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Reputations and reliablity

At the end of the first year of the 21st Century I have been reflecting on many things. One is the future of civil engineering consultancy.

There are, for instance, continuing strong rumours about the fate of Hyder Consulting since its parent was bought by US utility Western Power Distribution. Current betting is on a management buyout.

Robert Benaim & Associates of course went this way in May just after the Parkman and Symonds Group managers stumped up for their firms.

But would anyone really would want to risk their own money or anyone else's in such a venture? And what is a civil engineering consultancy worth anyway? Arguably very little, but on the basis that they offer services, charge fees, employ staff, have work in hand and sometimes even have assets, they certainly have a measurable value.

Reputation is of course one of their biggest assets. But how is this judged? Being only as good as your last job is a distinct reality lower down the supply chain.

Clients naturally take comfort from the knowledge that they have employed someone with a decent track record. And why not - don't we all prefer to use a recommended service or one that has already proved itself?

Well, apparently not. Increasingly clients are swayed by a name and ability to pay if things go badly. Arup, for instance, will have little difficulty riding out the millennium bridge fiasco, as will Sir Norman Foster. Mott MacDonald got through its recent trouble with the Environment Agency over ground improvements in Chatham.

Other less well known firms have not always faired as well.

But reputation does not automatically win you work in civil engineering consultancy, I am told. It is a competitive business and each job has to be fought for.

So does reputation allow consultants to charge large fees?

Certainly not, most bosses of civil firms would reply. They offer a good value service and can only charge what the market will bear. I am not so sure.

And who decides what makes a good value service?

Personally, if I was to re-enter the profession I would form an engineering consultancy service. But mine would be modelled on Andersen Consulting and McKinsey rather than Arup or Motts and I would ensure it charged a reasonably high price for my high value services.

After all, if reputation does not allow you to win work or charge high fees, what is the point of having one? Just offer a service, deliver it and charge what you think you are worth.

Bear in mind that expensive management consultants do not always have entirely unblemished records. McKinsey, remember, worked for Railtrack on Project Destiny and advised it to scale down its renewal work in favour of getting more from existing assets. No doubt Gerald Corbett appreciated that advice at the time.

These are only two of a whole raft of management consultants out there doing just that. Many do not have any real reputation to speak of but simply employ able staff prepared to work hard for the client. Being available and able to offer solutions to problems is the important thing.

Being 100% right or 100% original is often a bonus.

And this would be the premise of my consultancy - worth a fortune in no time.

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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