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NCE/ACE Consultants Awards winners: Atkins

A carefully managed growth strategy, focus on delivery and commitment to bringing young people into the industry have proved very successful for Atkins, says company’s chief executive officer, UK & Europe David Tonkin.

Horizon College Barnsley

Horizon College, Barnsley


In association with

When Atkins celebrated its 75th anniversary last year, one of its ambitions to mark that milestone was to take on 75 new apprentices. In the event, it exceeded that aim by employing 90 school and college leavers in addition to 320 graduates.

For Atkins chief executive officer, UK & Europe David Tonkin, recruiting so many people at the start of their careers is one of the company’s proudest achievements of the past 12 months – and one reason why the company was named as UK Major Consultant of the Year in this year’s NCE/ACE Consultants Awards. He describes it as “fundamental to the future of our company and the wider engineering industry”. With a similar number of graduates and apprenticeships set to be employed again this year, the company has reached the point where 8% of its 17,000-strong workforce is on some form of graduate or apprenticeship training programme.

Watch David Tonkin's interview here

While big name consultancy firms like Atkins have always been able to take their pick of graduates from the country’s top universities, the move to recruit young people immediately after taking their A-levels is a departure – but one that Tonkin believes will bring welcome diversity to the company. “If you are just selecting people from the top universities – does that give you a diversity in your workforce? If you have a spread of people, with some coming through the apprenticeship route as well as graduates, you get that mix.”

He adds: “We strive hard to improve our gender diversity, but clearly we also need a diversity of people from different backgrounds and with different educational values.”

We have the ability to take learning from the different industries, disciplines and geographies and apply them to other clients – and we could do more of that

The company is also committed to inspiring the next generation of engineers, and has more than 200 active science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) ambassadors who regularly go into schools, colleges and youth groups to spread the word about the industry.

These young people are joining the company at a time when business is booming. Last year Atkins’ turnover was in excess of £1.77bn, profit was over £100M.

Tonkin says Atkins’ success is – like that of many companies – due to “having a well laid strategy and making sure that strategy is enacted”. He adds: “Our delivery record is something we’re very proud of, and allows us to operate in this space.”

In demand

There is no doubt, he says, that with infrastructure having caught the imagination of the UK’s politicians, Atkins now finds its core activities much in demand. But these activities are probably wider than most of us might think. The consultant’s expertise also encompasses traditional and cyber security, and telecommunications – all of which are skills that will be essential when it comes achieving the government’s desire to make the UK a better place to do business. 

We have the ability to take learning from the different industries, disciplines and geographies and apply them to other clients – and we could do more of that

Its better known engineering expertise areas are also in great demand across a range of fast-growing sectors, including transport, buildings and energy, but Tonkin is keen to do more to make sure the different sectors are benefiting from knowledge accumulated elsewhere. 

“I still think we don’t fully leverage the unique community of industries and disciplines we have,” he says. “We have the ability to take learning from the different industries, disciplines and geographies and apply them to other clients – and we could do more of that.” 

He cites the example of using modelling capability from the aerospace sector to help research lightweight composite train carriage doors for London Underground. And, in the lead-up to the London 2012 Olympics, the company used its fluid engineers from the oil and gas sector to convince table tennis’ governing body that the flight of the ping pong balls would not be adversely affected by the venue’s air conditioning. 

NCE/ACE Consultants of the Year 2014

At the moment, around 50% of Atkins’ income is generated outside the UK and Europe, but Tonkin describes the firm as “international” rather than “global”. The distinction, he says, is because the company has strong representation in a handful of regions – mainly the UK and Scandinavia, North America, the Middle East and the Far East – rather than blanket global coverage. 

He explains that the company has two models for international growth, with the first being to stay – and expand – in the places where it currently has strong geographic representation. But it will venture outside these territories to work with existing major clients – particularly clients in the energy sector, and those that work with Atkins’ construction management arm Faithful & Gould. 

“Where we have a deep relationship with a client that operates in a different territory, we will operate with them,” says Tonkin. “But the rest of the time we will stick to the geographies we’ve chosen, because these geographies have good growth.”  Increasingly, the company’s successful delivery of major projects involves pulling together expertise from its entire international workforce. For example, 250 people worked on the design of a new airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with the team split between the UK, US and India.     

Three of the best

We asked David Tonkin to pick three civil or structural engineering consultancy projects that he thinks show something important about the firm.

Crossrail western tunnels

Crossrail western tunnels

Crossrail is Europe’s largest civil engineering project, and Atkins is working with Arup on a number of design contracts, including the 42km of deep tube bored tunnels that runs from Royal Oak in the west to the east side of London, as well as Tottenham Court Road, Custom House and Woolwich stations, and Plumstead depot. “Our engagement on this work demonstrates the client’s trust in our ability to work seamlessly with a key competitor and deliver the right skills and resources to carry out complex engineering work delivered to tight budgets and timescales,” says Tonkin.


M62 J26 to J27 - Dynamic Hardshoulder Running

M62 J26 to J27: Dynamic hardshoulder running

M62 managed motorway
Atkins designed a 24km managed motorway scheme to help reduce congestion and provide safer, morereliable journeys by opening the hard shoulder to manage traffic flow during peak periods. Tonkin says the programme, delivered two months early and under budget, demonstrates the way in which Atkins’ experts worked to find creative solutions that would achieve efficiencies by challenging the standards governing the main cost items of the scheme and altering the design.



Horizon College Barnsley

Horizon College, Barnsley


Horizon College, Barnsley
Atkins worked in partnership with Laing O’Rourke to design Horizon Community College in Barnsley, one of the largest new colleges in the UK. Its standardised design and construction drives down cost, saves time, improves quality, reduces waste and improves health and safety. “The project stands out as a great example of an engineering consultancy and contractor working as a single team to deliver better value for clients – an increasing requirement across the industry,” says Tonkin. “It was also fully delivered using some of the key principles of building information modelling (BIM), demonstrating good progress along our BIM journey.”


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