Lots of consultancies talk about having a diversely skilled workforce, but Nichols is proof that successful project managers come from all disciplines.
Nichols was established by an economist, its current chief executive was a litigation solicitor, while its chair was an established graphic designer.
There is not a high-vis jacket in sight at its elegant central London office, which looks more like the interior of a luxury hotel.
But the family-run firm, which provides programme and project management, has a client list that reads like a who’s who of major engineering projects: High Speed 2, Crossrail, Transport for London, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and the Department for Transport.
So what is it about the firm’s services that is valued by clients? And how has it attracted some of the best engineers in the business to work for it?
Sisters Kathryn and Frances Nichols inherited the business from their late father Mike. They say their clients like the firm’s ability to bring about change.
“It is all about bringing their [the client’s] vision to reality. Different clients will bring us in at different times, but they want our strategy and change expertise,” says chief executive Kathryn Nichols.
A recent example is where its advice at the Bradwell Magnox site and Sellafield Magnox Swarf Storage Silos (MSSS) saved billions of pounds for the client, through a change in direction for a programme which had to deal with ageing ponds and silos containing nuclear waste. Its advice meant at MSSS extraction could start three years earlier than originally scheduled and the planned construction of two new treatment facilities, which were estimated to cost £2.9bn, was cancelled. Instead Nichols developed a new waste container system.
While the firm employs many highly-qualified engineers, Kathryn and Frances say that it is the person, not their degree subject, that it is interested in. Company alumni include High Speed 2 chief executive Mark Thurston and the former Network Rail head of digital railway David Waboso.
Nichols was founded 44 years ago by economist Mike Nichols. He believed in the idea that a successful project can be achieved every time. And that belief remains with the firm today, which puts an emphasis on laying the right building blocks and structure in projects from the beginning.
“The reason he started it was to give himself the perfect job and to make sure all the work he did was fun and that has been a key value right from the very beginning. He always had very strong values that are still here today: it is a family business and a business family – what is really important to us is the people we have and the quality of our people. It is very important we all get on and work together to create things,” says the firm’s chair, Frances Nichols.
Kathryn and Frances both joined the firm after having their own, independent careers. They describe the firm as being part of their DNA, with conversations about its future and its values often taking place at the family dinner table. Were they hesitant when their father offered them a role?
They both admit they were unsure, but making the move has taught them invaluable lessons about who to recruit and how different skills can be used in project management. Former solicitor Kathryn joined as finance director, while Frances, previously a graphic designer, became creative director.
“I wasn’t clear on how it would feel,” says Kathryn. “I was coming from a different background. I guess I hadn’t anticipated how easy it would be to come in and feel I could make a contribution. But that stays today in terms of what we believe about people. If we take on good people they might come from a variety of backgrounds or disciplines professionally. But if you have the right people with the right attitude and right values, it just works because that’s what we’re looking for.”
For Frances, the idea of working on the brand in a creative director role was a chance she relished, but she was again unsure about working on programme and project management. Ultimately, she found that graphic design had more in common with programme and project management than she had initially t hought.
“What I found, from the minute I started and immersed myself in the projects and culture, is the similarity in terms of design and building things in terms of creating a vision for the future.”
The firm has recently launched Nichols Creative, which looks at cutting edge technology and how it will impact their clients. It has also explored creativity to inspire in some unique ways, including commissioning business theatre on the themes of innovation and programme management, with one play staged at National Gallery.
And having diversity of people also means not presuming engineers are unimaginative or uncreative. “Within engineering, I’d say there are lots of people there because they want to create and build a better future,” says Kathryn.
Nichols has a “loving variety” programme, which encourages workforce diversity and the firm has an almost 50:50 gender split.
“We do have very qualified engineers, but look at the world around us, look how diverse it is, look at the universe, its full of different ways of doing things all coming together to make life,” adds Frances.
When their father died the two sisters took over the firm, having already spent several years on its board – even if some in the industry had doubts.
“A lot of people were very worried when our dad passed away, saying ‘Oh, what are you girls going to do,’” says Frances.
But she says that at that difficult time, the actual running of the firm was not a worry as the two sisters had already been on the board for many years. “Although we weren’t outward facing, in terms of running a company, running a business that’s sustainable, different, value driven, we were already there,” says Frances.
Today the London-based firm, which had an annual turnover of £14.8M in 2017/18, has ambitions to grow, especially overseas. However, it also wants to retain its SME status – with a current headcount around 60, it aims to stem growth and keep its size to below 100 staff. And future applicants need not let lack of an engineering qualification stop them.