The choice of UK-owned Mott MacDonald as NCE/ACE Global Consultant of the Year could have proved controversial. But the facts of the matter are that Mott MacDonald is thriving as a truly global business.
For the NCE/ACE Global Consultant of the Year, the judges were looking for a firm that was truly global – one that operates widely outside its home territory or territories.
And while all the firms shortlisted do this, the judges were looking for a firm that was genuinely global. They wanted to see a significant presence in all the parts of the world, not just in one or two locations.
If you have good people you can win good projects. Then, if you deliver them well, you have happy customers
Mott MacDonald fulfilled this criterion, with more than two thirds of its 2013 revenue generated outside the UK.
The judges were also impressed that a third of its executive board is based overseas, and that board meetings are hosted internationally on a rotating basis.
Yes, Mott MacDonald is a truly global consultant. So says business development director Kevin Stovell: “Over the last decade we’ve almost trebled in size and transformed our business from 70% UK to 70% international,” he explains.
The majority of that growth has been organic, supported by strategic acquisitions in target geographic locations. Acquisitions last year included civils consultant PDNA in South Africa and environmental consultant Habtec in Brazil, which Stovell says “have provided springboards for major organic growth”.
Acquisitions and organic growth gave the company 17 new offices in seven countries, and took its total workforce to almost 16,000. In all, Mott MacDoanld now works out of 180 offices in 140 different countries.
And the firm is not stopping there. It’s began 2014 by picking up 50-strong New Zealand based water consultant AWT.
Says chief executive Keith Howells: “We are still acquiring.” And Australasia – as demonstrated by the AWT acquisition – is a real target.
“We only really entered Australia in 2010,” says Howells, explaining that previously Mott’s presence in the region was through its now disbanded JV with Connell Wagner (it now part of 7,200-strong Australian giant Aurecon).
“In Australasia we have 300 people now but aim to have 1,000 down the line,” says Howells.
South Africa is also a growth target. “Now, with PDNA we are 800. We’ve got critical mass and the challenge is to push north and pick up on some of the huge things that are going to happen in south and eastern Africa,” he says.
Meanwhile the firm keeps growing its North America business as, in Howells’ words, the firm with its 2,500 US-based staff is “still tiny really” when compared with the size of the market.
“We started in the US as a JV with Hatch in 1995,” recalls Howells. In 2000 we did £26M. Last year we did £340M and there’s plenty of scope for growth,” he says.
South of the border the firm’s Habtec acquisition is more of an exploratory move.
“We’ve just put a footprint in South America, and part of the point of that is to try to learn how to go forward there as it is tremendously bureaucratic,” says Howells. “So it is about finding out how to tap into what is a huge market with all the inherent transport problems, water problems and issues around a growing, affluent middle class.
As our employees are owners they have an interest in the business; it makes a subtle difference to their attitudes
It is the company’s desire to tackle these issues that also marked Mott MacDonald out with the award judges.
Mott MacDonald’s global portfolio includes massive water supply and sewerage projects in Mumbai, a range of schemes at Hong Kong International Airport, and the East Side Access rail link in New York.
The Mumbai IV scheme stands out – it involves adding 30% extra water supply capacity to India’s largest city, and providing mains sewerage and wastewater treatment for the 75% of the population – 9.2M people – who are not currently connected. The Mumbai projectswastewater projects, but in terms of their impact on quality of life they’re comparable to international development projects.”
The pursuit of global work that is sustainable and shapes a better future is something Mott MacDonald is able to do partly because of its employee ownership structure. The shareholders it answers to are not fund managers but the 22% of its workforce that have bought into the company.
“We’ve deliberately had a policy where our staff can buy in,” explains Howells. “This employee ownership produces something that I don’t see in others. As our employees are owners they have an interest in the business; it makes a subtle difference to their attitudes. They are motivated to ‘make a difference’ and do a good job, and I hope this is something that clients see,” says Howells.
The other driving factor behind Mott MacDonald’s success is its relentless pursuit of technical excellence, says Howells. “We have always driven professional excellence very strongly. If you have good people you can win good projects.
“Then, if you deliver them well, you have happy customers. Other customers see that, so you win more good projects. And winning good projects makes it easier to attract good people. It’s a virtuous circle,” he says.
The industry wastes a colossal amount of people’s time and partly that’s through lack of communication
But you can have all the good projects in the world and still not attract good people if the good people are not there.
And that is Howells’ big concern. Mott MacDonald supported the ICE’s stand at the recent Big Bang Fair in London and he sees the threat presented by the looming skills crisis.
“I am wondering where we are going to find people going forward,” he muses.
“Part of the answer is to just be more efficient. The industry wastes a colossal amount of people’s time and partly that’s through lack of communication – that’s having scopes of work that are unclear; communication that is unclear,” says Howells.
Information technology and building information modelling (BIM) can play a big role here.
Mott MacDonald is ahead of the industry curve, with £10M invested in hardware and software in 2013, and Howells thinks there is more to come. “The technology should make us a slicker,” he says, “as we build up catalogues for BIM, start re-using designs and collaborate better, internally across the globe, and externally with clients and delivery partners.”
Effective global communication has been at the heart of Mott MacDonald’s successful worldwide diversification. On Mumbai IV, Howells estimates that 90% of the project is being delivered by its local team, which draws on international expertise where it is needed. And this reflects Motts MacDonald’s work around the world.
“If you look at our Indian business, we have around 1,000 people, of whom at most 20 are expats,” he says. “And our Indian offices provide a lot of support to the stuff we do in the Middle East.”
This local-global model isn’t true only for India. Internationally, it is now not uncommon for five or six different offices to be contributing to the same project, inputting to the same BIM model. Which Howells sees is leading to a fundamental change in project leadership – and that is something that may aid the skills solution.
“One of the things you are starting to see is that the person you need to lead a project like Mumbai IV is someone who understands not just the engineering but also the project delivery and communications technology,” observes Howells. “It’s a bit different to the conventional project manager role – additional skills are needed and we’re nurturing them.