The founders of consultancy Davies Maguire got through a difficult start to build a flourishing consultancy
Almost a decade ago, the founders of Davies Maguire were in secure, prestigious jobs at Ramboll. But a desire to get back to the fundamentals of engineering led them to create their own business – one that saw them forego their salaries for over a year.
The story has at its heart the career dilemma many engineers face: with experience comes seniority. But with seniority, managerial demands can eclipse application of technical expertise. Directors Gareth Davies (pictured centre), Seamus Maguire (left) and Des Mairs (right) wanted to engineer, not manage.
It was in 2010 that Davies Maguire was set up by its four founding directors who had all worked at Ramboll after it had acquired their previous employer, Whitbybird. One of the four, ICE past President Mark Whitby, left at the beginning of 2015 to pursue an ongoing interest he had in a Middle Eastern company.
“We ran to the opportunity to create and evolve and develop ourselves as much as anything else. It had been a while since we had been day-to-day engineers, but we hadn’t finished learning,” says Davies.
The trio describe the first year as “gruelling” with considerable personal strains. None of them drew a salary, and for a while after that, pay remained irregular. They made a clean start, winning work mostly from new clients, or with architects on smaller jobs. It was a gamble.
It makes you do a lot of looking at yourself and what value you can bring to the profession
“That good relationship you have with architects and clients – is it really with you, or is it with you with this large firm behind you? You don’t really know until you try,” says Davies. “It makes you do a lot of looking at yourself and what value you can bring to the profession. I think for anyone running a new business, it wipes away any vanity you might have.”
But the work did come, and the firm worked hard to win bids. Sometimes they made two or three bids for work with the same client before winning anything. They would see clients take on some of their ideas, even if they did not win a contract, but the firm took this in its stride hoping it would eventually secure work with the client.
“I know from acquaintances, you leave a company and get a project from a client you already know and you get complacent – you sit back when that’s finished, and ask where the next project is going to come from. We didn’t have that, we had to go off and get work,” says Maguire.
Desire to engineer
But it was the trio’s desire to engineer that got it through, in effect taking away risk from clients as they guaranteed that their own experience and expertise would be deployed for each job, rather than fielded out to junior staff.
“They wanted experience and they knew they would get experience the whole way through the project. It wasn’t a case of we would disappear half way through; they knew we were hungry. In the end giving the contract to a new firm was no risk for them really,” says Maguire.
Today the firm’s technical approach is to not only engineer, but to work with contractors so that construction and engineering are developed hand-in-hand. Perhaps the most well-known project encompassing this approach is Mace’s rising factory, where Davies Maguire provided the engineering support.
It wasn’t a case of we would disappear half way through; they knew we were hungry
Mace developed the rising factory, to build two towers on the same site at a rate of one fully clad and fitted out floor per week (New Civil Engineer July 2018). Although the concept belongs to Mace, it was Davies Maguire that developed the configuration of the trusses and columns that enabled the factory to move up and down the tower carrying different loads.
“What we did was take [Mace’s] thoughts on spatial planning and see how Mace could fit the [rising factory] structure and support around a building,” says Mairs.
Mairs, a specialist bridge engineer at Davies Maguire, had already worked on a bridge that could be jacked up and down, so the firm brought that experience into the project. But the project also changed the way the team thought about temporary works.
“With the rising factory, we started to look at changing the design of elements of the permanent reinforced concrete structure, such as the corner columns, so that they are able to deal with the increased temporary loads. The project also got us thinking about how we install and remove temporary works more efficiently, particularly in such a confined space,” says Davies.
The London-based firm works on civil, structural and geotechnical engineering projects throughout the UK, although many of its projects are undertaken in the capital, with clients often being contractors or architects.
“Coming in with a contractor [at an early stage] you’re not weighed down by the decisions that have been made on the journey that it took you to get to that point.
“You can look at it completely clean and say ‘if I was going to build this, how would I build this?’” says Davies.
The firm’s ethos of designing for construction has been demonstrated in its work with Network Rail to deliver a standardised footbridge design for use at more than 50 stations across the UK.
Working with Haskoll Architects and Network Rail’s buildings and architecture team, the generic, repeatable design includes the normal ingredients of a main span over the tracks with lifts and staircases at both ends to provide full access to platforms. But it has been designed to be efficient in terms of both cost and constructability. This minimises the railway possession time needed for installing the structure.
With turnover expected to graze £2M this year, the directors plan to control the firm’s growth to keep the original ethos of hands-on engineering at all levels.
Its 27-strong workforce comprises mostly civil and design engineers who are put on chartership programmes. Newer members are assigned smaller jobs where they get to see the finished project in a matter of months, alongside the larger, long term projects.
So, do the three directors look back on almost a decade of running their business and feel they’ve finally established their business? In the end, it is a yes.
“When people outside the office start to recognise what you are doing, I think that’s when you realise you’re there and you need to build on that,” says Davies.