As Halcrow celebrated it 50th continuous year in the Gulf, Antony Oliver joined new chairman Tony Allum's tour of key projects around Dubai to hear his plans for growth.
Despite having spent 14 years with consultant Halcrow, including six on the board, new chairman Tony Allum sees himself as a 'new kid on the block'.
Recently installed chief executive Peter Gammie and his directors have all typically spent almost all of their careers with the firm.
Yet what Allum lacks in timeserved experience he reckons he more than makes up for in engineering and commercial nous, having built his career almost entirely working internationally, previously with Pirelli and Bechtel.
'I am an engineer but also a businessman, ' he says. 'I feel I have got the vision to look ahead and take the difficult business decisions - to say no to interesting contracts if we cannot make money on them.'
Margins are very important to Allum, who has just replaced retiring chairman Derek Pollock - all the more so now that 10% of the company is owned by its staff. He wants to see this figure grow to around 25% over the next five years and with it 'a record of consistently delivering value to shareholders' - that means taking margins on turnover to 5%.
'Being a private firm gives us the flexibility to drive the business the way we want to go, ' he says, reflecting perhaps the recent fortunes of publicly quoted competitors.
Better margins, he believes, will be achieved by avoiding unprofitable projects through 'improving operational efficiency' and by 'innovative financial management' - and of course by working out how to charge more for services.
The firm's key sectors are now transportation, water and property, with, as Allum puts it, 'consulting forming the seat' of this three legged stool. Getting to grips with client needs, risk assessment and innovative procurement is, as one might expect, the major challenge for the entire workforce.
However, the underlying key to delivering these strategic goals is the development of Halcrow's international business - a business for which Allum has a personal passion.
Born in India, he moved to the UK aged 12 but has spent little time working in the UK since starting his engineering career.
He intends to retain a guiding interest in the firm's international development.
His love of India has taken Halcrow into this market with its recently formed, locally based business in New Delhi.
'The time is right for us to be there, ' he says, pointing to current growth in the country's private sector power market.
India is now one of Halcrow's seven 'domestic regions' of its re-focused global empire. Along with the UK its key market regions are Europe, Australia, China, the Middle East and Asia.
Africa has been notably dropped from its key portfolio.
Within these markets, Allum's focus will be to return a balance between UK and international workload, which historically has fluctuated from an international peak of 80% of business to the current 35%.
Achieving a 40:60 ratio of international to UK-based workload would seem a fairly achievable target for the £160M turnover business. But this sits alongside his other, perhaps tougher, five year strategic goal.
This is to create a £350M turnover, truly global business delivering consistent 5% margins.
To achieve these ambitions, Allum predicts Halcrow's workforce will have to climb from a current 3,500 to around 6,000.
Organic growth is certainly on the cards, but you do not achieve this level of expansion without acquisition.
Speaking in Dubai at celebrations to mark Halcrow's 50th consecutive year in the Gulf, Allum described the firm's involvement in the region 'the jewel in the crown' of the firm's international business. Its Middle Eastern operations generate fees of around £12M a year and are centred around its Dubai office.
The workload there is already high with staff numbers passing the 350 mark last month. Allum predicts further growth resulting from the 2006 Asian Games in Quatar, a doubling of oil capacity in Abu Dhabi by 2010 and a number of key transportation projects in and around the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The firm also has an increasing desire to build bigger and better in and around Dubai, particularly as it strives to become the commercial and tourist centre of the Middle East.
However, Allum has new markets and new sectors in his sights and believes that if the deal is right, there is money available to fund acquisitions and win Halcrow a foothold.
Options are now being carefully looked at, he says. This could see Halcrow making serious inroads into the US, bolstering activities in China or becoming a more serious player in global property development.
'Any acquisitions will be identified within 12 months, ' he says.
'We have to find niches where we can add value and bring something new to the business.'
Wadi Muddiq tunnel The mass concrete lining is now almost complete in the UAE's first ever bored tunnel which, at 1.2km long through the Hajar mountain range, will complete the new 120km Sharjah to Kalba road.
Excavation through the highly fractured and weathered rock was supported after blasting using rock bolts and wet-mix shotcrete. Halcrow advised that an extra £1M was added to the £9M project to boost fire protection the wake of recent European disasters. This included use of polypropylene fibres in the concrete lining, plus fire detection, surveillance equipment and emergency refuges Dubai Marina Developer Emaar is creating one of Dubai's biggest residential complexes built around the huge new marina. This Halcrow designed, 7m deep and up to 300m wide expanse of water cost around £30M and will be flooded later this year to create a 3km long sheltered lake around which dozens of new high and low rise properties will sprout. The first six towers will be complete next year and for the first time be available for purchase by nonresidents of Dubai.
Sharjah municipality sewage treatment works Halcrow has been developing and improving the waste water and sewage treatment facilities in Sharjah for nearly 30 years and is now leading the latest scheme to boost the main treatment works capacity by 37,500m 3to 146,000m 3. The £18M project started in May this year and is expected to have completed new covered, odour free inlet screening works, aeration and settlement and filter tanks by May 2004.
The Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan al Nayan mosque, Abu Dhabi Halcrow has been project managing the construction of this gigantic reinforced concrete mosque since October 2001.
With minarets over 90m tall, its largest dome rising to 80m and space for over 30,000 worshippers, it will be one of the biggest mosques in the world when finished. At peak construction, contractor Impregilio employed around 2,000 workers on the site.
Marble and gold cladding will complete the structure.
The Sharjah to Kalba road A new 120km long dual two-lane highway is partially complete from Sharjah municipality in the west of the Emirate to improve communications with the eastern coast. Built largely across desert, construction has taken place in temperatures regularly exceeding 50infinityC.
The road includes three grade separated junctions and a camel underpass and rises up into the Hajar mountains to meet the new bored tunnel. The road is expected to be complete by 2003.
Abu Dhabi Golf Club A 36 hole international competition standard golf course with seven lakes was created by Halcrow engineers from a barren dessert landscape and opened in June 2000. The falcon shaped clubhouse tested engineering skills and ingenuity.
Half century, not out
Halcrow's 50 years in the Gulf began with port, power and water developments in Kuwait, deep water berths in Bahrain and investigations for a dam in Iran.
Under the guidance of original country manager Neville Allen, the firm continued on a stream of coastal and port projects - including development of the now ubiquitous concrete harbour protection Stabit blocks - plus water supply and bridge projects before designing Dubai Airport in 1964 and the massive Dubai Dry Dock which was opened by the Queen in 1979.
Strong relationships built up in the Sharjah Emirate of UAE meant Halcrow had a hand in virtually all basic urban planning in the area from the 1960s before designing the international airport in 1979.
This relationship continues today.
Work in the region has also included advice for the Baghdad Metro in the 1980s, government buildings in Kuwait and award winning public housing in Jordan in the 1990s.
However, the UAE, and particularly Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, have provided the bulk of projects, most recently covering transportation, water supply and treatment, coastal defence and a university campus.