Nigel Curry is not your ordinary engineering boss. For a start, he’s not yet 40. He’s also shot at tanks and built a nuclear submarine. Now he is chief executive of rapidly growing programme management specialist Rhead Group.
What I love is that we are a little bit different. I have a firm belief that we are offering something pretty special.” So says Nigel Curry, chief executive of Rhead Group, a quietly unassuming international professional services consultancy that is stealthily building up quite a client base by providing a range of services for the lifecycle of infrastructure, construction and asset management programmes at home and abroad.
NCE spoke to him in his office in the firm’s global HQ, tucked away on a business park on the outskirts of Coventry. It’s not ostentatious and it’s not showy. Much like the firm; a firm that has largely operated under the radar since Curry took the helm through a management buyout back in 2007.
But the time for operating below the radar is coming to an end. It’s been a busy year for Rhead, and Curry personally. The firm has won significant contracts, at home and abroad. The client base is growing rapidly - up by 450% since 2010. And Curry himself has not gone entirely unnoticed here in Coventry, landing a fairly significant gong as West Midlands entrepreneur of the year.
It’s not hard to see why. “I have a passion for growth,” he states. His growth agenda has increased the client base but also resulted in the business recruiting over 400 additional industry leading people; now with around 600 technical and support staff, Rhead Group is today one of the largest independent professional services consultancies operating on an international stage.
The business is active in the UK, the Middle East and Asia Pacific, working across the power, energy, defence and infrastructure sectors. In April the company was awarded a prestigious Queen’s Award for Enterprise, recognising its outstanding annual growth of over 20% across its international business.
“Rhead Group has a great entrepreneurial spirit,” he notes. “That award was a credit to everyone in our business for the significant achievements we’ve made during a period of organic and acquisitive growth.
“Our focus now remains on growing our business, expanding our activities across the full asset lifecycle and leveraging our market share across the power, energy, defence and infrastructure markets.”
Curry is an engineer; a proud - and chartered - engineer, but not through a conventional route. Not many chief executives in the infrastructure world boast tank armour design and nuclear submarine project management among their early achievements.
Fewer still have done it on the way to building a Queen’s Award-winning company before they are 40.
“Our focus now remains on growing our business, expanding our activities across the full asset lifecycle and leveraging our market share”
It all really started with the tanks. As he reflects: “A career highlight has to be in my early years as an engineer on a tank armour programme. I spent days, weeks, months even, attaching strain gauges to various prototype materials and firing various projectiles at the material on a test bed. The data from each test was pored over to understand how each material reacted and which would be most suitable for the application.
“It was an incredible experience that made me understand from an early age the importance of removing uncertainty in the laboratory test centre before scaling up to the full range.”
As he reflects on this, he gives a strong clue for what set him down the project and programme management route - risk, and the management of it.
Nuclear submarine work was the next game-changer. And here, he thanks an inspirational mentor.
“In each of these industries and projects I have worked with some inspirational leaders,” he says.
“But in particular the person who stands out is Murray Easton, BAE Systems Submarines managing director, who has left a lasting impression with me as a charismatic leader who has the ability to motivate and inspire at every level of an organisation.”
There, the inspiration was the sheer brilliance of revolutionising the construction methodology for a nuclear submarine by turning the thing on its head, literally. Instead of trying to thread components in horizontally - a labour and energy-intensive process - the solution led by Easton was simple. Lift the sub through 90° and lower the components in vertically, taking advantage of gravity. The savings were “tremendous”.
And it is now exactly that kind of innovative, agile thinking that Curry puts at the heart of Rhead Group. Yes, he wants to continue the growth, but not to become corporately flabby and slow as a result.
“We see a big opportunity to have meaningful scale while offering agility, creativity, and a fast response,” he says, referencing the widespread industry consolidation that is currently creating some truly huge beasts in Rhead’s market.
“Our vision remains ambitious; we will continue to recruit the best talent to support the UK construction industry coupled with our plans to expand our international footprint from our offices in the Middle East and Australasia,” he explains.
“Within 10 to 15 years I would like to see Rhead Group as a truly global consultancy with market leading experience in the energy, power, defence and infrastructure sectors employing over 2,000.”
Which is good going from where Rhead was when he came on the scene: a good firm, yes; but not the stratosphere-seeking firm it is today.
“We have people with nuclear experience. To be in that space in the next two decades is going to be incredible”
“Rhead Associates was then small and operating in a niche market,” he says. “The owner wanted to retire; so we did a management buyout, which meant remortgaging the house to the hilt, the lot.”
“I strongly and absolutely believe in what is special about this business, and that is its people… We have got a great team,” he says.
The challenge now is continuing to find the people to match the demand.
“With over £78 trillion to be spent on infrastructure and capital projects globally between now and 2025 it is clear there is a great deal of opportunity for a programme management consultancy.”
Rhead has some pretty innovative plans to tackle the challenge. They include running apprenticeships and its Rhead Group project management academy in partnership with Lancaster University. But bolder still, the company also works to retrain ex-military and ex-rugby players in the art of programme management (see box).
Rhead Group markets are all supported by local offices in Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Brisbane, Perth and Melbourne. Its operations in the Middle East and Asia Pacific have grown to represent 20% of group profits.
But the UK still has massive potential, particularly in energy, and particularly in new nuclear, he says.
“New civil nuclear is an absolute must,” he says, referring to ongoing issues around security of supply and energy affordability.
“It’s a sector with high barriers to entry. We have people with nuclear experience. To be in that space in the next two decades is going to be incredible.”
As part of its expansion, Rhead has recently completed a series of acquisitions in the UK and Australia, leading to the opening of its second and third Australian offices one in Perth and one in Brisbane. Currently, it isemployed on several major Australian projects including the vast QCLNG Export and Gas Collection Header and the Gorgon Gas Fields projects.
Curry is particularly excited about the firm’s work in Abu Dhabi where it is engaged on the United Arab Emirate’s (UAE’s) first carbon capture and storage (CCS) project, a radical programme to capture CO2 from a steelworks, then deliver dense CO2 via a pipeline into the dessert for use in enhanced oil recovery.
He’s a big believer in it. “Globally, low carbon generation and transmission is needed - badly,” he states.
“CCS is an interesting option. We’re working on it in the UK, and now we are under construction on [the project] in the UAE.
“After 2012 there has been growing global demand for our - the UK’s - engineering. Germany has solar. It exports its engineering in that worldwide. What is our thing? Why not CCS?” It’s a great question; you can see why he is enthused.
Rhead has successfully worked to transfer ex-forces personnel into Rhead Group as lessons learned and experience gained in the military can be mapped across to the world of project management.
“‘Ex-forces’ people are often outstanding as incredible leaders and communicators, and project management is often about getting the best out of the team,” explains Curry.
There are real, specific skills that are built into servicemen that attracts Rhead and Curry. They include building cohesion in a group quickly; adaptability - notably because of frequently changing roles and locations; recognising that people are the most valuable military commodity in delivering projects; and leadership and management - hostile environments mean prioritisation and decision making are of vital importance.
Having succeeded there with ex-military personnel, Rhead is now targeting ex-rugby players.
“They have very similar traits,” says Curry.
“They are great leaders and great communicators. And with an average retirement age of 31, they need to keep working.”
So Rhead has become an official supplier to the Rugby Players Association.