Director Systems Engineering and Safety Assurance.
A career in medicine was Plan A for Duncan Bender, Axess Advisory’s Director of Systems Engineering and Safety Assurance. “I fell into Engineering,” he laughs. “When I didn’t get into Medicine, I thought “I’ll just do a year of Engineering then try again”. But I never left. I had found what I was supposed to do!” South African-born Duncan completed his degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering with the University of Cape Town before heading to the United Kingdom where for the next 13 years he worked on mobile phone technologies as a radio frequency (RF) hardware designer with Lucent Technologies.
But by 2008 Duncan and his Danish wife Nicola, knew the United Kingdom wasn’t the right place for their young sons Luke and Seth to grow up in. “It felt overcrowded and stressful in the UK, and by the time the global financial crisis (GFC) erupted, we knew it was time to leave,” recalls Duncan. “We considered other countries but decided upon Australia. We were chasing sunshine.” Unfortunately for Duncan, the GFC had also hit Australia and by the time he arrived in 2009, the role he’d been hired for had gone. “It was a difficult time,” he remembers.
Roles in UGL, Aurecon and Systra followed for Duncan before in 2020, a short informal chat with Bobby and Dierk at the Axess Advisory office ended hours later with a shared vision and a role for Duncan at the company. The rest, as they say, is history.
Let’s get to know Duncan a little better.
Tell us about yourself Duncan?
I was born and raised in South Africa. I had a fantastic 10 years in Cape Town during my university studies and early career. It's a wonderful place to live - sometimes you only realise how good a place is when you leave it. But work opportunities were limited, and I knew I’d have to go to Johannesburg or the Midrand to progress my career, but they were both unstable and unsafe. So, I left South Africa for the United Kingdom where my siblings were living – it just made more sense. Even after all these years, I think of Cape Town fondly - it’s still one of the more beautiful places I’ve been. But I can see how much both the city and myself have changed, and I don’t quite fit in.
Although Engineering was a second choice after Medicine, I must have always had an inclination for the skillset required for this discipline. I enjoy detail and finding novel solutions and with Engineering, in particular RF engineering, the focus is on the detail. It’s the difference between something working or not.
More recently I have acquired an interest in business management and followed this by completing an MBA at the University of Newcastle in 2018.
What is your role at Axess Advisory?
As Director of Systems Engineering and Safety Assurance, being responsible for the safety aspect of infrastructure projects has been my greatest learning. Safety should never be understated or underestimated. The design phase of an infrastructure project is the only time to plan for, design and ultimately deliver infrastructure that has safety at its heart. By not factoring in safety during design is a missed opportunity – there is little you can do afterwards. ‘Safe by design’ is our objective. There is a great responsibility being involved in the design of infrastructure in the rail corridor.
As it turns out, systems engineering and safety assurance is an ideal fit for me because I’m accustomed to applying an increased level of detail which is needed in this role. I have to be meticulous in the analysis, planning, application and integration of all the system safety aspects. Not only do I need to demonstrate this, but I need to convey it to others so this safety knowledge and understanding can be passed on.
What do you love about your job?
First and foremost, our clients are my priority – I enjoy interacting with a client and reaching an agreement together about what they need, the services we can offer and what impact they’ll have. Ultimately our goal is to meet our client’s needs and expectations.
Secondly, it’s about ensuring everyone within our organisation is able to do the best they can. I like understanding where people are in their careers and looking for ways we can offer variation so they’re not pigeonholed in their roles. It’s important everyone feels relevant, valued and supported.
We all share a similar ethos in wanting to make our workplace somewhere team members can thrive and deliver. We have an ethical approach with both our clients and employees – we treat people with fairness, respect and we try to empower them. Everyone has a voice at Axess.
What excites you about the future?
I’m excited by the idea of Axess Advisory providing a broader range of expertise which will enable us to offer and deliver turnkey solutions as an organisation. I also see Axess growing intentionally and with cohesion, taking consideration of the areas we want to focus on and protecting the culture as we grow.
What inspires you, Duncan?
I’ve always been inspired by people in higher authority who show respect to those at different levels in an organisation. You get the best out of a person when they’re happy, and when they feel valued, relevant and know they’re contributing. If you don’t show respect, then that diminishes all of that.
What do you like doing outside work? How do you relax?
Outside work I enjoy spending time with my family, being active in my church and I love being outdoors. I’ve dabbled in multiple sports over the years from karate, horse-riding and mountain biking, to kayaking and motorcycle riding. Interestingly, the most relaxing sport I’ve done is traditional rock climbing - you can only focus on one thing and that’s staying on the rock, everything else on your mind has to disappear. The elation and rejuvenation experienced after having safely completed a challenging climb is unparalleled. That’s the ultimate form of relaxation.