Over the last two decades, US-based global engineering consultant Aecom has been acquiring businesses and increasingly picking up contracts across Europe. New chief executive for Europe Steve Morriss
talks to Antony Oliver about his plans.
Since Aecom’s formation in 1990 - the result of a management buyout of petrochemical consultant Ashland Technology - the engineering consultant has relentlessly and unashamedly pursued its agenda for growth.
The result has been to create, in just two decades, a global engineering business with 50,000 staff and tentacles extending across virtually every sector and throughout every region in the world.
Steve Morriss is Aecom’s new chief executive for Europe and he is clearly keen to continue the growth and success in this region - a process which kicked off in 2000 with the purchase of long established UK consultant Maunsell which it quickly merged with equally established UK firm Oscar Faber.
“Aecom is quite an acquisitive business - clearly,” says Morriss. “But its approach to acquisition has been pretty gentle and collaborative. So there is a lot of talk about merger partners and while that sounds like simply a phrase, it is actually the approach that we’ve taken - a genuine meeting of minds.
“A single name makes it simpler but it means that we have work to do to bring everyone together”
Of course, in line with Aecom’s recent rebranding strategy, the majority of the historic names are now deliberately consigned to the past in favour of presenting a single unambiguous brand and service to clients.
There are still a few exceptions, notably cost consultant Davis Langdon which still trades under its own name. But on the whole, the firm now strives to offer clients a single identity across the globe.
And as Morriss points out, the move to badge its entire operation as Aecom brings with it simplicities and complications. Clearly integrating a business of the scale of Davis Langdon into Aecom is a major challenge and, he says, one that cannot be rushed.
“We’ll know when the time is right [to drop the Davis Langdon name] and it will be when it is most effective for our customers rather than any internally imposed deadline,” he says.
“A single name makes it simpler but it means that we have got work to do to bring everyone together. We need to get clients talking about not only what they loved about each business before but how we can now add to the service that they were getting.”
Morriss is a civil engineer and joined Aecom in January this year from Mouchel where he spent three years running the government business services division.
“We know that we can’t be all things to all people. We also know that we need to keep a mix of small and larger projects”
Before that he spent a decade with Serco “out of engineering” as he describes it, working in IT outsourcing having been poached from Atkins’ Advance Technology division where he set up and ran its early nuclear business.
Clearly he left Mouchel at a difficult point in the firm’s history as it battles to recover from the turmoil of months spent defending hostile takeover bids and courting suitable merger partners.
However, he maintains that his move to Aecom had nothing to do with any problems at Mouchel and declares nothing but warm feelings and admiration for chief executive Richard Cuthbert and the management team that he left behind.
His new role brings with its own challenges as Morriss now leads all aspects of Aecom’s business in Europe, with more than 5,000 employees serving clients in 21 countries.
But he says that at Aecom he is surprised how much he enjoys being back around engineers and engineering.
He accepts that the business is still operating in a very challenging market. Last year saw civil and structures staff numbers fall to 1,760 from 2,636 as the business cut back and made redundancies as workload fell away.
“There was pretty dramatic downsizing of the business about 18 months ago and that was in line with pretty much everybody else in the industry,” he says, adding that the headline figures didn’t necessarily paint an accurate picture of the business. “Clearly the UK is a difficult market. But I guess if you take along term view of the European market, yes it may be down globally but we still expect it to double in size over the next 10 years.”
Morriss says that it is the proliferation of world class engineers and technical staff across the business - from global chief executive John Dionisio down through the ranks - which excites him. His goal for Aecom is to deliver to clients what he describes as “world class performance”.
Getting the right people into the business is crucial, he adds, pointing out that the company has just recruited the rump of Arup’s acclaimed sports design team. Led by J Parrish this team delivered much of the Beijing Olympic Park.
However, he is also clear that growth in the future will also be about organic growth and developing existing teams and businesses.
“We are staffing up and the great challenge is to take a long term view and that is what we have started to do,” he explains, pointing out that Aecom’s scale means allows it to make the vital longer term investments in staff and resources that its smaller competitors are often unable
“We will for example more that treble the amount of new graduates that we take on next year,” he says. “Things like training and development - which we have just increased significantly - and pay rises will continue.”
Increasing Aecom’s share of the European market is his goal. Morriss says that right now, compared to other parts of the business, his division punches significantly below its weight.
“If you look at the scale of the European market and our share of that then it remains pretty small,” he says.
“If you take somewhere like the US, if we had the same market share in Europe, then we would be at least five times the size. If we had the same market share in Europe as we have in Hong Kong or Australia then we would be 10 times the size here.”
Russia and Turkey
He points to growing markets in Russia and Turkey as being high on his radar and adds that the heart of what the firm does will remain technical hence the need to boost its numbers of engineers, architects, environmentalists, planners, and quantity surveyors - “the roots of the business”.
Aecom’s recent global reorganisation has delivered a matrix structure so that key projects across distinct business lines can be approached globally. Former European chief executive Ken Dalton, for example, now runs the global building engineering business and so runs his eye across all the major opportunities in that field to decide which region should take the lead.
The result, explains Morriss, is that for young engineers coming into the business there is plenty of potential opportunity to travel and work on major projects abroad.
“Aecom has set itself up to be a global business. A graduate who wants to travel would get opportunity,” he says.
“Fine if they want to stay in the UK, but if they are prepared to travel than that is even better for us.”
Multidisciplinary is key
Winning roles on multidisciplinary flagship projects such as Crossrail in London where Aecom is part of the Transcend programme management consortium, or in Russia on the new Spartak Moscow stadium - is key to making the firm attractive to new staff and means new graduates will get exposed to a raft of experiences.
But while Aecom’s scale means it is able to potentially get involved in the world’s greatest infrastructure projects,
Morriss is equally insistent that the business is also about generating profit. That means pricing jobs properly and introducing innovation and real value for money for clients.
“We expect to be growing next year and growing even more strongly the year after that, but while we need to stretch ourselves we have to have a target that we think we can achieve,” he says. “We know that we can’t be all things to all people we also know we need to keep a mix of small and large projects. We have to play to our strengths and our strengths are in our scale.”