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The bigger picture: Peter Dawson interview

Peter Dawson is Bechtel’s new civil business unit president based in London. He’s the most senior Bechtel man in the UK and he’s British. Antony Oliver reports


“I love the company. What we do around the world transforms communities”

This year is Bechtel’s 60th anniversary of working in the UK. And although throughout this period locals have been placed in charge of the UK operation, Peter Dawson is the first Brit to, at the same time, sit on the US construction giant’s global board.

Despite spending the majority of his career working outside the UK, Dawson is a Londoner and the Arsenal mug on his desk underlines this fact. As a third generation Gunners supporter he now bemoans that after spending nearly 20 years living in the US he’s “roughly 40,000th” in the queue for an Emirates season ticket.

Dawson’s reign as the most powerful Bechtel man in the UK began in September when he swapped roles with the previous incumbent Mike Adams, shifting from a Los Angeles-based global chief financial officer role to become president of Bechtel’s civil business unit based in London.

“It is really about succession planning,” he explains, insisting that the change was more than simply corporate deckchair shuffling. “While I have run operations before I had never been the number one for a global business and Mike (Adams) had never run a corporate group. The feeling was that it would make us both more useful in future.”

The fact that Bechtel’s top man in the UK is British, he says, should not be a surprise given that the overwhelming majority of the firm’s UK business staff is locally sourced. In fact, he points out that right now three of the main group board’s nine members are, in fact, British.

There is no questioning Dawson’s Bechtel credentials however. He joined the firm’s graduate training programme direct from university in 1978 on the recommendation of his then girlfriend’s - now wife’s - father. At the time it employed 3000 staff in the UK working on mainly petro-chemical based projects all around the world.

As a natural sciences graduate he brought a broad range of project management skills and after six years headed off to Saudi Arabia with his wife to start a globe- trotting career before finally settling in the States.

“I love the company. What we do around the world transforms communities,” he explains. “It has been said that we do anything, for anybody, anywhere, but the number one thing that we think about is reputation. If we don’t feel that we can deliver then no matter what the job is or what the fees are, we will not take it on.”

Of course all talk about Bechtel’s aspirations for client delivery begs the question as to precisely what Bechtel does and doesn’t do nowadays. But Dawson is clear that in the UK the firm’s portfolio stretches way beyond it recent reputation as a project rescue firm.

Dawson points out that in addition to the perhaps traditional programme delivery roles such as that currently being carriedout on Crossrail and Network Rail’s Reading Station upgrade project, Bechtel has just opened another 18km stretch of motorway in Kosovo and only recently stepped back from its role as part of the Tube Lines consortium for London Underground.

“The market has moved on from rescue projects. Today there is more emphasis on partnering - anticipating what has to be done”

“The market has moved on from rescue projects. Today there is more emphasis on partnering - anticipating what has to be done,” he says highlighting that because Bechtel operates across many sectors it is able to take the best bits from each and learn lessons.

“We are both a consultant and a contractor - it goes back to that old saying that if you can’t do then you can’t manage,” he says. “As a company we are employed at will - you are only as good as the work that you do today. When we get asked about competitors it is rare that we find someone who competes across the full span of what we do.”

Working with Bechtel

Although Dawson’s role is based in London to lead the UK operation, as president of the civil business unit his focus is also global. And while he maintains that there is a great deal of work for Bechtel in the UK - not least around rail, renewable energy, nuclear generation and nuclear clean up - he points out that there a significant and growing opportunities in the infrastructure market initially in South America but increasingly in sub-Saharan Africa as mining and petrochemical markets expand.

“What we are seeing is that countries don’t just want to sell their raw commodities - they want to know how they can add value,” he explains highlighting that the opportunity for him comes from being able to offer customers integrated solutions to their infrastructure problems.

“I personally think that in ten years’ time we will be talking about sub-Saharan Africa in the same way that we were talking about the Middle East 20 years ago,” he says, highlighting the fact that Bechtel has been working with Gabon before and after the 2012 African Nations football competition.

“There is more and more transparency today - some of the work that we are doing in Gabon is a great example of how to work with clients to realise their dreams for the nation - it’s a frontier,” he explains.

That said, he is quick to point out that despite having also just finished an LNG plant in Angola and trained thousands of local employees there along the way, Africa remains a 10 year horizon as a market. Working in South America and particularly Brazil and Chile, while not as easy as working in the UK, is he says,offers more immediate opportunity. Bechtel’s third biggest engineering office is in Santiago with 25,000 engineers working to support mining.

“It is a commodity driven market,” he says. “Both markets are driven by population growth. Increasing urbanisation means that you need more power, wiring and water to drink, and as that [infrastructure] grows it feeds businesses.”

But the need to manage risk through a balanced portfolio of work means that Dawson remains totally wedded to the UK market as a place to build a growing business going forward. Whether it is advising government on procurement, helping to tackle the energy deficit or assisting with the aspiration to deliver better transport and water infrastructure, Dawson is committed to helping the UK to succeed despite the clear funding and planning difficulties.

“One of the differences is that as a private company we can have a longer term view beyond just what is happening this quarter,” he explains. “Britain has been a long term source of great talent for Bechtel.”

“It would never occur to me that people in the UK will not travel or that they are not global thinkers. Our view of the world is perhaps less parochial”

“Vibrant economies depend on world class infrastructure. The UK has to be a world class economy so we cannot take a long time to make decision or change our minds later so having a plan is critical.”

On rail he predicts that it will continue to be a growth area for Bechtel, and not simply because of its existing track record with Network Rail. “If we don’t keep listening and anticipating then what you did yesterday soon becomes irrelevant,” he says.

In energy he also predicts a growing market but warns that on nuclear it remains too early to tell whether or not investment will flow. “Because we have a cradle to grave skill set, helping customers think about options for capital expenditure is where we can help,” he say making reference to the firm’s on-going decommissioning work at Sellafield.

That said, Dawson is also completely wedded to the idea that travel and overseas experience is key to broadening experience and skills and points out that, perhaps compared to the US, engineers in the UK are much more cosmopolitan and willing to travel. In fact he says that he is even willing to fund young graduate overseas postings if clients are reluctant to take someone without sufficient experience.

“It would never occur to me that people in the UK will not travel or that they are not global thinkers,” he says. “Our view of the world is perhaps less parochial”, he suggests, pointing out that three of Bechtel’s five business stream leaders were born in the UK.

And reflecting on his own background as a natural science graduate, Dawson reinforces the need to increasingly attract a broad range of skills.

“It is really important for people to be profoundly good at something. Having that core makes you more visible,” he says. “We are in a technical industry so if we have a tilt it will be towards people with a technical background. But we do also like to broaden people’s experiences.”

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