Peter Brett Associates has a five-year plan to grow its infrastructure-owner client base. Ben Cronin speaks to Keith Mitchell, chairman of the award-winning consultancy.
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Keith Mitchell, chairman of Peter Brett Associates (PBA), is wise enough to realise that economic conditions are one of the most important prerequisites for the success of a consultancy business.
While he can point to a number of positive developments for the company over the last 12 months, he realises that many would not have been possible without the upturn in the economy.
“We know the market is the primary factor in the scale of any business,” he says. “Clearly we can take structural decisions about the people we take on and whether or not we make further acquisitions, but what enables you to do that is the health of the economy.”
Notwithstanding the economic upturn, however, PBA has had a very good year. The consultant recently won the award for UK Consultant of the Year (between 250 and 2,500 employees) for the second consecutive year at the NCE/ACE Consultants Awards, after it achieved an impressive uplift of 30% in net fees.
Mitchell says two-thirds of the success can be attributed to organic growth, while the remaining third was achieved through acquisitions.
“Historically, PBA has served the development market very strongly, and we’ve been making a particular effort to get into the major infrastructure market as well over the course of the last few years,” he says.
“I think that’s also helping to drive our growth.”
“One thing we are trying to do now is to grow our asset-based clients such as infrastructure owners”
Keith Mitchell, Peter Brett
The company has also continued to reinforce its strengths. Its acquisition of Hannah-Reed in July 2013 brought together two buildings teams that were equally strong in the tourism and university markets. Both companies worked on Center Parcs Woburn Forest, which beat worldwide competition to be named Best Hotel and Tourism Resort at the MPIM international real estate show. Similarly, while PBA enjoys a strong working relationship with Oxford and Cambridge universities, Hannah-Reed has built up a strong rapport with University College London.
“We had key targets in that acquisition, which were the basis for further growth,” says Mitchell. “It allowed us to provide an even more powerful offering in universities and a better presence in the east of England.”
Nearly one year later, PBA’s merger with Chester-based Martin Wright Associates strengthened its water team, particularly in coastal defences.
“Primarily, they are coastal engineers and our water management team has for many years wanted to develop that part of their overall offering, and so it was a good fit from our point of view,” says Mitchell.
When pressed about whether this was a response to the increasing regularity of extreme weather events, Mitchell sounds conflicted. “Our experience is that progress is slower than expected. It’s not an area of massive growth for us at the moment, but we see it as an area that will need a lot of effort from the industry, so having that expertise is really important.”
This all fits with the firm’s five-year plan to create sustainable growth and to not be over-dependent on one part of the market. Mitchell says he has given 21 presentations to groups of between 20 and 30 people in the firm’s different divisions, the purpose of which was to reinforce this strategy.
“At the moment our new clients are broadly balanced between public and private sectors,” he says. “And one thing we are trying to do now is to grow our asset-based clients such as infrastructure owners. For example, we’re working on Thames Tideway for Thames Water and that for us would count as working for an infrastructure owner. They have very different financial cycles and long term investment profiles that are helpful from a sustainable business point of view.”
The fact that the company has carried out early stage consultancy work for major projects, such as the London Gateway and even HS2, will therefore be encouraging to Mitchell. In the case of HS2, the firm is acting on behalf of the Greater London Authority at Old Oak common and Solihull Council to establish the development requirements for two of the main stations in phase 1 of the project. This work will provide the basis for a programme of development over time to create the infrastructure necessary to support the stations and figure out how the work might be funded.
“It’s a very interesting area to work because you have planning and engineering challenges, development and economic challenges, and you have transport people looking at access issues; environmental people looking at mitigation issues; then there’s social infrastructure and utilities and energy provision, and how that might work over a long period,” says Mitchell.
“Our long term sustainability relies on us having a common way of dealing with clients and each other”
Keith Mitchell, Peter Brett
The first time PBA did this type of work was for the Nine Elms project in Battersea nearly five years ago. Half a decade on, it conducted a post-project review to establish whether its guidance had provided the client with a useful framework to get the project started.
“It was a useful learning exercise,” says Mitchell. “There are things we’d do differently now but it was gratifying to see that this document is something people still refer to and that it has become one of the important documents in the setting up of a major development strategy like that.”
Mitchell feels that PBA’s relatively rare position as a privately owned, mid-sized consultancy allows it to continue to provide a personal consultancy service to clients like these. But he feels the company will need to focus to maintain this level of service, particularly given the speed at which it is growing.
The firm has produced a booklet, The Common Thread, to clarify what its ethos is, based on discussions with people from around the business and its clients. Mitchell describes it as a “conversation piece” rather than a manual.
“You don’t want people to use it as a manual, because the minute you do that, you’re losing the fact that this is an ingrained ethos that has been built up over years and evolves over time,” he says.
“On the other hand, it gives people confidence to reinforce good business behaviour. Our long term sustainability relies on us retaining a common, distinctive approach.” Bearing in mind the fact that the company recruited 200 people including 45 graduates last year, such a joined-up approach will no doubt pay dividends. Mitchell says all of the graduates are centrally funded so that they can be allocated to different teams and then rotated for professional development.
For the company’s 50th anniversary, it has also launched the Peter Brett Foundation. This will include a programme that encourages graduates to get involved with schools and universities, in a bid to promote engineering.
“We really need to be talking to school children at the age of 11, before they make their GCSE choices,” says Mitchell.
“The other side of it is that our own graduates grow and develop as a result of acting as mentors to these children.”