Twenty four years ago David Thomlinson left Arup to break into the world of management consulting. He now runs the UK and Ireland division of global giant Accenture. Antony Oliver reports.
As managing director of global management consultant Accenture’s UK and Ireland business, David Thomlinson is probably one of the most influential and well connected people in UK business. Yet as far as he’s concerned his role is simply a natural progression from an early career in civil and structural engineering.
And despite leaving Arup and the world of design in 1986, he still describes himself as a chartered civil and structural engineer and firmly credits his career success to the grounding and rigour of thought that engineering gave him.
Engineering led recovery
Besides, as he points out, the world of engineering and infrastructure is going to be at the heart of the global economic recovery and the driver of the 21st century’s low carbon future.
“I look at what we are doing at Accenture, our impact on the world and the work that we do on physical infrastructure and I see that this is a natural extension from engineering,” he explains.
Thomlinson has been a partner of Accenture since 1992 and has led the business in the UK and Ireland since 2006 and is now responsible for some £1.86bn of the firm’s £13.6bn overall annual revenues.
“When we are delivering high performance, it means bringing an awful lot of diverse skills together, whether it is strategy, or technology”
In addition, he is senior managing director, geographic strategy and operations, responsible, as a member of the firm’s global executive leadership team, for strategic growth into new locations around the world.
Yet make no mistake, Thomlinson’s track record in civil and structural engineering is also impressive. After graduating from Sheffield University, the first nine years of his career were spent with Arup.
There he worked on numerous design projects and ended up as a core member of the ground breaking Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank project in Hong Kong during the 1980s alongside the late Tony Fitzpatrick and Mike Glover.
“I tremendously enjoyed mainstream engineering and I was succeeding very well in my career,” he says in an understated way. “But I wanted to add to that a better understanding of business and so have a broader impact in terms of top level (influence) both in industry and government. [Engineering] has been a fabulous foundation from which to launch into the world of business management.”
The strategy, planning, delivery and operation of infrastructure around the world is a key part of Accenture’s business and an area in which Thomlinson has always drawn on his engineering roots.
Right now, Accenture is hugely involved in the whole area of smart cities and working with clients around the world to help them understand how can you plan future cities better and how smart buildings of the future might be envisaged.
Its utilities business is also doing a large amount of work with clients on smart grids and how they can really look to optimise the use of energy across countries.
When Thomlinson first joined the firm it was known as Andersen Consulting, the break-away consulting arm of the Arthur Andersen accountancy firm. The two groups formally split in 2000 after an acrimonious battle over fees and the consulting division was renamed Accenture in 2001.
Global management consultant
Accenture has grown into one of the biggest global management consulting firms with fees worldwide last year of £13.6bn and a client list including some 80% of the FTSE 100 firms.
It operates across all business functions and sectors and carries out extensive research on the world’s most successful firms, advising governments and key clients across the world under the strap-line of “High performance: delivered”.
Thomlinson explains that it was the sheer breadth of services and sectors that Accenture operates in that initially attracted him to the firm.
This notion of delivering “high performance” to clients is now, he points out, what really sets the firm apart from its management consulting peers enabling Accenture, he says, to identify opportunities through which clients can really improve their business performance.
“We are a very successful company and have enormous diversity and breath of what we can do. We can therefore offer exceptional career opportunities”
“The unique thing is that we have the breadth of capabilities to deliver change,” he adds. “We stay with our clients to deliver the results and ultimately to create value for them.”
He says this is remarkably similar to the way engineering consultants operate - going from concept through design to implementation to results.
“When we are delivering high performance it means bringing an awful lot of diverse skills together whether it is strategy, business process business performance, technology,” he explains. “You pull all that together and go on a journey to transform big complex organisations to deliver different outcomes - that sounds like engineering to me.”
Of course compared to even the biggest global engineering firms, Accenture is huge. With over 200,000 employees working in 120 countries and over 10,000 in the UK, it clearly has the scale to create impact globally.
But Thomlinson goes to great pains to emphasise that it is not just about numbers of staff. The key to the firm’s continued growth over the last few decades has been to consistently make sure that they have the best and most motivated staff.
“Clearly delivering for our clients and doing great work has to be number one but I would put at almost equal number one is attracting the best people.
“Our goal is to attract the brightest and the best talent - the best brains on the planet - into Accenture,” he adds. “How do we do that? By market relevant compensation but most importantly the career promise of challenge, excitement and doing hard things.”
The firm announced its formal results for 2010 last month and the message is that it is back to growth - it recruited 67,000 people last year having started, explains Thomlinson, with an aspiration to take on 50,000.
Growth is very important to Thomlinson. Commenting on the view of many UK consulting engineers that the future will instead be about managing declining businesses, he says, diplomatically, simply “that would concern me”.
“I have high respect for engineering firms and high respect for many other industries and it is neither appropriate nor my style to be critical of others,” he says when asked to comment on why others cannot perhaps emulate Accenture’s growth.
“We are a very successful company and we have enormous diversity and breadth of what we do. We can therefore offer exceptional career opportunities for growth. We bring in the best and develop the best”
As well as running Accenture’s UK and Ireland division, Thomlinson is also responsible for the firm’s global activities. One key strategic objective continues to be geographic expansion.
Positioning for the future
“With the shift of power to emerging markets [the question is] how can Accenture be positioned for the future economy,” he explains. “Clearly investing in the infrastructure of mature markets and emerging markets is hugely important. We are making big investments in terms of people with the right skills to grow our business in the future.”
Six strategic growth markets have been identified in which to focus this investment - Brazil, Russia, India, China, Mexico and South Korea - with a second tier of regions including South East Asia, South America and continental Africa already being primed for the future.
“If you look at all those countries, infrastructure is key,” he explains.
So with management consulting firms like Accenture increasingly focusing on this global opportunity in the infrastructure market, should traditional engineering consultancies feel threatened? Not entirely, explains Thomlinson.
“I would see [engineering consultancies] more as alliance partners,” he says pointing out that they are already collaborating with a major engineering consultant in the area of intelligent cities. “We bring a different skill set and the opportunity would be to team with them rather than compete.”
But make no mistake the firm is already a major player when it comes to advising clients on the strategy around planning and delivery of infrastructure. And in particular, Thomlinson highlights the resources industry - energy utilities, chemicals, natural resources - as a key area of expertise.
The emerging field of alternative energy sources is another key area. Thomlinson has been running an influential energy advisory board involving leaders of major oil companies and energy users
It is Accenture’s relationships at the highest levels of industries and government that have, over the years, enabled the firm to really drive agendas and so grow its business. As such, Thomlinson believes the firm will be well placed to play a key role as the UK grapples with the post Comprehensive Spending Review era of public sector austerity.
“In the UK we clearly have a close relationship and have done a lot of work for the UK government and we are obviously very aware of and working in cooperation to meet the challenges of the moment,” he says, with clear reference to the coalition’s recent overt request that its suppliers review their fee charging structures.
“But I also believe that all good challenges create opportunities,” he adds. “I look at the UK as having enormous opportunities to dramatically reduce cost and improve performance and that should be good work for Accenture!”
The whole area of public sector service delivery is, he says, an area for “tremendous opportunities for cost savings” particularly through the use of IT advances such as cloud computing to enable better shared services.
Looking specifically at engineering and the on-going discussion around the need to reduce the cost of UK infrastructure delivery, he underlines the opportunities to step up the use of IT throughout the whole of construction cycle especially in the integration of the commercial and financial processes within the design to embrace full life cycle costing of options.
“The closer that engineers can move to understanding the detailed financial consequences of what they are doing and the commercial impact of that the better,” he says. “The more that those come together the better.”