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Californian realism

MWH won 90% of its AMP4 bids and is today the UK's leading water consultant. Where next-Jackie Whitelaw finds out.

When I was a competitor to MWH I could see the company was changing markets by helping clients understand what they wanted rather than reacting to a straight demand, ' says the company's new senior employee David Nickols. Nickols joined the business last month as chief operating officer for Europe, Middle East, Africa and India (EMEAI) from the role of Europe boss for Black & Veatch.

In the recent AMP4 negotiations with the UK utilities the approach paid off in style.

MWH won work with United Utilities, Yorkshire, Southern, Thames and Northumbria Water.

'Our key success factor was listening to our clients and hearing what they really wanted, and then structuring ourselves and our partners in a way to deliver on the specific needs of that client, ' says Nickols' boss, MWH EMEAI president Rich Wankmuller.

'The best demonstration of how well we listened is that we took a different role in the delivery chain with each and every client and won over 90% of the competitions we competed in.' The business has significant roots in California so it is perhaps not surprising to discover that MWH, rather like a west coast American psychiatrist, wants to understand its clients' motivations. In the more freewheeling days of the 70s when Wankmuller joined the company it probably would have wanted to give them a real life hug too. But Wankmuller says MWH is now more businesslike in its approach, with the cuddles for clients being more metaphorical than actual.

'Making a profit was added into our strategy in the mid-90s, ' he says disarmingly. That was around the time that US water specialist James Montgomery joined with UK water business Watson Hawkesley. In 2000 it was joined by energy and hydroelectric consultancy Harza.

'We had to take very family oriented cultures and inject business discipline without destroying the soul, ' Wankmuller explains.

The results seem to suggest that has been achieved.

'From a $90M (£51M) business we have grown to $1.1bn (£625M) today, with 175 offices in 43 countries, ' he says. The soul - wanting to empathise and share knowledge with clients for the benefit of all parties - seems to have survived and is the major differentiator that is helping the business expand, Wankmuller believes.

The style of US companies operating outside their national borders has come in for some flak recently (NCE 1 September).

But Nickols can report that MWH has avoided those problems.

'They have exceeded my expectations in being a different cultural set up, ' he says. 'There are a lot of US managers but there a number of non US managers too.' Wankmuller believes that the fact the business went international with the Watson Hawksley merger before it went national in the US has also helped create an open, diverse culture.

For the future, the plan is to grow 15% a year in revenue, profit and people. There are new international markets to explore - particularly Jordan and Gaza, new areas of work such as ports and nuclear decommissioning (see box) and new types of work like 'business solutions' which includes helping water companies automate to cut operating costs.

In terms of people, MWH wants to be the ubiquitous 'employer of choice'. It is one of the few consultants keen to get as many of its staff as want to working overseas and it sets great store by training - to the extent it has set up its own MWH university offering courses in anything from giving presentations to project management.

'People are at the forefront of what we are trying to do and we can only grow as a company when we grow our people as a whole, ' Wankmuller says.

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