Soben’s North America Director Robert Kim shares his remarkable journey from the United Kingdom to the United States, and how this experience has shaped his growth both as a leader and as an individual.
Tell us about your career journey to date
I started out by searching ‘How to go to college (Uni) without getting in debt?’ and stumbled across quantity surveying. Turned out that Leeds Beckett University had a part-time study option, and I found a firm that sponsored my studies whilst I worked for them.
I spent 7 years working in Leeds before moving to London searching for some larger-scale projects. I was fortunate enough to work for some incredible high-profile clients, which helped me build my network and ultimately gave me the opportunity to move stateside.
Then I moved to the US and spent a year on the West Coast before moving to New York, which now I call home. I can say that I’ve worked in many sectors and on different projects in most countries on Earth.
In 2019 I wanted to expand my knowledge and grow my international capabilities, so I signed up for the TRIUM Global EMBA program where I was one of the youngest-ever graduates.
How was your experience of moving from the UK to the US?
It’s an experience I would recommend to anyone. Of course, it’s not easy to say goodbye, pack up your life and move across the world. Spending time thinking about those first few weeks is an interesting process.
I’ll be honest and say I didn’t enjoy the first few weeks because everything is different, you don’t know anyone, you don’t know the location and you miss your loved ones. However, as time goes by, you get to meet new people, start feeling more at home, and things become easier.
I’d describe it as learning something new: it’s a challenge at first, but after a while things become natural.
Also, I know it’s cliché but travelling does broaden your mind. Going to a place you’ve never been to and talking to people from different backgrounds helps you appreciate things from a different angle. It’s also an opportunity to test yourself. Putting yourself in a completely new scenario takes you outside of your comfort zone.
I have met people I would have never met, and I’ll always be grateful for that.
How is the US construction industry different to the UK’s?
Well, a programme is spelt program and called schedule and your entire profession as a quantity surveyor pretty much doesn’t exist… But other than that, not much (joking).
In all seriousness, the biggest difference is that schedule is key.
Pre-contract, clients are more interested in quick estimates and agreements with the contractor. Post-contract, changes are dealt with a mindset of keeping the project moving.
The cost is generally secondary, or done in the context of what savings can be achieved in a specific timescale.
Experiencing both sides has provided me with an interesting perspective and I always encourage our teams to look at the ROI of our services. Think about what the low-hanging fruit is, but also how can we approach things differently, like improving early warnings of change orders which gives us more time to negotiate.
Which sectors in the US are the most interesting to you?
It changes fairly frequently.
When I first moved to the US I was working in Data Centres, but I spent more of my career here working in corporate real estate.
Right now it’s really all about Data Centres, Life Sciences and High-Tech manufacturing. There’s something very interesting about those spaces for me: the spend is another order of magnitude higher, which means that we can really add value and people are focused on delivering great work.
What has been your favourite project you’ve worked on, and why?
I think the project I most enjoyed was the Bradford Student Accommodation Village. At the time it was one of the highest BREEAM-rated projects in the world. I think it will go down as one of the most successful projects I’ve been involved with as there were only a handful of change requests on a massive one-thousand-bed program.
How do you see the US construction sector benefiting from UK talent?
When I moved here, quantity surveying was pretty much unheard of. I’d spend most of my time explaining to people what I did. 10 years on and I regularly see resumes of people trying to pretend they’re a quantity surveyor.
There’s a strong expat community out here and a lot of clients have capitalized on that for their internal hires, so it’s spreading rapidly.
I think that as UK talent, we have really built a good reputation for ourselves. I spoke to a potential client a few months ago who asked if all our employees had accents. I mistook this for a preference to have local talent, but after I finished my response about the great local talent we have at Soben, he expressed his disappointment as he felt UK/Irish project managers were more diligent and detailed.
Why did you choose Soben to continue your career in the US?
The opportunity. I’m ambitious and I felt like larger companies were always looking for reasons to take you down a peg rather than asking you what you could achieve.
During my interview with Soben, Joe Cusick asked me how I envisioned Soben in the US and what I wanted to do for the company. I spent the whole weekend brainstorming what I thought was a disruptive business and it turned out Soben was already doing half of the ideas I came up with.
What sets Soben apart from competitors?
I think there are two things that come to mind:
One is that we get to hire great talent because we offer them flexible working, flexible vacation and good salaries.
The second is that we cut out the noise so people can really focus on delivering great work for our clients. We don’t expect staff to wear a million hats or take on more than what is achievable. We give them the freedom to deliver great work in the way that is most productive to their individuality.
What would you highlight about Soben’s work culture and professional environment in the US?
It’s a bit weird to share in something like this, but it’s fresh in my mind and relevant: Today I had a call with a junior staff member who has decided to move on. It’s actually the first resignation we’ve had in Soben North America and they have decided to go to one of our clients. There are no hard feelings, but what struck me though is that they were clearly shaken by the moment.
They told me it was one of the hardest decisions they’ve had to make (and they meant it) and that Soben had been the best place they’d ever worked, and they would be forever grateful for the opportunity they received here.
I know Soben is going to become a great company if we keep treating staff this way, because when your staff says it’s the best job they’ve ever had, then you know you have a superpower that no one can compete with.
What do you think you would be doing if you were not working in the Construction sector?
I think I was probably destined to be in the industry. My grandad was a tiler in the North of England and I still remember setting foot on site for the first time. This a great industry that is full of people who work hard and play hard, and I really can’t imagine being in a different one.
If I was to move out of the sector I would probably want to work in something similar. I like the idea of being part of something that gets finished.
What career advice would you give your younger self?
Follow what you’re interested in. If you feel an urge to do it, run in that direction.
Be patient – It isn’t a race, rather treat it as a marathon.
Be confident – Don’t pull the punches. You can achieve the things you’re putting off!
To learn more about Soben’s consultancy services in North America, contact Robert Kim
Director – North America
Soben is now sponsoring E-2 visas, enabling us to hire talented British Quantity Surveyors into our US operations. The new scheme marks a milestone for Soben as we expand our talent pool and strengthen our commitment to delivering exceptional service to clients in North America.