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URS: Pushing back the horizon

Two years ago US giant URS completed its acquisition of consultant Scott Wilson. But far from shackling the former UK firm, URS has unleashed it into a global market with bigger clients and bigger projects. Mark Hansford reports.

When Scott Wilson selected URS as the company it wanted to sell out to in September 2010, it was made clear from the outset that this was not going to be a case of big US giant swallowing up little regional player. Rather this was the case of a merger of two firms with mutual respect of their differing strengths. URS offered the big, multi-national client base and expertise in key markets such as nuclear; Scott Wilson offered an international pedigree and expertise in equally key markets such as infrastructure. Two years on and the mantra is “one URS” with the Scott Wilson brand dropped in most territories and a genuine impression that both sides are united in the common purpose of servicing the big multi-national clients all over the world.

“We have now got the critical mass that allows us to do projects that URS wanted to do in Europe and beyond but couldn’t do,” says URS UK & Ireland managing director Jerome Munro-Lafon.

“The global footprint has been enhanced by integrating the two businesses,” adds strategy and business development director Stephen Wells.

“We have now got instances of project awards which we would never have won before.”

Recent extensions to the scope of its existing frameworks with global clients sum this up.

Growing UK business

It means that, despite the persisting gloom in the domestic market, Munro-Lafon is growing the size of his UK business. “We are now different, and our market is different,” he says.

“We have a new peer group,” adds Wells, “and we’ve redefined who we are targeting.” The focus for growth is now on large multi-nationals and the largest infrastructure projects, although Wells stresses that existing UK clients remain vital to URS.

“I am very clear that the day to day business is the platform for growth. It is an absolute. It is vital for the training and development of staff and we couldn’t evolve the business without that essential platform.”

And in the UK the firm is doing rather well, having picked up environment and engineering design work on High Speed 2 to dovetail with Crossrail where, Munro-Lafon notes, “we are one of the largest design consultants on the project”.

“We have now got the critical mass that allows us to do projects URS wanted to do in Europe and beyond but couldn’t”

Jerome Munro-Lafon, URS

Munro-Lafon has not given up on the Highways Agency either, which has, he says, “a not
insignificant investment” in road schemes coming forward.

But it is the firm’s other divisions - business and industry, power and natural resources and environment and planning - that are really booming on the back of the URS brand.

The sheer size of URS has made an impact with industrial clients, getting Munro-Lafon’s people a seat at a different table.

“We have got long term clients who we are now slightly larger than,” explains Munro-Lafon. “So the way they talk to you is slightly different.”

In power and natural resources it is URS’ extensive experience in nuclear through its 2007 acquisition of Washington Group that is making the difference. “We have now got a number of major UK providers that are extremely keen to partner with us. That is fundamentally different,” says Munro-Lafon. The consultant is already active at the Sellafield and Dounreay sites, and there is far more decommissioning work to come.

“It is an irony that there is a very large new build programme attached to decommissioning,” notes Munro-Lafon.

Environment and planning

It’s a similar story in environment & planning, where another URS legacy acquisition - Dames & Moore back in 1999 - is providing expertise in water to dovetail with the UK operations’ highly regarded environment skills. “We have suddenly got a very powerful proposition,” says Munro-Lafon.

But this melding of minds didn’t happen overnight, he says.

“It’s quite interesting that two years on, the transformational change occurred in the second half of the second year,” says Munro-Lafon, explaining that the first year in particular was spent “getting to know who to talk to, learning the new terminology and aligning business systems”.

“We’ve learnt about our new colleagues and the service offering that we can sell,” adds Wells, “and we are equipping our people to sell wider.”

“Was there a Eureka moment?” he asks himself. “Yes, there probably was,” he says. “Getting that connectivity in place has been a big part of year two and we are now approaching major multi-national clients knowing that we can find people with the expertise they are looking for,” he adds.

“The day to day business is the platform for growth. It is an absolute. It is vital for the training and development of staff”

Stephen Wells, URS

The new access to skills in all areas means the firm is also being asked to take on the role of managing whole programmes - something that is relatively new to the UK operation.

“Our clients expect us to be able to just do that,” explains Munro-Lafon. It means new skills are needed. “We have some programme management specialists and are recruiting like mad for more,” he says.

It is one area where the growth of the business is driving the need for recruitment. But Munro-Lafon is keen to strengthen in all areas and at all levels.

Some senior-level appointments will be announced soon, and an upping of graduate intake is also planned.

“In the last few years, because of the state of the market, our graduate intake has been very modest. We really want a much higher graduate intake,” says Munro-Lafon.

“We now have a cadre of people with four or five years’ experience with nobody working for them. So we are really keen to replenish at that level. We are also keen to use senior people with experience,” adds Munro-Lafon, “but we do want a workforce that is a 21st century workforce. URS has a young mentality and I am trying to drive that energy across the business.”

What is perhaps surprising is that, unusually for such a takeover, this drive has not been US-led, but UK-led. The same management team remains in place, and this stems from URS’ respect for what it buys.

“URS has integrated a number of businesses over the years,” says Munro-Lafon. “In fact, every part of the business comes from a legacy company. So the culture of the business is to expect that a legacy business has been acquired for a specific reason and there is a respect for what they bring.”

This approach shows no signs of abating, and - with URS’ latest acquisition, oil & gas specialist Flint Energy Services back in May, meaning that Scott Wilson people are already the old boys - the integration seems complete.

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