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Motts chair looks back on 45 years at the company

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Reflecting on his 45-year career with Mott MacDonald, outgoing chair Keith Howells picked out projects in South Africa and Iceland as personal highlights, while offering the industry a word of warning as automation ramps up. 

Howells is retiring at the end of June after holding the position of chair for the last eight years and serving as managing director for six years before that.

“I started in MacDonald & Partners nearly 45 years ago. Mott MacDonald came into existence around 30 years ago and I’ve been MD or chair for almost half of that time,” he said.

“You don’t start out as a grad thinking you’ll be chair someday. I was just interested in the engineering and solving problems. Looking at the places I’ve been to, there are some extraordinary places and projects I’ve worked on, it is quite staggering when you sit back and reflect on it.”

Howells said being chair was his biggest achievement as he had the opportunity to set the agenda and tone for the business, and to drive the culture of the organisation.

During his time in the business the projects he nejoyed working on most were the Liaoning River Basin masterplan which he said was really innovative, the Kárahnjúkar hydropower project in Iceland and a major water transfer in South Africa.

But he said it hadn’t all been plain sailing, as he had to steer the business through the financial crash which happened in 2008.

“This was partly while I was an MD and partly as chairman, but I think we took some good positive actions to keep the firm stable when things got quite hard,” he said.

Although he said he has no any major regrets, he thinks the business and the industry as a whole have been too slow on social purpose, but that it was now starting to recognise it and make progress.

He also said the business had sometimes been guilty of letting issues drift to see what happens rather than taking swift action. 

“There have been times when we’ve been working in countries with difficult projects and we’ve soldiered on and it perhaps would have been better to confront the problem earlier,” he said.

“But we’ve taken that on board that learning now and when we see things drift, we tackle them head on rather than wait and hope for the best.”

Howells said he was a “great believer” in the employee ownership model of the business which incentivised and rewarded its workers. He also said the governance changes put in place by the board would make a takeover of the company very difficult, with 75% of the shareholders having to agree to a sale before it could go ahead.

In the future he said the business would have to work out how it could extract the value out of doing day to day work as the industry changed and more automation and technology disrupted the market.

“It’s going to be an interesting few years as that takes shape,” he said. “The challenge from an income based workstream to and outcome based one and how we extract value, less paid on hours and more on what we deliver. We could all go down a lump sum route but that’s a race to the bottom, so we need to find new business models.”

For now though Howells said he was going to enjoy having some time off, do school runs and spend more time travelling, particularly in the south of France.

From Mott MacDonald he said he would take with him “a lot of very good memories of people, projects and places which I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and going to over the years”.

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