Vikash Narsai

A leading specialist in the built environment

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The multi-disciplinary professional services consultancy VNA Consulting leads the charge for built environment transformation, realising the continental potential and connecting African communities, while enhancing the lives of the inhabitants.

VNA Consulting’s CEO and founder, Vikash Narsai, extends a broad, debonair smile and an unassuming confidence as he strides into his office boardroom, in an upmarket, converted colonial-style house, set high up on Durban’s Berea.

Narsai, a Quantity Surveyor by profession, assumes an affable presence, a characteristic that has, no doubt, steered this energetic leader through the twists and turns of a challenging journey in the global built environment sector.

Narsai, 47, built VNA Consulting, an award-winning firm, from humble beginnings with less than a handful of staff in 2000, into a large South African company employing 300 people and with established branches in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, Free State, Western Cape, Mauritius including strategic partners in Australia, USA, Asia and Europe.

The firm focuses on connecting African communities, providing construction project management, construction management, civil engineering, specialised pavement engineering, infrastructure development as well as cost engineering services. VNA Consulting recently won the South African Construction Award (SACA) as the Best Health, Safety, Environment and Quality (SHEQ) Company of the Year in 2018 and a year earlier, the firm clinched the SACA Best Consultancy of the Year award for 2017.

But it has been a long and arduous journey to arrive at these major milestones.

Narsai recalls how, as a young graduate fresh out of ML Sultan Technikon (now the Durban University of Technology), just before the dawn of democracy in 1993, the dearth of jobs even then, led to a delay in fulfilling his professional dreams.

“I was confronted by the realities of being a new job seeker due to the absence of available quantity surveying opportunities. To make ends meet, I was forced to sell children’s books door to door. It was a tenuous time.

“But my continuous drive to embrace the built environment industry finally paid off when, in 1995, I was given an opportunity in Richards Bay as a Junior Quantity Surveyor for Coalfields Construction, one of the largest contracting firms at the time located in Northern KwaZulu-Natal,” he says.

However, the opportunity presented challenges, especially the long “camping days” on the job.

“Apart from ‘roughing it’ in a caravan for nearly eight months on site, I had the unfortunate experience of crashing my boss’ brand new 4x4. I will always remember my “camping days”. I attribute this to my early years I spent as a Boy Scout which equipped me to overcome challenges with ease.”

“What I thought was just a snowballing, disastrous year turned into a blessing. It led to a promotion to Chief Buyer of the company’s operations in Vryheid as a result of my tough work ethos and commitment,” Narsai adds.

A new opportunity arose at a Durban-based construction company in 1998 and Narsai was deployed to its Johannesburg branch for a year. He returned to KwaZulu-Natal in 1999 and was appointed the Chief Quantity Surveyor on the Kokstad Supermax Prison housing project.

This contract, his last as an employee, was a turning point in his professional life because the following year, he started his construction project management consultancy.

“My strong-minded entrepreneurial spirit and focused dedication forged me and enabled me to bring my unique vision—to create a dedicated construction project management practice—to fruition. My transparency, fairness, due diligence, strong work ethics and being highly regarded by project stakeholders culminated in the opening of the VNA Construction Project Management Consultancy, now simply known as VNA Consulting,” Narsai recalls.

His life partner, Anju Prabdial-Narsai, joined him in the business in 2002. However, Narsai found he had to prove himself to clinch new clients and build the brand.

He seized the opportunity to work as an independent consultant to the main contractor who built the new KZN Department of Transport offices in Pietermaritzburg in 2003. Through the project, he built a credible track record with the Client by delivering the project within time, cost and quality performance levels.”

Despite providing a high-quality professional service, Narsai’s firm endured challenges and he came close to shutting the doors in 2005 when the work opportunities dried up. However, he endured the tough times and went on to experience the strongest growth in 2007 and during the 2008 global recession.

One of the firm’s first major breaks came when he submitted a tender for a KwaZulu-Natal Department of Transport District Consultant appointment in 2006 and was successful. Always up for a challenge, Narsai was given the most difficult district located in uMzimkhulu. This was a district that was handed over from the Eastern Cape Province to the Province of KwaZulu-Natal.

Today, more than 10 years later, Narsai looks back at these early projects as catalysts that helped him build a solid reputation among his peers for completing quality projects on time, to the highest standards and, importantly, well within the client’s budget.

“This was the stepping stone to building credibility within the civil engineering fraternity, which was dominated only by civil engineers and not built environment specialists with the requisite skills of the road infrastructure industry,” he explains.

Narsai lists several projects and awards among the company’s successes over the years, which have included:

Leading the growth and development of the town of uMzimkhulu, situated in KwaZulu-Natal, for the KZN Department of Transport from 2007 to 2018.

Being appointed as the Lead Programme Manager on the Free State Department of Police, Roads and Transport Contractor Development Programme since 2014. With VNA at the helm, the programme won the 2016/17 national CPSI award for the most innovative Contractor Development Programme.

Serving as the implementation agent for Vodacom South Africa (Midrand) since 2013.

Assisting the National Department of Transport to achieve standardisation, integration and uniformity of road assets within South Africa in 2016.

Being awarded the contract for implementing infrastructure delivery management and road asset management in accordance with the Division of Revenue Act (DoRA) for the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Transport in 2018.

However, the single biggest success story in the company’s history has been the acquisition, from the Australian Road Research Board (ARRB Group), their Systems and Technology division to create Automated Road Rehabilitation Business Systems (ARRB Systems). His firm secured the acquisition when the ARRB Group decided to divest its research division from the systems and technology, after participating in a highly competitive international procurement process in 2017.

“ARRB Systems is now a global distribution network involving established offices in Australia, the USA, India, Sweden and South Africa, including a global distribution network in 23 countries,” Narsai says.

VNA Consulting initially partnered with the ARRB Group in 2010 to access the technology to assist local road authorities with quality scientific assessments to check the condition of roads in line with the international standards adopted by the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral).

“We felt there was a monopoly because there was only one company doing these assessments, where non-destructive instrumentation based condition surveying and assessment was fast becoming the way of the future.”

The firm’s acquisition of the systems and technology division sets it head and shoulders above local competitors and gives it a distinct international competitive edge, he says, especially when competing as a black-owned business in a sector monopolised by traditionally white-owned businesses.

“What has helped us is that I have always been intrigued by what goes on globally. I have travelled extensively and picked up ideas by looking at what goes on in Australia, Asia, the United States and India. Australia is similar to South Africa and a lot of the advances that have been made there can assist us at home.

“As we believed automated pavement condition testing to be the way forward and in line with global trends, VNA had the foresight to acquire our first falling weight deflectometer trailer in 2009, paving the way for our extensive investment in sophisticated, state-of-the-art pavement strength testing equipment, designed to significantly improve road maintenance solutions in this country,” Narsai says.

Introducing the technology was a major turning point for the business, bolstering its reputation as a leading road asset management service provider among transport authorities in SA and the SADC region, yet Narsai says leading the way has drawbacks.

“The downside is when you are seen as the first mover, you are seen as a threat to the industry. It goes back to transformation. We are threats to those who have been dominating the industry because with this technology, we are ‘the police, the Hawks, the crime-intelligent busters’ because we can very objectively determine whether a contract is being done correctly.

“The sad part is that, with shoddy workmanship on road related projects, Transport Authority Clients don’t have the necessary management tools to determine whether a Consultant and/or Contractor are performing their respective scope of works and/or service appropriately. Our key objective is to ensure Clients always get value for money,” he explains.

While this cutting-edge technology is a game changer, which is not only analysing the condition of the pavements scientifically, but exposing sub-standard work on roads, what further sets his team apart is its human- and technical skills and ability to assess the big picture to deliver on a range of projects.

“We have a long-held collaborative approach to big-picture planning, coupled with an ever-changing vigour to improve quality and customer value in a simplistic manner while delivering professionally on local and international planes.

“Our pioneering project methods and processes have contributed immeasurably to the business success we have enjoyed during our 19-year history. Our successes have been built on our strategic approach to doing things differently in terms of business products, services and innovation. I pride myself in having a hands-on approach with my clients,” Narsai says.

He describes his leadership style as “participative” and he likes to lead by example.

“My employees and management teams assist me by participating in the decision-making process while maintaining the final decision-making within a governance structure. It’s of mutual benefit as it allows participation and allows for better and informed decisions,” Narsai says.

He believes truly effective leadership stems from the passion one exhibits for a vision bigger than oneself and a dream to improve the social order of the day.

“Our vision is to realise continental potential, ensuring the built environment transformation of South Africa and the continent while enhancing the lives of the inhabitants. VNA is service-driven, with service success as the cornerstone of its culture,” he says.

The company rigorously manages client requirements, schedules, facilities, human resources and the budget, holding every employee accountable to ensure service delivery success.

“Every employee must be mindful of content, risk, cost and schedule. All must understand the goals and requirements of their activity and how that activity interacts with the larger system. VNA cultivates and inculcates a vision, which includes all the people across our operations who individually and collectively take ownership of any project in which we invest. This new breed of leadership must demonstrate a dynamic understanding of the competences, applications and future potential of evolving technologies,” he says.

Narsai says technology is also having an impact on leadership, as managers need to understand how to delegate between human and technological resources to optimise the proficiencies of both.

“South Africa and Southern Africa’s built environment industry is constantly evolving. No longer is brick and mortar being considered the Alpha and Omega. The digital age now influences every aspect of this economic sector in terms of innovations, systems and methods.

“Behind the amazing technological advancements and innovative developments are connected business customers; customers who now demand smarter, faster, always-on experiences and solutions from us,” he says.

But he notes that what works elsewhere on the globe may not necessarily always work in Africa.

“Opportunities, prospects, ventures and creativity need to be developed and nurtured. What Africa is missing is infrastructure - roads, rails, ports, airports, clinics, schools, houses, electrical and information technology networks - which is required to revitalise the African economy. The lack thereof hampers growth,” Narsai says.

And there are also sure rewards for focusing on the big picture. He is of the view that companies that know how to succeed in connecting African communities and markets will undoubtedly prosper on the continent.

“Connecting communities was always one of our undeniable endeavours, built into the core of our company vision. Once you start connecting communities, the ‘triple bottom line’, targeting economic, social and environmental matters in delivering sustainable built environment solutions can bring about the change to ensure Africa’s rising economic prosperity,” he says.

VNA Consulting incorporates effective collaboration and skills sharing, both internally and externally with service suppliers and communities, as a critical means to enhance its infrastructure development services on the continent.

“We engage in a wide spectrum of programmes, projects and activities of extraordinary risk, complexity and priority, in our centric, cross-organisational approach and business model. Although our project teams consist of variable skill sets, they share matching goals, resources and leadership styles. With their diverse set of specialised skills, they are able to problem solve as a collective. Our collaboration and skills strengths lie in the abilities of our culturally diverse employees as we harness the different strengths of individual team members,” Narsai says.

The firm also focuses on engaging with stakeholders, not only to ensure the successful management of the environment around projects but to consider the interests of all participants in order to identify potential conflicts and challenges.

“One of the greatest challenges facing skills sharing is the public sector institutions’ acceptance to respect the knowledge that the private sector brings to the fold. There seems to be continued resistance to change which, if not accepted, can derail government programmes and hamper service delivery,” Narsai says.

However, he says the sector is upbeat about the government’s moves to clamp down on corruption, which has been a “pandemic prevalent for more than a few decades”.

“There is a renewed hope that comes with the introduction and adoption of the Standard for Infrastructure Delivery Management and the adoption of the Division of Revenue Act by Treasury to hold public sector institutions accountable, and which will, indeed, bring errant public servants and unscrupulous service providers to account with consequences,” he says.

For Narsai and his team, the cleaning up of corruption in the sector is good news because it will promote fair competition and opportunities for his firm so that they may continue seeking out difficult development tasks across the continent—projects that will irrevocably change landscapes and connect communities.

“Our firm’s value system displays and practices ethical leadership to promote a work environment, which upholds one’s reputation for integrity, ethical conduct and trust. The realisation is a daily commitment and there is zero tolerance for any breach. Simply put, don’t ‘sell your soul’,” he says.

Narsai is invigorated by the prospects of the many new challenges that lie ahead.

“From the very first day I stepped onto the site, put on my hard hat, safety boots and became immersed in the project at hand, I could feel the adrenaline pumping through my veins.

“I still get the same feeling each time I get involved in a new project. My continued involvement—albeit from a distance—in the various projects that we are working on keeps me fulfilled, motivated and driven each and every day. There is never a dull moment in my day at work,” he concludes. 

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