CEO Davide Vassallo on DSS' growth as an independent firm

18 December 2020 10 min. read

DuPont Sustainable Solutions became an independent consultancy following a carve out last year. Speaking to, Chief Executive Officer Davide Vassallo discusses how the firm’s new freedom has enabled it to be more agile and flexible in its response and expand into new areas, even during the global pandemic.

An environmental engineer by background, Vassallo’s personal goal is “to leave the planet better than how I found it – I don’t know if I will be successful, but I am working hard on it.” Vassallo joined DuPont Sustainable Solutions (DSS) a decade ago having previously served as head of the sustainability practice of a strategic consultancy.

Over the course of his eight years at DuPont, Vassallo rose to become Vice President & Global Managing Director with the firm’s consulting arm, DuPont Sustainable Solutions, before a milestone carve-out in September 2019 saw him become the leader of the newborn independent consultancy. According to the chief executive, the firm has been able to live up to a greater potential than it could have realised as part of a global conglomerate.

Davide Vassallo, Chief Executive Officer, DuPont Sustainable Solutions

Vassallo elaborates, “Under DuPont, we were a small part of the portfolio, so we weren’t necessarily the priority and did not have the commitment behind us to grow as fast as we could… As an independent firm the board is fully committed, which allows us to make quick, focused decisions to drive growth.”

On the journey so far, Vassallo stated, “We achieved our goals by setting up a new company with a different structure – we transferred 99% of our clients and people to the new company, and ensured a smooth migration of IT [supported by a new ERP system] and operations. A huge achievement, and one that has laid a solid foundation for the company’s future. I have to thank our clients and people for their support.”

On a personal level, “for me the highlight is how committed everyone now feels. By unlocking our inner energy we are taking control of our own careers… Being independent has given us so much more room to accommodate entrepreneurship, and allowed our team to take ownership of our work – and expand into new areas of business.”

One example he points to is that while “we were barred from working for an asset management company,” as it would have been a conflict of interest with the broader business of DuPont, DSS is now working with several major players in the space, and with the private equity sector on optimising their asset management portfolios.

Coming through Covid

While Covid-19 has threatened to wipe out around a fifth of the consulting market’s revenues in 2020 due to a fallout in discretionary spending, DuPont Sustainable Solutions finds itself in a healthy position despite the pandemic. Not only has DSS protected existing jobs, but it has expanded its headcount during the crisis – something Vassallo believes has already paid dividends.

At a time when many rivals were contemplating on resource cutting plans, DSS took a bold decision to “protect all existing jobs”, signalling the firm’s intent to put its people first, and acknowledging the fact that talent is – as with any professional services firm – at the heart of its success. “It was one of the best decisions I ever made as a leader,” Vassallo recalls.

“Just after Covid-19 broke out, as a leadership team we spoke with the people on the ground, and the biggest anxiety was around job security. We convinced the board that safeguarding jobs is key for the commitment and engagement of people, and that we would be able to reap the dividends in due course.”

Fast forward more than six months to a second pandemic wave, this has allowed DSS to “never interrupt our relationships with and services to clients,” says Vassallo. “We worked quickly to redesign the scope of our projects, the modes of delivery – and since May we have seen around 90% of our portfolio come back.”

In fact, facing growing demand in some lines of work, DSS has even “brought more people on board,” closing its first financial year as an independent firm with a larger headcount. Health and safety management is a booming area in the pandemic, as is operations optimisation since many organisations are anxious to secure their future in these uncertain times.

“Our purpose is also to save lives and reduce footprint. I am proud that, despite Covid-19, we have been able to help companies achieve that in the last year.”

“There is a heightened focus on building a resilient organisation. That is not just about how good your products or technology are; it’s also about how good a company is for its people. Are they safe, are they healthy? Is the organisation making the most of both its tangible and intangible assets so it can manage Covid-induced market volatility? These aspects are key for agility and for a successful bounce-back towards the new normal.”

DSS is ideally positioned to help its clients with the multidisciplinary challenges that come into play. The consultancy prides itself on its unique expertise in working on mindsets and behaviours to achieve lasting organisational change and has a long history of highly successful culture transformation projects in operations and health and safety.

Looking ahead, “the number of proposals in the pipeline for this line of project is unbelievable,” Vassallo shares. “Our role is to help customers turn their operations into a competitive advantage.”

Client ownership

Another area enjoying heightened interest is around the implementation of new technologies and business models. “Covid-19 has accelerated the need to digitise services and operating models, and triggered shifts in consumer and employee demands, among others. With an end-to-end offering, we can take on the role of transformation partner.”

Again, Vassallo points to the importance of what is labelled “the soft side” of business. At present, around 70% of DSS’ work relates to people capabilities, management systems and culture – “without taking this into account, companies face the very real risk of failing to implement change, and missing out on their potential,” says the chief executive.

Asked about the firm’s differentiator, Vassallo describes “mindsets and behaviours” as the “magic” behind the firm’s approach.” At DSS, “we integrate people and change into all our methodologies and work”, and on top that, the firm’s consultants typically bring extensive experience in industry that complements their consultant role.

“Having been in our clients’ shoes, our teams do not just advise, but also coach on the mindset and behaviour of people facing change. This coaching programme can run up to two years for the largest and most complex transformations, as DSS stays with clients “until they are ready to take ownership of their project.”

Track record

This approach is typically used to help improve engagement for companies focused on industrial assets, including manufacturing plants and refineries. Among the clients DuPont Sustainable Solutions works for are Nissan, ThyssenKrupp, Velux, Danone, American Airlines, Tata Steel, E.ON Benelux, Pemex Gas, Eurochem, Siemens Gamesa, SBB Cargo, Elecnor, Super Bock and Nestlé Logistik.

One project Vassallo is particularly proud of relates to a water conversion facility in Saudi Arabia. The Saline Water Conversion Corporation, a government company in the Kingdom, asked DSS to help increase production of drinkable water. Speaking on a project “very close to my heart,” Vassallo says, “In a few months, we were able to facilitate an increase of 1.4 million metric cubic water production – right in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert.”

To put this into perspective, total consumption in the kingdom is around 5.5 million, so “this makes a massive difference for a lot of people.” Holding a key role on the project, DSS “worked with the client’s engineers to change how they managed their assets.”

The key lesson? “In the end, it wasn’t about investing in new technology or assets; it was about investing in people to enable them to work in a more efficient way.” The increase achieved from existing facilities is almost equivalent to the output of a new desalination plant which would cost close to $3.5 billion to construct.

Recognised as the world’s top health and safety consultancy for four years in a row, DSS is increasingly also making a name for itself in the operational excellence field, working with companies globally to improve end-to-end operations.

The journey continues…

Looking ahead, Vassallo says that the firm has stipulated a long-term growth strategy. “We are still one of the smaller global consulting firms” but, combined with a bright outlook for its core areas of expertise and confidence in the firm’s positioning, “we hope to double in three years.”

Most of the growth will be realised organically, but when opportunities pop up, the consultancy will turn to M&A – just as it did with Lodestone Partners in February 2020.

Emerging economies, Asia plus the Middle East are key target markets, as there many business models can still be improved by way of best practices. While many companies in the firm’s stronghold of Europe and the US believe they have “reached a plateau”, there is still room to improve efficiency, digitise operations and transition to new ways of working, as well as transform organisations through innovative behaviour-based solutions.

Beyond growth, DSS is also committed to Vassallo’s personal goal to “leave the planet better than how we found it” – something which helps to further energise the firm as it looks to expand. Vassallo concludes, “We have a strong belief in corporate social responsibility. When we think about the good we can do as an organisation, we think very hands on.”

For example, DSS recently enabled all its employees to donate one workday to local NGOs. “Each office identified one small local pro bono project to support. Here in the Swiss office, for example, we dedicated our time to sorted and packed food for people in need. In India, we provided technical support to schools bringing kids in from the street.”

Concluding the interview, Vassallo sums up, “When DSS decided to separate from DuPont, we wanted to bring together the best of two worlds – the experience from our heritage with top management consulting capabilities – to help our customers achieve significant value gains with practical, people-focused support. Unlike many other consultancies, our purpose is not just to improve operational performance by uncovering hidden value for our clients and enabling them to make the most of their own potential. Our purpose is also to save lives and reduce footprint. I am proud that, despite Covid-19, we have been able to help companies achieve that in the last year.”