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Coffey shows its teeth

Australian-based consultant Coffey Geotechnics has recently made a name for itself by buying UK firms. Damon Schünmann talks to its chief executive officer Matt Thomas about growth strategy and what 2008 might have in store.

Coffey Geotechnics has been busy on the acquisition trail with the purchase of Edge Consultants in October 2006 and, more recently, with Webber Associates (GE December 2007) bringing its UK head count to about 75. But it is not stopping there.

Sitting with Australian-based chief executive officer Matt Thomas an analogy of Coffey being a great white shark from "down under" seems unfair. He comes across as passionate about both geotechnics as well as what the firm has to offer its acquisitions.

"One of our engineers said the other day: 'I've had this problem and sent off an email to Harry [Harry Poulos, Coffey Geotechnics senior principal, Rankine lecturer and world expert on pile design]. Before I know it he's sent a prompt reply.' And this guy's so unassuming – but he's a demigod," says Thomas.

He continues: "The strategy is to create an enduring company where people can come and work on interesting projects and have the opportunity to pick up the phone and call Harry or John Atkinson [professor of soil mechanics and also a senior principal at the firm].

But Thomas wants to make clear that the planned expansion is not just about growth by acquisition. "People will come and join up organically because they get the opportunity to access some of the world's best technical knowledge."

This of course, comes from someone who works for Coffey, but he is keen to illustrate the point: "One of our engineers spent a day with John Atkinson and said it was like getting an MSc in one day. John explained a problem he had been grappling with for several years and he said 'I was so excited I wanted to go down the pub!'"

The theory behind the firm's acquisitions is made clear by UK director John Swales. He says: "Clients are beginning to understand that to effectively manage ground risk they need to employ a specialist consultant rather than a multidisciplinary." And there is a bold plan behind this that could see the consultant growing almost fivefold over the next couple of years. Swales says: "Our aim is to become the UK's number one geotechnical and geoenvironmental consultant by 2010, with 450 staff operating out of 10 offices."

Thomas says clients are becoming increasingly aware of managing risk. "If you don't get the geotechnics right then everything else is in trouble. So we want to get the ground engineering and the design right.

"We bought Webber Associates because it focuses on geotechnical design and that fits with our vision of being specialists. Multidisciplinary companies can do everything but they are not focused on one thing. You need to manage the geotechnical element to manage the risk."

He makes it clear Edge and Webber Associates are not the last companies on Coffey's merger radar. "These are not the only acquisitions we will be making; buying Edge established a base for us here. As we acquire more we will go through the same process and in about six months Webber Associates will become Coffey Geotechnics [as Edge did in November]."

Thomas explains that the firm has come a long way since the latter part of the last century. "In 1959 Coffey was a geotechnical testing business and in the early 1990s we publicly listed on the Australian stock exchange. Now we are aggressively acquiring companies globally. We have a vision of AUS$5bn (£2.22bn) turnover by 2020 and we won't do that in Australia alone.

"So we go to countries where we understand the culture, language and law, and share our vision. Nothing is impossible for us in terms of growth."

He is clearly proud to work within a specialist outfit. "When you want your hip replaced do you go and see your GP? No. You go and see a specialist."

Thomas finishes the interview with a double-barrelled underlining of points he has made so far. "Yes, we are on the acquisition trail. But this is a really exciting time for us, entering a sophisticated and established market where we believe our model of providing expertise in specific fields is ready for adoption in this country."

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