With Rafael Fernández, Ferrovial Director of Innovation, we review his professional career, his personal interests and his vision for this area of the company in the short and long term. A sentence sums up his vision: “Innovation is a lever for market leadership and the quest for competitive advantages”.
Born in Bilbao to an engineer father and a doctor mother, Rafa hesitated between these two professions during his student years at the French Lycée and the Jesuit college of Vizcaya’s capital city. These doubts have their origin in the lack of interest he had in sciences in those early years. In later primary school years, a teacher with a lack of foretelling skills predicted that “he would end up asking for money in churches”, he remembers amid laughter.
He studied the baccalaureate with the Jesuits, “where I learned to coexist with diversity and love the science subjects” which he had hitherto struggled with, he says. This made him decide to go for Telecommunications Engineering, which he studied at Deusto University. “The degree taught me the value of effort and of working hard”.
He took his first professional steps at Idom, in the telecommunications area for transport infrastructures. He then joined Abengoa to work on Telvent within the urban mobility area, as project manager for the payment systems of the Bilbao, Madrid and Barcelona metros. He set out on a meteoric international career loaded down with growing responsibilities and filled with dozens of trips around America and Asia between 2004 and 2006. In this period he was Project Manager for different payment systems in the metros of Tianjin in China, Monterrey in Mexico, and Caracas in Venezuela. After a reorganization in 2008, he was appointed Mobility Director for Asia-Pacific, with responsibility for operations in China, India, Southeast Asia and Australia. “They set a very high bar for me when I was 28”, he says. With the sale of Telvent to Schneider Electric en 2011, he started to work in the Strategy Area in Paris. “I was the only one who spoke French”, he tells us.
In September 2013 he joined Ferrovial. “My third child was born with a silver spoon in the shape of the last interview before joining Ferrovial”. In 2014 he was transferred to the Competence Centre for Cities with Iñigo Jodra. He reviews everything he has learned from his bosses throughout his career. “I learned from all of them, from the good ones what to do and from the bad ones what not to do. From some I learned strategic reasoning (I had always been in execution). From others, qualities for enabling me to lead a cross-sectional area”.
“At Ferrovial I very quickly learned the difference in management in regard to other companies, and I found it interesting to see the focus placed on priority markets, financial rigour and decision-taking ability at all levels”, says Rafa.
We have to confront today’s challenges and anticipate and explore those of tomorrow as a team, capturing value in a tangible way
In 2016 he joined the Innovation Area as Coordinator “to help in structuring the different innovation activities being undertaken in Ferrovial Servicios”. Later he joined the Innovation and Change Management headed by Andrés Camacho and lastly the corporation with Federico Flórez.
In this new, recently opened stage, he is immersed in a new Strategic Innovation Plan for Ferrovial. “To lead the future of infrastructures and services, Ferrovial has to be more Ferrovial, it doesn’t need to be Google”, Rafa says confidently. “We are looking to accelerate innovation with agile methodologies to develop Ferrovial’s new competitive advantages in our markets. The key is to generate value through collaboration and share knowledge amongst us all, and this is achieved through cross-cutting programmes. “We have to confront today’s challenges and anticipate and explore those of tomorrow as a team, capturing value in a tangible way”.
For Rafael it is very important to support business and to seek out the impact innovation makes on the operations. “Technology is so attractive that everything seems important, and that can make you lose focus. You have to zero in on mature technologies that make an impact on the business in the short term. We have to own developments with major impact, for example in the field of management based on data and machine learning”.
But we also have to anticipate and explore the disruptive technologies that will shape the company’s future, as is the case with digital mobility or self-driving vehicles. “To succeed in disruptive business models, we don’t have to be first, we have to be agile in implementing them in a profitable way”, insists Rafa. This is why, from a comprehensive perspective, Rafa considers that “we have to strengthen our relationship with the world’s most powerful innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystems such as Israel or Silicon Valley, but also develop those that contribute on a local scale in Texas or Sydney. Those are the ones that help you to develop your business organically”, he concludes.
“Innovation is based on generating connections, it consists of joining together two topics with no apparent relationship, giving them sense and looking for their profitability”. For Rafael, a key element in innovation is creativity, which “has to be an ongoing process and not the task of one department only. We have to make it happen more often”.
Our conversation ends with him remembering his holidays in Lekeitio, “the town that is furthest away from a highway in the whole of the Basque coastline”, fishing with friends and preparing conserves of marmitako stew and albacore tuna.