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Hewson: On her majesty’s service

Consultant Hewson is one of just six construction-related companies named among the 116 winners of 2013 Queen’s Award for Enterprise in recognition of international trade. Mark Hansford finds out what the award means to the firm.

Hewson Consulting Engineers was only established in 2005 and is a first-time Queen’s Award winner. It delivers bridge and structural design solutions throughout the world and its directors are passionate about the benefits to the UK of international trade.

As such, the award is understandably a big deal.

“It is something to celebrate and recognises that British consulting expertise is hugely valued across the world,” says Hewson director Andrew Hodgkinson.

The Queen’s Awards for Enterprise are the UK’s most prestigious Awards for business success. There are four categories of Queen’s Awards; three for businesses covering international trade, innovation and sustainable development and one recognising individual achievement in encouraging UK entrepreneurship.

This year 160 firms and individuals were recognised, with the vast majority – 116 – for international trade.

Winning is not easy: in the international category firms must demonstrate that their business has achieved substantial growth in overseas earnings and in commercial success through either outstanding achievement over three years or continuous achievement over six years.

Hewson was recognised as “a young company” that has increased its overseas sales by a staggering 546% over the last six years. As co-director Nigel Hewson notes: “We have had steady growth.”

In that time it has worked on some truly impressive projects including the NGN250bn (£1bn) Bonny River Suspension Bridge in Nigeria (main image), the $1.35bn (£885M) Izmit Bay Crossing in Turkey (top right), the Mid Term Link in Singapore (bottom right) and the HK2.76bn (£233bn) Stonecutters Bridge in Hong Kong.

Closer to home it has also done detailed design for a number of complex bridges on the €300M (£257M) M50 PPP upgrade project around Dublin as well as elsewhere across Britain.

That mix is important to the firm. “The cross-fertilisation of ideas between UK and overseas projects is essential so we are always open to learn how things are done elsewhere,” says Hodgkinson. “We think that this helps our team develop a rounded view and stops us falling into the trap of thinking that there is only one way of doing something.”

But it is for a growing portfolio of international projects that Hewson has been recognised with the Queen’s Award, and it was noted that in doing this the firm has built up a network of contractors, consulting contacts and customers in a “wide range of international projects”.

With much of its work project-driven, often in some of the world’s more challenging markets, it was also recognised that Hewson “sells its design expertise and experience and generally wins work through building relationships with the main stakeholders in key projects”.

Openness is key here, explains Hodgkinson. “We always try to deal openly with our clients in order that we can build a long-term relationship with them. 

“Actually delivering what we say we will is essential in all the places we work.”

For Hewson, that skill is not to be underestimated. “It does require quite a bit of focus to build up relationships,” he cautions. “A lot of the work we are doing now is the result of relationships developed by our team over decades of working overseas,” Hewson says.

Hewson says that it is these relationships that are key to deciding where to work. “It is not so much about the location but who we know that’s involved,” he says. Malaysia and Nigeria have in the past three years accounted for a large proportion of export sales  and the company has worked on projects in Turkey, Macau, Brunei, Sri Lanka, Dubai and Kuwait. Hong Kong has been a strong market for the firm over its eight years of operation and as a result has been chosen as its first overseas office.

“Our clients there have strongly encouraged us to set up a local office so we are expecting it to lead to expanding opportunities over the next five years,” says Hewson, explaining that the office will initially have a permanent staff of two to four who will deal with clients on a day to day basis. Again, it is all about building up strong business relationships.

This quest is becoming ever more complicated as new players from the Far East enter the market. It’s something Hewson sees as a great opportunity for British consultants. “The giant Spanish and French contractors are still there but now the Koreans and Chinese are very bullish. It’s the same with consultants with Asian, Korean and Japanese firms taking a major international role and you have to appreciate the cultural differences.” This is equally important when it comes to contracts and payment. “It’s all part of building up the relationships,” he says.

Picking the right partner is, of course, crucial when it comes to working in the “more challenging” markets for which Hewson is recognised.

“We generally get involved with contractors or consultants who are well established in that country, or find a local consultant we trust and with whom we can develop strong ties,” Hewson explains. Bangladesh is a great example of where Hewson has teamed up with a local firm to deliver a number of projects in the last three years.

Once Hewson has found a good partner, it gets fully stuck in with them, to mutual benefit.

“We learn a lot from working overseas and seeing how we need to tackle similar projects in different cultures,” says Hodgkinson.

Hewson and Hodgkinson are also keen to stress that getting “stuck in” on these overseas projects means working closely with clients to develop tailored engineering solutions. This involves doing both the complicated number crunching and taking a practical view on how their designs can be built most efficiently. It also involves a bit of project management.

“Whilst we don’t do project management as a revenue stream we see it as a means to be able to deliver the engineering for which we are known,” says Hodgkinson. “And that’s strongly reflected in the work we do overseas.”

“We tend to do a lot of complex high-end analysis and design,” agrees Hewson. “We often get called in for more complex bridge and structural projects where we have the specialist knowledge that others don’t.”

Hewson also gets stuck in to the temporary works design, and that’s important for its business model. “Our client is often the contractor, and because we get involved in temporary works design we can advise the client on the overall construction solution in terms of how it is likely to affect cost and programme,” he says. “This is a service that a lot of overseas clients expect from their designers.”

It means Hewson has an impressive number of strings to its bow, given its size. Yet it clearly revels in the freedoms of being a small, focused, structural design firm.

“We are 19 and don’t have plans to diversify from our core business or grow significantly,” he says. “This might mean doubling in size in the future, but not too fast as we are really focused on quality not quantity”, he stresses.

The award should help here. In a survey of the 2011 Queen’s Awards winners 83% said it brought prestige to their business and 48% said it gave them an edge overseas.

It will also come as a welcome boost to Hewson’s hard working staff.

“The overseas travel needed to sustain our international workload does mean that our staff work hard,” says Hewson. “So the award is for them as they work long hours and are hugely committed to what we do,” he says.

“It also shows that we are now a well-established consultant with an international reputation,” he adds. “We think it acknowledges that the ideas and ingenuity of British consultants like us are still in huge demand internationally.”

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