Staff retention and close work with contractors underpin Dr Sauer & Partners’ success, enabling it to punch above its weight on major projects.
Few engineering firms have as strong a heritage as Dr Sauer & Partners.
With a mission statement that says “passion for perfection”, its Austrian founder Dr Gerhard Sauer, a pioneer of sprayed concrete linings in tunnels, has created a firm which lives up to the Germanic stereotype of engineering excellence.
Pioneering NATM work
Sauer’s work with Austrian academics was pivotal in the development of the New Austrian Tunnelling Method, now one of the most widely-used tunnelling methods worldwide. Sauer was involved in its first application in Frankfurt in 1970.
But does its new UK managing director, Brian Lyons, see this heritage as a help or hindrance?
“Both,” he says. “My job is to harness all that is good about the logical, rigorous, structured and their passion for perfection – that’s the mission statement of the company, and I think that’s true, but I’d like to temper that a bit with the realities of running a business with multiple clients and multiple work areas. It’s striving for that balance of the Austrian heritage and the realities of the UK market.”
Lyons, a civil engineer, started as the firm’s managing director in February, having previously worked with the firm for several years as a project manager. He took over from Gerald Skalla, who headed up the UK division before heading to Toronto to grow one of the firm’s overseas operations.
We know how to speak contractor, how to communicate with contractors, so what we deliver is very efficient and very constructable
For a small firm - the headcount of its permanent technical staff is less than 100 – Dr Sauer & Partners has a big presence on some major projects. Building on the success of its work on Crossrail and Transport for London (TfL) projects, including the current Bank Station capacity upgrade, the firm is also working for Arup on Crossrail 2 and on the Euston Station designs to make it High Speed 2 (HS2) ready.
“It’s amazing how, for a relatively small company, the profile of some of the projects we get involved in is quite disproportionate. It is because of the type of tunnelling we do,” says Lyons. “Because we have worked on London Underground (LU) we have been able to bring innovation from project to project and lessons learned with the client have grown with time.”
One key element of the firm’s working style is to get contractors on board with plans and designs as soon as possible.
Working with contractors
“We know how to speak contractor, how to communicate with contractors, so what we deliver is very efficient and very constructable.
“We do a lot of co-location, go and sit with contractors, bring our team with them and then spend a lot of time before construction, planning the best way to fit their plant, their methods into the design and then making sure it’s a safe quick, lean, design, and that sets us apart from the market.”
Before work started on the Bank upgrade, a team from Dr Sauer would go up to the Crossrail site where the construction manager who was lined up for the Bank job was working. They would meet with him, his foreman and even the plant fitter. The firm invested money in building information modelling so it could give contractors and clients the best picture of what it planned to do.
“It took a bit of commitment traipsing out there every week… but the more work you do with contractors and clients showing them what you’re going to do, that’s how you get the best out of contractors, get what’s in their head and work it through to a buildable solution,” he says.
“It makes sense. Why would you not spend time working through the finer details rather than being adversarial? It is just the way we work.”
It was this collaborative working which saw the firm make the Trending20 list in this year’s NCE100.
What caught the panellists’ attention was the collaboration between LU, Dragados and Dr Sauer at the Bank Station capacity upgrade, where primary and secondary tunnel linings designed in combination led to significantly reduced excavation and concrete volumes.
The firm also worked on the development of a new radial joint design which eliminated the need for entry to the area of freshly sprayed concrete, ultimately making tunnelling at Bank a safer process. An operative was killed in such an area on the Crossrail project, so the risk at Bank was very real.
“Up till the Bank station project, operatives would have had to go into the face underneath the freshly sprayed concrete and the excavation face, and physically install a former at the joint location,” says Lyons.
“We have taken that element of work out by mechanising that joint formation and spending some time on the detail of that joint.”
With a reputation for being at the cutting edge of technical innovation, how does Lyons foster that sort of thinking at a management level?
We like permanent employees. We like long term relationships so we really have a very low turnover of staff
“One thing we never do is have a ‘typical detail’, we don’t believe in that,” he says. “We believe in looking at every problem on its own merits and working through it until you come up with the optimal solution. My job is to get the right people and foster the right environment.”
Lyons says the ethos at the firm is one of respect and through its recruitment process it works hard to find people who are delivering high quality products.
Dr Sauer has a diverse workforce, with a high proportion of international staff and more than half of its staff are women.
“We like permanent employees. We like long term relationships so we really have a very low turnover [of staff], and we see some of the large companies have very high turnovers and just can’t see how they can possibly give clients confidence or deliver continuity in the product, so we work very hard, once it’s the right person, to make sure that lasts.”
On his plate for the foreseeable future are the firm’s first apprenticeships, as well as plans to take on more work in areas such as geotechnical and temporary works.
Like many SMEs he says the procurement process can be cumbersome and costly, but there is plenty of work on the horizon.
There are some big London Underground projects ahead, including upgrades at Holborn and Camden Town stations, which it is bidding for. But Lyons would like to work more outside London, and has an eye on the Stonehenge tunnel – Lyons will only say the firm is “teaming up” at this stage.