What is it like to work on one of Europe’s busiest motorways?

The M25 around London is one of the most important roads in Britain, first conceived in 1944, building work began in the 1960s, some sections were opened in 1975 and the final section was opened by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1986. The longest orbital road in Europe at 117 miles (188 km) serves five counties and is integral to supporting the 328 billion miles a year the nations’ drivers travel.

Sofia Athanassiou is Commercial Director of Connect Plus (CP) the company comprising Balfour Beatty Investments, Egis Projects and Edge Orbital which is delivering the M25 Design, Build, Finance and Operate (DBFO) contract. CP began in 2009 and when it was awarded by the Secretary of State through the Highways Agency, now Highways England (HE), was the largest ever HE contract at £6.2bn. Sofia is a formidable role model for female engineers and was awarded the WICE (Women in Construction and Engineering) Best Woman in Highways award in April 2019 helping her to be more visible, challenge the preconceptions around engineering and promote the construction and engineering sectors as an attractive career for all.

Originally from Greece, Sofia followed in her mother and father’s footsteps by gaining an engineering degree. Sofia then took an MSC in transport in the UK and began her career at Steer, whilst also studying for an MBA. At Steer, Sofia developed her highways expertise working on projects throughout the world, leading teams developing traffic and revenue forecasts for promoters, bidders and funders of highway schemes.

With Balfour Beatty since 2006 and seconded to CP since 2018 Sofia provides leadership across an incredibly complex environment of many stakeholders, including Highways England, CP’s shareholders, CP’s framework contractors and their wider supply chain, CP’s operator and consultants. CP’s scope covers 150,000 assets in 14 asset categories, 440 linear km and 1750 structures (including 5 tunnels and 56 strategic assets), including operating and maintaining the Dartford crossing. Sofia is working closely with Highways England to ensure that significant future schemes, such as the Heathrow expansion and Lower Thames Crossing, benefit from CP’s asset management expertise and importantly making sure that CP’s contract variations to account for such schemes are developed efficiently and are fair for all parties involved.

The culture being nurtured on the M25 contract, against the current turbulent political and economic climate, is one of making a step change away from adversarial commercial practices to a more sustainable and value-driven collaboration model. Sofia describes this approach, “the way we have approached the M25 DBFO contract in terms of harnessing efficiencies through supply chain collaboration and integration is an opportunity to bring about a much needed cultural change in the industry and a more efficient, productive and fulfilling way of working together, with a focus on whole life value”. Sofia’s enthusiasm is infectious as she elaborated further, “we need to promote technological advances, incentivise innovation and most importantly be flexible to support changes to the network for the benefit of customers”.

Having faced bias herself Sofia works to change the startlingly low numbers of women (11%) in her industry, also supporting Balfour Beatty’s drive to improve diversity and inclusion in the sector. “It is not a secret that the construction and engineering sectors suffer from a lack of diversity, with women and ethnic minorities being significantly underrepresented. This is ethically wrong, a huge loss of opportunity and a big risk to the industry’s sustainability. We need to change the culture of the industry and the working practises (including inflexible hours), challenge the misconceptions surrounding the role of professionals in the industry and raise the kudos of engineers; therefore projecting a modern industry profile.” Sofia’s career is a great example to instigate these changes.

By Sofia Athanassiou - Commercial Director at Connect Plus

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