Peter Brett Associates had an incredible 2013, growing organically and by acquisition as part of a five year strategy. As a result it stood out as NCE/ACE Consultant of the Year (250 to 2,500 employees).
There were some seriously strong contenders in the NCE/ACE Consultant of the Year (250 to 2,500 employees) category. The judges were most impressed by Peter Brett Associates’ (PBA’s) recent performance which included a 19% increase in fees over the last year.
The firm which, along with recent acquisition Hannah Reed & Associates, employs around 600 people, grew last year both by taking on new staff and by acquisition. This was part of an ambitious growth strategy for the five years from 2013 to 2018 that involves increasing turnover from just over £30M to around £65M and staff numbers from 450 to 800.
It’s a bold plan. Will it happen? Absolutely, says chairman Keith Mitchell: “In 2012/13 we achieved 25% year-on-year growth. In 2013/14 we may achieve a further 30% growth. We are well on our way to achieving the plans set out in 2013 for the next five years,” he says.
So the numbers are strong. And behind the numbers, the core of the independently owned firm – its people – is even stronger. Managing partner Paul Reilly is passionate about PBA, its staff, and its relentless quest to do better by its clients.
Growth may come in part by acquisition, but organic growth will remain the key to maintaining the PBA way, says Reilly.
We focus on where we know we can add value. Understanding the local context is a key part of our approach
“We will grow sustainably. And the number one way is recruiting graduates and technicians. That’s how you get long-term cultural fit – grow your own.
“We do continue to look for opportunities for acquisition, but good cultural fit and complementary technical strengths which further our strategic development are the key factors for us,” explains Reilly.
The acquisition went through in July last year and added 85 people to the firm. Critically, it was a well-known outfit to Peter Brett Associates, the two firms having worked side-by-side on a number of projects.
The Hannah-Reed acquisition was the third such move in two years for PBA. In 2011, the practice merged with Roger Tym & Partners and Baker Associates, adding town planning and economics to its services portfolio.
It means that today PBA operates in five key areas: buildings; planning development and economics; transport; infrastructure; and environment. Transport and civils work makes up around half of the firm’s workload by turnover with buildings, planning and environmental work contributing significantly.
“Most of our work is in the UK”, says Reilly, but we also provide services across Central Europe via offices in Potsdam, Prague and Bratislava.” The firm has deliberately resisted the lure of the lucrative Middle East market, explains Reilly.
“For us, it’s clients first and a lot of our clients we have worked with for 20 years plus. We think you have to understand your clients inside out and know what makes them tick,” he explains. “We focus on where we know we can add value. Understanding the local context is a key part of our approach, he says. “If you know your patch you have got a lot to add,” he emphasises. “This keeps our focus on the UK and Europe where we have people on the ground.”
Campaigning for change
PBA is also particularly proud of its reports campaigning for change. These include Town Centre Investment Management (TCIM) and Building Infrastructure: Achieving Growth (BIAG). The first is about attracting investment back into the UK’s failing high streets while the second focuses on getting much needed local infrastructure delivered Reilly explains: “These campaigns illustrate our enthusiasm for contributing to the debate about delivering economic growth and social progress, going beyond specific advice to clients, but using our skills and experience to contribute more broadly.
“We are well placed to do this. It helps us to create an enquiring culture in the firm and stimulate wider thinking about the world in which we work.”
We’re talking at PBA’s Reading HQ as the finishing touches are being put on a wholesale refurbishment of the office. And nothing sums up PBA more than this place. Not just because the refurbishment has been designed entirely by PBA –“designed by us for us” – as Reilly enthuses. And not just because the work lifts the building’s energy performance rating from G to B, earning it a Breeam excellent rating. But because the team in Reading lives and breathes the local area.
“This office will have 270 people in it and 150 of them will walk, cycle, run or use local public transport to get to work,” explains Reilly. “They live on the map [the room we are in has a giant map of Reading on the wall] and so they have a vested interest in seeing Reading develop and develop sustainably. They have a stake in the work that we do,” he says.
We have got a restless challenge about us. And to push that, we have brought in a lot of fresh thinking
And the firm’s commitment to the community goes further – it is one of four headline sponsors of the local University Technical College Reading and the firm’s employees regularly give lectures to the students, or volunteer in schools as part of its science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) activities. One of PBA’s engineers, Elizabeth Orchard, was awarded the Most Dedicated STEM Ambassador accolade in the 2012 National STEMNET Awards. It’s all part of the DNA of a Peter Brett employee.
“We all have a general dedication to our profession and advancing its contribution to society. It is why we take on a lot of apprentices and graduates,” Reilly explains, adding that even, in the depths of the recent recession the firm was still taking on its target of 20 graduates a year. And the firm is committed to continued development.
As Reilly notes, even in 2009, the firm had over 40 employees engaged in some form of secondary degree.
The firm does this, says Reilly, because it wants people who are prepared to challenge convention. As he puts it: “Our founder, Peter Brett, was an independent thinker and could be quite a ‘challenging’ character. We want people who will challenge, who will come up with new ideas and advance the situation in the room.
“We value constructive dissenters,” he states.
Of course, you can always find people who could argue and re-analyse a situation until the cows come home. How does PBA know when to stop challenging and start delivering?
The key lies in the firm’s limited liability partnership, says Reilly. It now has around 50 members who are the owners of the firm, up from around 20 in 2008. This was a deliberate ploy to improve performance and spread accountability.
“We are constantly challenging ourselves on technical, people and commercial issues,” says Reilly. “We have got a restless challenge about us. And to push that, we have brought in a lot of fresh thinking.”
Some people were promoted up to LLP level and some were brought from outside to bring new ideas and new approaches. These members spread the ethos throughout the company.
“So in every office, in every team, there is someone with an ownership stake,” he says, “and we catch up regularly to ensure we are setting a good tone.”
The recession has also helped focus the minds of all involved, notes Reilly. “We have just come through a very deep recession and everyone is focused on that. Everyone is instinctively worried about costs and client value, and how to balance this with the demands of a growing market.”
Which is good, as margins are not increasing as fast as anyone – let alone PBA– would like despite improving market conditions.
“The fundamentals of the economy aren’t there. There is still significant pressure on consultants to be competitive – it’s still tough out there,” says Reilly.