Maxine Binger is a parent, teacher, and entrepreneur who is on a mission to transform children's reading experiences. She is the founder of Koobool, an online platform that allows children to share book reviews with each other.
Making a Difference in the Road Safety Industry
Mark Reynolds is a self-employed engineer who specializes in road safety. He has over 30 years of experience in the industry, and he is passionate about making roads safer for everyone.
In our first interview, Mark talks about his career in road safety, his passion for his work, and his hopes for the future of the industry. He also shares his advice for young people who are interested in a career in engineering.
After a few months, we caught up with Mark again to see how his business was going. In this second interview, we discussed the changes to his business, work/life balance, recent achievements and more.
Read the first interview:
Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Mark Reynolds. I’m 58. And I’m based in Cannock in Staffordshire, which is great for transport. I have the toll road, the M6, the A5, the A51 and the A38 all local to me, and the A34. So you can get just about anywhere, which, with what I do for a living, is perfect.
And how does your motorway and transport knowledge tie in with your business?
I work within the construction sector, both with temporary and permanent works. Working with road restraint systems, which are both pedestrian and vehicle, and hostile vehicle mitigation systems, which are what you use for security more than for road protection.
How long have you been self-employed?
I've been self-employed since September 2020. A bit over two and a half years now. It's been an interesting journey. And it was an interesting time in the middle of the first pandemic to throw the towel and walk away.
And what were you doing before self-employment? Were you doing the same tasks for an employer?
I was doing some of the same things. These days a lot of the work I do is risk assessment based. So, do you actually need a rope barrier? Not just because you’re protecting the travelling public. But you also have to consider the safety of the road workers who’ve not only got to put it in, but maintain it as well.
So you could have road workers out on the road every two years, for example, with certain products. It’s finding the balance. And there’s a lot of old road safety barrier out there now, that isn’t in fact needed. It was put in because the fashion was, “Oh there’s a space, put some barrier in.” And now it actually poses a bigger hazard by being there.
It’s interesting and varied. For 15 years, I was the engineering manager with Asset VRS, which is part of the Hill & Smith Ltd Company. They’re the biggest providers of temporary road safety barrier in the UK. And engineering was a function of R&D, general engineering including technical drawings and things, health safety and environmental systems, and any non-standard stuff going on. So I was doing everything from design at one end to doing the quality report at the other.
And for the last three and a half years, I also had Hardstaff Barriers, they provide concrete barriers, under my umbrella as well. In the sense of the provision of the product. That's why I continued doing what I was doing, working with more with permanent products, and also the risk assessments, the risk-based approach to road safety is more of a variety for me.
I'm also one of five people in the country nominated by national highways for doing independent assessment on road barriers that can't be tested to a national standard. So, they do some testing and then we undertake an independent review of it.
Is testing and assessment a new area for you since starting your business?
That’s something new because it’s the reverse of what I was doing before. I was designing the product. So, Asset VRS provide steel barrier systems. If you’ve driven down a motorway, which we all have, and driven through roadworks and seen some steel barrier there, if it was an inverted T-shape, roughly, with a foot at the bottom, the odds are I designed that barrier. Not that layout, but the actual barrier that’s being used on the road.
Now that knowledge has been flipped by a gentleman at National Highways, that I now can do the assessment of other products.
Did you study engineering, and have you always worked in that field?
Honest answer, I’m self-taught. I left school and became a lumberjack at 18 because I was all educated out. I then moved to a lab, where I was doing quality control and research and development on paint and colour technology with emulsion paints. Then I went into pressed metal work. And then some project management before going into Asset.
The paint work, I did the colour matching for the pink ceiling that was originally at the entrance to Euro Disney. Princess Pink, and it was a Disney copyrighted colour. The press metal side, I worked as the Quality Manager, and before 2000 got the business through ISO 14001, which achieved the Rover 2000 objective. So, you know, I’ve been at the forefront of bits and bobs over the years.
A lot of my work is systematic. And that follows through to the risk assessments I do.
Are you involved in other projects which tie into your business?
I’m also the chair of National Highways Sector Scheme 10. National Highways Sector Schemes are interpretations of ISO 9001, the quality standard specific for individual applications within the highway sector. So, for example, Sector Scheme 12 is for traffic management, with cones, studs, lines and signs.
10 is vehicle restraint systems. I started serving in 2007 when it was Sector Scheme 2B, and it’s grown since then. And as I say, the last three and a half years, I’ve been the chairman of the committee of Schemes A, B and C within Scheme 10.
Did you get involved more for professional development, or does it help with growing your business?
There’s a little bit of all sorts. When I originally started, because there are principally two types of road barrier – the permanent stuff and the temporary side – I was representing the temporary market. Because the way you join these committees isn’t as an individual, you join them as a representative of an organisation.
In my case, I was actually co-opted. So, I was asked if I would join for technical support for temporary barriers. These days I carry on, because it is at my cost, in part because it’s the centre of the industry. And it’s not necessarily all about business. It’s about being aware of what people are developing. So informal CPD is probably better. And I can actually influence in part what companies have to do, and designers have to do, to make sure that what goes out there is safe.
What prompted you to become self-employed?
I was spending a lot of time managing people, and not engineering. The company when I joined had a turnover of £5-6 million, and when I left, they’d got to over £40 million. So, it had grown a lot. When I arrived, it was a family. And when I left there was a lot of politics, which I’m not a fan of.
There’s the other side, which is the personal side. I was definitely suffering with mental fatigue, and depression. Possibly the early stages of burnout. It’s hard to be objective when you’re on the inside, but I’d tick most of the boxes for burnout. And it was about being a manager, not being a doer.
Now I’ve gone back to the doing side of the work, if that makes sense. And as a result, I’m far happier.
And what’s the main objective or biggest hope you have for your business?
To make a difference. That simple. I have friends who put barriers out on roads, as much as I have friends who order it, and design it, and things. So I care about the whole industry, plus I drive on the roads the same as you. So ensuring that all road users, not just the public but the actual workforce, are safe. That the right products are in the right places.
So it’s a bit of a silent thing. If I’ve done my job right, you should never have known that I’ve been involved.
On the opposite side, what are your biggest worries or fears about becoming self-employed?
Originally, I was lucky. I had the support of the Managing Director of the business I was in. So when it got to the point, I actually left the business in two weeks, so I didn’t really have time to worry.
The biggest problem with Covid at the time was that you couldn’t actually get a business bank account. No bank would talk to you if you didn’t already use them. And I bank, personally with a building society. If you’re a sole trader you can use a building society, but if you’re a limited company you can’t. And it took me about seven weeks to get a bank account.
But I had a long chat with my MD at the time. And it was like “Yeah, we need to get you out of here, we need to get you right”. So, he went to bat for me with the parent PLC company. I was really lucky.
At the time, I suppose the fear of the unknown, although it was a bit of a whirlwind. Today, accounts bother me, and all the associated stuff with them. The chasing for payment, and all that sort of thing doesn’t interest me. So, I struggle with it. The same with general admin. I’ll hold my hand up, I’m absolutely useless at it, because I’m just not interested. And I suppose the biggest fear is the fear of failing.
Have you been tempted to go back into full employment?
About 10 months into the job, I was contacted by a large non-profit in the UK, who offered me a permanent position. And I said I didn’t want to work full-time for them, because I hadn’t had a chance to succeed or fail at what I was doing.
And that’s the failure thing. I could have gone back to security with quite a cushy outfit that would have paid very, very well. But I wouldn’t have known if I was good enough to actually have had a business.
What do you do outside of work? Do you have any particular hobbies or interests?
I love to learn, that’s the first thing. And I work on the principle that if I can learn something every day, then I ain’t wasted the day. Whether it’s something little, whether I’m still playing catch up.
I play strategy board games. And I’ve been playing every second or third Friday with the same group for the last five or six years. I also play occasionally with smaller groups. But you know, there is a nice sort of buddy relationship, which has built back in again in the last 12 months.
I’m one of the younger ones there! So, we were very conscious of Covid and things. So, we moved to playing online which is something I didn’t enjoy. I spend all day at a computer, I don’t want to spend my leisure time at the computer as well.
I’m an avid reader. Science fiction, fantasy and action mystery. I’ve been doing a lot of re-reading this year. I’ve read a lot of Heinlein. At the moment I'm reading Friday and that’s probably one of my all-time favourite books. Or Frank Herbert’s Dune. I started reading Dune when I was 10 and it was the first book I ever bought. The thing is, I still get something from it. I can still find something new. I’m not somebody who just reads a book and gets rid of it. I’m a hoarder. If you can read a book 10 or 20 times and still find something new or get a feeling from it, it’s a good book.
I also listen to audiobooks, particularly when I’m driving. My listening has gone down in the last few years, but when I was working for Asset, I was driving up to 50,000 miles a year. The books were a way of actually sometimes staying awake and mentally with it, particularly the M40. That is probably one of the most boring roads in the country. Especially at 2 o’clock in the morning. A good book will get you all the way up the M40 without any problems at all.
Do you find your interests and hobbies help with your mental wellbeing working for yourself?
These days, I actually take some “me” time. Weather permitting Saturdays and Sundays I’ve got Cannock Chase about a mile from where I live, which is 12,500 acres of outstanding natural beauty.
I go up there with my earbuds and listen to a book for a couple of hours. So 8 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday and Sunday. I do the shopping on the way back on Saturday. But it’s “me” time, when I can walk, I could just sit, and I’ve got the book going in my ears, and I’m with nature breathing some fresh air for a change. And noise cancelling earphones are the best things in the world, it shuts out the yapping dogs and everything.
It's something I started doing, like 12 months ago now. And it’s made a big difference for me mentally as well. It’s because I can properly unwind at that point.
That’s the one thing about working for myself. I can go sometimes for three or four days, and my wife’s gonna thump me something stupid for this, but not talk to anybody. And I mean other than her, you know. For me it’s not about having people to talk to, it’s just having a presence around you. That you’re not alone in the world.
Going back to the engineering side, I have a fascination with history, and particularly with historical engineering. From the big stuff, you know, the Roman viaducts and roads and things, through to little things like the bow lathe so that you can turn a piece of wood using a sapling. And the ingenuity of people over the years using what they’ve got to create some amazing things.
I love listening to music as well. Quite often if I’m writing reports and things, I will have music on, and it sets the pace for the typing. So, I actually use it like a metronome. And I’m open to anything really, as long as it’s not opera. Sorry opera, it sounds like you’re trying to strangle a cat to me. But literally anything else from mediaeval chants through to punk and garage.
If you had a theme song for your self-employed career, what would it be?
The flippant answer is Enter the Gladiators or maybe the March of the Clowns. But what I came down to in the end was a choice of two. So, the theme from Star Trek: The Original Series. A bit like me, really, old, cheesy with lots of promise of adventure. Or Madness One Step Beyond. It’s got the beat. It drives you, makes you want to dance. And hopefully the business is the same. It makes me want to work, it makes me want to progress.
Is there anyone that inspires you in life or business?
In business no, not directly. I’ve never got hung up in that sense. Personally, Jackie Chan. The way he was left in Hong Kong by his parents when he was five as a Chinese Theatre School and he’s done it all himself.
Stephen Hawking’s proved that the body doesn’t limit the mind, incredibly inspirational. A friend introduced me, a couple of years ago now, to Mark Manson. I’m not going to repeat the name of his books, but his outlook on personal and mental strength and resilience you know, and making sure that you’re right. So you can make sure everybody else is right.
I’m a big fan of Edward de Bono as well. The structure of how we get you to think, things like the six thinking hats. I first met him by learning a game that he’d invented. An asymmetrical movement game that a friend had when I was 14 or 15. And then I did some creativity work and was introduced to things like six thinking hats.
And he’s definitely influenced the way I’ve designed things over the years. I’ve stepped back and looked from a different perspective. Hence me saying that it needs to be safe for everybody. Not just the road user, but the guy who puts the cones out, to protect the man who’s doing the repair. There’s a whole chain of other people there.
What does your typical workday look like?
At the minute, my general workday starts some time between 5 and 7 in the morning, with looking at emails on my phone. A lot of roadworks are done at night, because it’s safer, there’s less traffic. So schemes I’m working on or working with, quite often you get communications from people on site.
My wife works half eight till quarter to two, so I drop her at work and pick her up in the afternoon. So that gets me out of the house. In between, I do team calls, I provide training to people, it could be actual training events, it could be just sitting writing reports or researching. And I aim to wrap up between six and seven in the evening.
I’ve always done quite a long day. But I now take a 45-minute lunch break and eat three times a day. I used to eat sort of once a day. So I sleep better, and I’m a bit more mentally alert and things, which is good.
And there are distractions. You know “Oh, can you do this?” Because I work from home, and I’ve worked from home when I’ve not been on the road for the last 20 years. So, I’m used to it. But it means that you don’t necessarily work at 100%. And sometimes you get a distraction. You know, even the postman coming to the door and you lose your train of thought. So, it’s quite a long day, but it’s broken up.
I like that. And if I wasn’t enjoying it, I wouldn’t be doing it. I also do some work with the Australian and New Zealand Road Authorities. I’ve designed the training scheme for them, for all the road barriers across Australia and New Zealand. So I do have some Sunday nights where I work all night because it’s Monday for them.
Are there any apps or websites you check in with on a daily basis?
I use Pocket, which is linked to my Firefox account. A bit like Google cards. I’ve got my preferences set to give me a good variety of things for five minute reads. So rather than getting up from the desk, I can put that up and read like you’d read the paper and give yourself that mental break again.
I’m a member of the temporary works forum, and I get an email daily with the latest feeds within that. I use the National Highways website for specific information. Same with the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management, where I’m a member.
With regards to the actual work end of it, the DfT traffic statistics website. When you see the people out counting cars, it’s for the whole country and it’s all on a website. So when I’m evaluating what type of barrier is needed, sometimes I need to know what the traffic flow is and how it’s made up. The same with Gov.uk, there’s the reported road collision information which is quite horrific reading in places. The Highway Safety Hub for better practice, also HMRC because you have to.
Finally, how has IPSE membership helped you get started or grow so far?
I was introduced to IPSE by Markel, because they were the only ones that would give me the professional indemnity insurance that I needed. And there was a voucher. I started finding bits and bobs in the resource section and things quite quickly, I’ve attended a fair few webinars and I’ve done the Incubator program which was excellent.
People who are thinking about becoming self-employed would get such a lot out of the Incubator program. So, it’s not that cold shock on day one. The first day of the rest of your life is an exciting and horrible day. Cause you ain’t got anyone to tell you what to do anymore, but you haven’t got anybody to ask. So, Incubator has been invaluable.
The other thing was I met Kate Horwood through an IPSE program. So that on its own, with the mentoring she’s given me, and the guidance she’s given me, has more than paid for my membership.
I think without you ever knowing as such, you’ve been incredibly supportive. Because I haven’t necessarily needed to speak to somebody. But I’ve needed somebody I can ask, and the resources that are there means I’ve got the ask. And I know that it’s not just me with my problem.
Read the second interview:
It’s good to speak once again. Has anything changed in your business since the first time we talked about it?
I’ve become more focused, through my work with Kate Horwood. One of things we focused on is, when you start up, you’ve got a long list of things you can do, and you’re trying to keep everyone happy. Which doesn’t necessarily keep you mentally happy.
I’ve been getting frustrated over the last six months, in part because I’m trying to please everyone and doing a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and things are unfinished. So, Kate’s helping me to focus things down.
Also, some of the voluntary stuff that I initially perceived as advertising and valuable that way. You lose a day’s work but you’re seen out there. I’m well known enough that I don’t necessarily need to be seen. So, winding some of it back. I’ll still do working groups and things like that at a technical level, but not so much of the politicking at a committee level.
It doesn’t sound a lot when you say we meet two to three times a year. But when you add in all the stuff you have to review and everything else… There’s one committee, which I totted it up, and in the last six months they’ve had nine days of work from me at zero income.
I’m not cutting myself off, but I’m cutting those activities back. I think they’ve served their purpose, and shown that I’m still around, although I’m not employed anymore, I’m now self-employed. And without being funny, even if I did nothing for those nine days, that would be nine days of well-being. So, there’s a big win for me personally, and why I’m doing what I do.
Are you achieving a better work life balance by being self-employed?
I get this the wrong way round every time. I live to work. It’s work that drives me. I’m very lucky and this week is my 26th wedding anniversary. My wife has accepted the fact that I live to work. But I’m not living to work myself into a grave any more. The politics and things I find tiring? Why bother? Do what I enjoy doing, which adds value to me and adds value to the business.
It’s a really big sort of mental change for me. I don’t know what the long-term plans are, but if we talk again in six months, I probably will have settled again by then. And it’ll be interesting to read back from where I started to where I’m going with this journey.
Aside from improving the mix between work and life, what have been your biggest recent achievements or success?
I had a vision before I left employment with regards to the whole of the road restraint industry, which includes pedestrian guard rails, anti-glare veins and cattle grids. Because it’s a niche market, it’s not something you go to study. There’s not a career progression. There’s no actual formal training or requirements other than maybe if you’re a member of ICE and you’ve got to do CPD.
So, I had this vision for creating level four and six qualifications. I do lectures on this stuff, so there’s a need. I have a couple of clients at the minute - I’m doing eight-week courses on how to assess the need, and do you need to keep a piece of barrier? Again, through working with Kate, I’ve actually now started working on these things.
It’s an 18-month project, and I’ve had to find people to assist me with certain things, so there’s an element of management coming back in as well.
I also had an article published in the Temporary Works Forum Yearbook. It’s a strange one because I paid for it to be published, and I’ve produced a lot of papers that have gone to the government and all sorts of places over the years on cheap printer paper. But to just see one page on proper thick paper in a hardback book really felt amazing.
You design the course and qualifications, and then get them accredited?
I would go to an organisation, someone like City & Guilds or Lantra, who quality assures training and is registered with Ofqual, and then deliver the stuff, assess the stuff and everything else.
It’s something that I felt strong about for a long, long time. There’s a need there, and hopefully giving career progression.
Have any new problems or challenges cropped up for you or your business?
Yeah, pedestrian guardrails we see everywhere – quite often bent because things have driven into it. Again, there is nothing other than some very basic guidance for assessing if it’s needed. Even from some of my big clients, their maintenance departments throw numbers around that just don’t add up, because they only see the real cost of buying those new pieces. They don’t see the traffic management costs and everything else that goes around it.
Things like that get very expensive. The pedestrian side, while I’m aware of it and mechanically I understand how it works, the decision making will be a new adventure for me. And a learning experience so I continue to grow.
Outside of work, have you been caught up in any new books, films or hobbies?
I very rarely binge watch anything, but I got sucked into Youtube and watched all four series of Soap from the 1980s. And it was just as I remember it.
At the minute, I’m reading a Clive Cussler. Highly improbable and everything else, but a gripping yarn. It’s more what I’m listening to, because I listen to books as well when I drive. I’ve been listening to the latest Dune trilogy, which predates the films. Dune was the first book I bought, because I was on holiday and it was the biggest book in the shop I could afford. And I must admit, if I have a couple of hours of proper downtime, I quite often stick the 1984 film version on. There’s some good stuff in there, even if the effects are really dodgy.
Any new work-related websites or services you’ve found useful?
Nothing really new. There’s some stuff coming as National Highways are currently updating their specifications. Which they keep threatening me I’ve got to peer review again, as I did the last lot. Anybody that doesn’t do what I do would fall asleep with the first two lines, but for me it’s quite exciting.
And has your work routine or schedule adjusted at all?
I’ve had a lull in stopping up all night, which is not a bad thing, although I know there’s some more coming. Generally, I start sometime between 5 and 9 in the morning. And I aim to spend no more than 12 hours at my desk. So tomorrow I have a webinar at 5am, so I’ll definitely take my hour lunch break. It’s much the same, with breaks involved, but probably better controlled. That’s Kate’s fault for drumming into me about planning my day and things like that.
It's allowed me to spend a bit more time with friends in the evening. On a Saturday evening because I wasn’t still gardening and other things, I managed to get in some extra board game sessions. So, it’s something new, something different. And through controlling my week, it’s actually reflected on my leisure time as well.
Has IPSE membership been useful for you since we last spoke?
I already had access to some of the content via Markel, but that facility being open to other IPSE members is great. And I would have attended the Birmingham meetup but my diary runs for about three months, and I had something I couldn’t move.
I’m quite excited about the new IPSE membership levels. Having more filtered information, allowing you to join at a lower cost and find the real benefits, that’s brilliant. So, you can navigate your membership level to match what your business is doing better. I think it’s a very positive development for IPSE and for future memberships.