowledge and expertise they need to achieve the goals. You could perhaps best view us as a director who helps you make your building more sustainable and compliant with all the requirements of legislation and regulations.

In our judgement, advances in legislation and regulations are an excellent means of accelerating the pace of improved sustainability, while at the same time creating a level playing field. With this report, we have taken the first steps in complying with these regulations, by including a value-creation model and a separate chapter about our sustainability policy. These elements will be further expanded over the coming years so that we can issue a report for the financial year 2025 that will be audited by an accountant for both its financial and non-financial elements.

The digitalisation of society is still unstoppably advancing. We at Unica want to be an IT-managed business as far as possible, both in terms of our own systems and our activities. We are already placing digital concepts on the market. Building Insight is an excellent example of such a concept. It is our means of optimising buildings with the objective of improving safety, health and sustainability. At present, systems demonstrate only limited interoperability, despite the fact that all data can in fact be connected. If you know that a particular room is empty, you can switch off the lights and the heating, or use the space for another function. All these efforts contribute to improved sustainability.

Are there other developments you recognise as threats or opportunities?
Probably the most important factor is staff shortages. But there, too, digitalisation could be part of the solution. It may mean that we are able to complete more work with slightly fewer people. One aspect of real value in tackling our staff shortages is the fact that we are seen as an attractive employer. We are a winning team that focuses on three appealing themes for society: safety, health and sustainability. In particular younger people are increasingly attracted to a company with a clear purpose. They are keen to work for a company that matters. In addition, Unica is a company that operates on a broad front and offers numerous opportunities. Employees can achieve a great deal of career opportunities through internal transfers.

And then there are safety risks. How can you help safeguard against those?
There is a wealth of legislation and regulations when it comes to safety in engineering and construction. In practice, the situation is more unpredictable; after all, accidents still happen on construction sites. To make the construction industry a safer place, right from the start we joined the core group of the Governance Code for Safety in Construction. Together with 10 major construction companies and 3 important contract awarding parties, we are members of this core group. Safety may never become the playground of competition. Only by working together can you determine truly safe working practice.

Do you see any other dilemmas?
What should you do about a customer who at present has a major negative impact on people, the environment and society? Take for example the big CO2 emitters. Their activities may well be irreconcilable with our three themes: safety, health and sustainability. On the other hand, through our services, we can help them reduce their emissions. Situations like these do sometimes represent a dilemma, but if it is clear that customers truly wish to be more sustainable, we see it as our task to help them realise that objective.

The effect of digitalisation on humans is another dilemma. Digitalisation is an important development that can make our work much easier and faster. However, it must never be to the detriment of humanity. We must still gain enjoyment and fulfilment from our work. Although I am convinced that improved comfort and reduced workload can help bring that about, at the end of the day, it is our people who make the difference. In other words, we will constantly strive to find the perfect combination of smart solutions put into practice by friendly and engaged employees.

What is your vision on the future of Unica?
We wish to reinforce our positive impact on our customers and on society by further growing as an organisation. We have set a growth ambition of on average 10-20% each year. That level of growth enables us to deliver an ever greater impact in the discussions with our customers, our chain partners and our clients. Thanks to our network of nine clusters, we can deliver a unique palette of solutions and specialists for consultancy, engineering and digitalisation. From that solid foundation, we see it as a fantastic challenge to bring about a safe, healthy and sustainable future for our customers and for future generations.

Together we create the future!