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Bucking the American dream

Cover story - When US firms bought UK consultants they were expected to blast all opposition aside. But so far UK competitors claim to have been undisturbed.Bernadette Redfern investigates.

'WHEN WE hear of another US company buying up one of our competitors we just think 'Yes', ' says the chief executive of one of the UK's biggest consultants.

'They just aren't as competitive as we are, ' he shrugs.

Another consultancy chief executive agrees: 'We Brits don't like to sound smug but I don't think there is too much to worry about from the US fi rms. I would say that being taken over by a US business makes companies less competitive, ' he says.

Most of the US owned firms who moved into the UK in the last few years have done so through mergers and acquisition.

Initially, many predicted that it was the start of a global dominance over the UK market. But looking at NCE's Consultants File it is clear that over the past five years US owned firms have remained steady and in some cases slipped down the league table in terms of fee earning and staff numbers.

The result is that UK consultants do not seem to think that they have anything to worry about from their American counterparts. But why is this?

After all, US consultants have successfully moved to dominate other markets such as Australia.

Who is to say they will not do the same in the UK?

'They just don't punch their weight, ' says the first-mentioned chief executive. 'The evidence is apparent. If these companies were moving into the market by acquiring a 1,000 strong team and growing organically to 2,000 then we would have something to worry about. But that is not happening, ' he says.

The common perception among the consultants contacted by NCE was that US owned firms are not as light on their feet because decisions are increasingly being referred to the US. This slows down processes and leaves both clients and UK-based staff frustrated.

For evidence look no further than US owned consultant Black & Veatch. European MD David Nickols left earlier this year as the company embarked on a restructuring exercise, exerting more control from its Kansas City head offi ce to improve performance (News 18/25 August).

'It is well known that the company wants more direct control from the US. As it was I was spending 25% of my time there, ' he said (NCE 9 June).

Sources within the company claim that morale among staff has dropped as this control is exercised. 'Even decisions on pay rises for junior staff are being made in Kansas City. It's ridiculous, ' says one disgruntled employee. 'Unless you happen to be hanging around the coffee machine in Kansas you have no say or sway over what is happening in the UK regardless of your job title, ' says another.

NCE contacted several US owned firms to explore this idea, starting with US giant Jacobs, which acquired Scottish based Babtie last year (NCE 1 July 2004) following the acquisition of Gibb in 2001, but we were told: 'I am sorry but we are not authorised to speak to you from here. You will need to contact our Pasadena offi ce.' But many US-owned consultants deny that local management are unable to make important decisions. 'MWH operational decisions are taken locally, within MWH, ' says vice chairman Ken Farrer, a Briton.

'The only matters that need to go back to Denver for approval are nominations for new shareholders and of course the annual budget that has to link into the company's global strategy.' Other sources agree: 'Much of this ill feeling is UK consultants thinking that people are stepping on their territory, it is an excuse for professional jealousy, ' says one engineer who asked not to be named.

Both FaberMaunsell and Parsons Brinckerhoff also deny that there is a problem. PB came into the UK in the 1990s with the acquisition of Merz & McLellan in 1994 and Kennedy & Donkin in 1998. 'We don't see (over-control from the US) in Parsons Brinckerhoff. All decisions are made where it makes most sense. One needs to have empowered regional management and Parsons Brinckerhoff has that, ' says PB Environment divisional director Peter Kydd.

What is more, he says, the organisation draws on directors from across the world when putting together its five year strategy. 'It's a very democratic organisation. Our strategic planning is done by a group of 25 directors from all over the world who get together to update our five year plan, ' he says.

But for some British engineers working for US owned fi rms, deferred decision-making is not the only issue they have with head offi ce. 'Some US firms don't understand the way that the UK business operates. To someone sitting in Nebraska having more than one office in Scotland looks wasteful but we know that it's needed if you are going to pick up on all the local nuances, ' says one senior source.

'There is definitely a one size fits all approach that some US companies try to enforce. To sell a project you have to have local understanding and knowledge and I think that many US firms are too insular to understand this, ' says a top industry director.

MWH admits that this might once have been true, but says US consultants have learned from past mistakes: 'This may have been the case for some things when the merger fi rst took place in 1992, ' says Farrer.

'But a great deal of effort is now put to developing processes and procedures through consultation that can be applied anywhere in the company and this helps staff when they move around the world. Not all the good brains are based in the US.

The US market is highly political and the expectation from a US perspective is that all global markets are the same. The key is understanding the differences, and this is why we rarely market work where we do not already have a presence, and are therefore able to understand the local politics and nuances.' PB director Peter Kydd points out that not seizing market share does not mean that the companies are failing. 'We are not a company to grow for growth's sake. If there is less work in a market then we don't try. For the past three years we have been pretty stable although there have been some variations within units. Some have grown very quickly and others have followed the market where that has fallen, ' he says.

As one US consultant points out, growing the UK market is not a priority for many of the US owned companies. These fi rms are looking to compete on a global stage and need to be of a certain size to be able to do that, which is why they bought in to the UK in the first place.

Therefore maintaining a thriving business is the goal; additional growth is a bonus. So for the time being at least, it looks as if Atkins, Mott MacDonald and Arup will continue to be the UK's top three fee earners.

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