Mike Adams is US construction giant Bechtel’s most senior person in the UK. NCE talks to him and some recent Bechtel graduates about global opportunities on offer.
Since starting as a business on the railways of Oklahoma in 1898, United States firm Bechtel has grown to become one of the biggest privately owned infrastructure operations in the world.
With 52,700 employees and revenues of $27.9bn (£17.4bn) last year, its ambitions remain global, with its focus on markets in developed and developing nations as they strive for growth.
Mike Adams, civil business unit president, is leading the charge from London. A US-born civil engineer with an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania, he is the man heading the firm’s multi-disciplinary UK staff base. The UK team is, he points out, 98% British with the other 2% coming from outside the US.
“I’m very much the exception,” he jokes of his US citizenship. “But I do have a British passport and have spent the last 22 years working outside the States.”
Careers with Bechtel
Although Adams keeps a check on Bechtel’s entire UK operation, his main day-to-day focus is on the firm’s multi-billion pound global civil engineering business − one of the firm’s six main areas of global operation.
In civil engineering, Bechtel’s activities cover airports, bridges, buildings, communities, environmental work, highways, hydro power, ports, rail, transit, tunnels and waste water anywhere in the world.
“We’re very much a global business,” he explains. “But one of the things that distinguishes Bechtel is that we have great diversity [of skills]; we act as engineer, contractor and project manager − different roles in different markets.”
Bechtel has operated in the UK for around 60 years. But in the civil engineering market it has become best known over the last 20 years for its programme management work − often brought in at the eleventh hour to turn ailing projects around.
But ailing or not, major projects are certainly its game. Adams highlights Bechtel’s recent work on the West Coast Main Line, London Underground and current activities on the Crossrail project as examples.
“Once you work for Network Rail [for example] for a long period of time as a programme manager they generally like you to continue on their side of the table,” he says.
However, Adams points out that Bechtel has also been very busy across the UK recently as a contractor, building waste treatment plants and power plants in the last decade.
It’s a similar situation in Eastern Europe. Last month Bechtel finished a 38km stretch of new motorway in Kosovo. “We are very much a contractor there,” he adds.
“To really do project management well, it is important that you also understand how to do the work; understand how to think like a contractor”
The reality is that around the globe, in different markets, Bechtel’s role varies. In 2007, for example, it completed the new Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge near Seattle, Washington in a design and build joint venture with contractor Kiewit Pacific.
And in Gabon, West Central Africa, Adam’s team is providing management and technical support to the government as it develops a national infrastructure plan. This has included preparations for the forthcoming African Cup of Nations football tournament and also covers the period beyond that.
“In the UK people know us as programme managers,” he accepts. “But to really do project management well, it is important that you also understand how to do the work; understand how to think like a contractor.”
In this space, he says, the competition is growing as firms such as contractors Laing O’Rourke and Balfour Beatty spread their wings away from simply constructing − the latter via its recent purchase of Parsons Brinckerhoff.
Similarly design firms are boosting their client offering by morphing into project managers − a process that he expects to continue as smaller firms join up to consolidate into globally focused multi-disciplined engineering operations.
The ability to draw on resources and expertise from around the world to work on projects from Europe, to Africa, to Australia, to China or to America is what gives and will continue to give Bechtel its edge.
Yet for all its global operations and ambitions, Adams insist that the UK market remains core to Bechtel’s future strategic plans with opportunities across sectors from power and nuclear decommissioning to rail, roads and airports.
“If I take the UK market as a whole, there is quite a lot of activity going on,” he says, acknowledging that the current economic downturn is making things tricky.
“I think the market is very exciting. It continues to be interesting and vital for us,” he adds.
“Big projects take time to develop. You can go to any market and find projects that have been discussed for years and find people who are frustrated that they haven’t been implemented sooner”
Alongside long term projects such as Crossrail, Bechtel is also managing the £1bn investment programme at Gatwick Airport. He says both projects are going very well with funding in place and programmes on track.
But he recognises that, while other major infrastructure projects are planned for the UK, compared to other parts of the globe, investment continues to be quite slow coming through.
“I fully appreciate that many people − ourselves included − look at the world as a bigger market place,” he says referring to the activities that his UK based staff are involved with. “There are opportunities to take things from one market to another and certainly we hire people here and they find themselves working on other projects around the world.”
That said, Adams is confident that, particularly since the UK Government’s recent Autumn Statement, commitment to UK infrastructure investment will remain buoyant.
“I actually think that the UK is not much different from many other parts of the world,” he explains.
“Big projects take time to develop. You can go to any market and find projects that have been discussed for years and find people who are frustrated that they haven’t been implemented sooner.”
Decent modern infrastructure, he reiterates, remains critical to developed and developing nations as a means to drive economic activity.
And whether securing funding for new build schemes or for rehabilitation projects, gaining political consensus is, he says, a challenging process everywhere.
“[Infrastructure] needs political champions,” he says. “Where you see that coming together then things happen.”
Adams also points out that no one should undervalue the importance of maintaining and enhancing existing infrastructure stock. For example, there will be jobs being done every day across the rail network,” he explains, pointing out that Network Rail’s recent drive to open up the market to competition is particularly interesting.
“Aviation is also a growing industry,” he adds.
“Whether or not there will be a new hub airport built [in the Thames Estuary] I don’t know. But at Gatwick even without a new runway there is a £1bn to spend over the next several years.”
“[Infrastructure] needs political champions. Where you see that coming together then things happen”
It is the same with nuclear power. While there is a clear path toward construction of a new fleet of power stations, the Fukashima disaster in Japan has, rightly, he says, slowed things down. However, there is still plenty of work to get on with in the decommissioning market.
“The nuclear clean up at Sellafield is just getting going. This is a several decade project.”
That said, the energy sector is on Adam’s list of growing markets in the UK.
Aside from new nuclear and renewables, he highlights the emerging sources of shale gas in the UK and around the world as “potentially transformational”.
The development of infrastructure alongside the development of such natural resources will, Adams explains, make the future of emerging markets very interesting.
Bechtel’s current work in Gabon is a case in point. It shows how its engineering, planning and management skills can help to develop natural resources in a way that brings added economic growth and benefits.
“In Africa the opportunities to develop infrastructure on the back of resource development are genuinely possible today,” he says. “But the development has to be done very carefully − in a green way and that is why we are involved.
Bechtel’s global reach is, Adams explains, a good way to ensure that all your eggs aren’t in one basket. But it also makes it easier to transfer learning from region to regions and so introduce ideas to drive innovation and efficiency.
“Everybody has to be constantly focused on innovation and figuring out how to do things more cost effectively,” he says. “Because the competition does that − all the time.”
Technology at the heart of change
Adams believes that technology will be at the heart of driving these necessary improvements in the construction industry and mobile devices such as iPads will be key to boosting efficiency and quality.
“We have so many different ways that we are applying the iPad on construction sites,” he says, highlighting, for example, their ability to ensure that the latest drawing revisions can be viewed and to photograph on-site problems and send queries in real time.
“Every time I visit a project our people are thinking of new ways to utilise the iPad,” he adds. “Anyone that we recruit as a graduate has grown up with these mobile devices. It’s not a question of having to interest them in them − they are the ones saying ‘we can do things better and have these ideas’.”
But for Adams, the key to success in his business always goes back to having the right staff and the right technical abilities.
Being commercially smart is important, he says, but people who lack technical competence cannot survive or fit in at Bechtel.”We have a strong culture and invest in our people. For us it is not about bums on seats but about successful outcomes,” he says.
“But it is a complicated environment. We need to have people that are technically competent.”