Structural engineering consultant AKT bucked the trend last week by breaking free from parent White Young Green with a management buy-out. Antony Oliver talks to directors Hanif Kara and Gerry O’Brien.
There is a tangible sense of excitement and optimism around the Farringdon offices of newly formed independent structural engineering consultant AKT II.
The £3.75M deal to break free from publicly listed consultant WYG clearly draws a line beneath the not-always-easy five year marriage between the two firms and leaves the 120-strong business free once again to plough its own furrow.
“This means that we have regained our independence and can stick to the task of delivering quality and innovation (to clients),” explains Hanif Kara, AKT II’s star name, co-director/owner. “Now the business can be all about nimbleness and agility.”
The new firm sees original AKT founders Robin Adams, Hanif Kara and Albert Williamson-Taylor joined by Paul Scott and Gerry O’Brien as equity directors. The new name serves to underline the direct link with the past but also the continuity for the future.
When AKT was acquired by WYG in 2006 for £10.5M the deal was driven by a desire on both sides to boost international activity. Yet the value of the AKT name in the market was recognised by all so was retained as a “wilful decision”, says Kara.
And while the recent split was an amicable arrangement, it is clear that, put simply, the design-led, creative heads within AKT were increasingly at odds with the growth and profit driven PLC agenda.
As co-owner Gerry O’Brien points out, times and markets change. “When we merged with WYG there were very good reasons and mutual benefits,” explains O’Brien. “It was about opening up international markets. But times changed and those benefits never really came to be. We had grown apart.”
And given that the original AKT directors were only contracted to stay for one year following the WGY purchase,
all gave the merger a good run at working.
“You have to respect [WYG chief executive] Paul Hamer for doing this deal,” says O’Brien. “He realised that the time had come and let us go. Others offered to take AKT off his hands but we knew that as part of another consultant we would never have been allowed our independence.”
The buyout was supported by Swedish engineering group Tyréns, a move that, according to Kara, was vital for reasons beyond simply raising the cash.
Tyréns has 1,000 employees in 20 offices in Sweden. Kara explains that it is a “silent” partner in the business, but he is clear that the firm is key to helping his global aspirations.
Tyrens has placed three directors on the board of AKT II, but they are there only to assist rather than to control.
“We are the owners,” says Kara. “We will get support when and where necessary. We needed the support of a bigger firm but one that really understands what we have been preaching.”
The ability to set their own path is clearly important to AKT II, not least being able to invest in quality work and walk away from clients seeking lowest cost.
“Others have dropped their fees in the recession and as a result have often disappointed clients,” says O’Brien.
“We decided that we could not allow our investment in AKT to be compromised by a short term recession.”
The future, says Kara, is still about being international - as opposed to global - with a great deal of opportunity outside the UK, particularly in the Gulf following work such as the Sheikh Zayed National Museum in Abu Dhabi and in the US on the back of current work with Zaha Hadid at Michigan State University.
But there are also growing opportunities in the UK he says. Long term relationships with large developers like Stanhope, Derwent, Land Securities and with big name architects, coupled with increasing work with contractors, mean that the firm has an impressive six month order book.
O’Brien highlights the growing retrofit and refurb market where projects such as their recent Angel Building in London demonstrate the value that developers can realise through clever engineering to reuse existing structures.
“We intend to grow but it is more aligned with intelligent growth and not chasing turnover,” says Kara. “We are all still young and we think that the recession will end. We’ve got the stamina and want to champion the engineer’s position.”