US giants buying UK consultants appears to be all the rage. A year after San Francisco-based URS took over Scott Wilson, Mark Hansford talk to URS Scott Wilson head strategist Stephen Wells about his plans.
CH2M Hill’s planned acquisition of Halcrow is set to be the business story of 2011. But CH2M Hill is not the first US giant to snap up a UK consultant as a stepping stone to global domination.
Oscar Faber, Maunsell and Babtie all fell to the charms of US suitors back in the early part of the decade, with Aecom and Jacobs the acquisition-hungry Americans.
Back with a vengeance
After a period of relative calm, followed by a short burst of European intervention - with Whitby Bird and then Gifford falling to Ramboll, the Americans are back with a vengeance.
While CH2M Hill’s acquisition of Halcrow dominates the headlines today, a year ago another American firm URS was busy taking over Scott Wilson (NCE 16 September 2010).
“We now have the capabilities to provide the full range of services needed for major projects anywhere in the world”
The names are different, but the strategy is much the same. And one year on, Stephen Wells, director of strategy and business development at what is currently known as URS Scott Wilson, is ready to start rolling that strategy out.
It’s taken a while, with Wells, headhunted from Costain earlier this year, finally done with a demanding itinerary of selling his big vision to business leaders around the globe. India, South America, Australia, Hong Kong - Wells has been through them all.
What was Scott Wilson will effectively operate as URS’ overseas arm, but the plan is more detailed than that.
“The acquisition of Scott Wilson significantly expanded URS’ business outside of North America and the company now has a much larger global reach with a network of offices in more than 40 countries,” says Wells. “It has allowed URS to penetrate strategically important geographies including India and China - two of the world’s fastest growing economies.”
Cultural fit was said to be key to the CH2M Hill/Halcrow tie up, and it’s the same here. “There is a strong operational and cultural fit between URS and Scott Wilson and with our combined capabilities we can offer a much wider range of services to our clients,” says Wells. “Scott Wilson’s traditional strengths in key infrastructure markets including rail, roads and bridges, airports and ports and harbours complement URS’s environmental expertise.”
But there’s more. URS offers a full range of services including programme management;
planning, design and engineering; systems engineering and technical assistance; construction and construction management; operations and maintenance; and decommissioning.
Full service range
“We now have the experience, resources and capabilities to provide the full range of services needed to plan, design, construct, operate and maintain major projects anywhere in the world,” says Wells.
A key strength for URS is the nuclear power market - its significant role on the Sellafield complex is a good example of this.
“Population growth and issues such as food scarcity are driving the global demand for emerging markets such as energy, carbon management and reduction, power, oil & gas, water & wastewater and infrastructure and we will be looking to maximise the opportunities that arise from these,” he says.
“It is important for us to reassure our clients that the expertise, skill, values and principles that they loved and respected about Scott Wilson have not disappeared”
Regionally, the focus is on the UK & Ireland, continental Europe, the Middle East, India and Asia-Pacific. The organisational structure reflects this, and the strategy will pull on resources from across the greater URS group.
“We have identified key business lines and by pursuing opportunities within these globally, we are able to maximise cross-divisional working,” he says. “With Scott Wilson’s global footprint and now with 48,000 employees across three operating divisions we can maximise reach - the sum of all parts is greater than the individual.”
But that doesn’t mean 48,000 is enough. “URS Scott Wilson’s transformational growth strategy is founded on a ‘business as usual approach’ for our public and private global and local clients together with a robust business efficiency programme, which will deliver greater value for money for these top clients,” says Wells.
Bolt on acquisitions
“We will naturally consider niche and bolt on acquisitions which will strategically form part of this growth plan.”
“Additionally, larger scale projects and long term framework contracts will be pursued in alignment with our strategy, our chosen business lines and service lines for our top clients.
“As the industry continues to consolidate, we will continue to maximise and enhance our market position in the global engineering and environmental sector. URS not only brings a notable industry presence but also access to a wider set of resources and transportable skills to clients,” he says.
Clearly, the key to the plan is the dismantling of the Scott Wilson brand. This means that from January next year - in most regions - the Scott Wilson name will disappear. It’s being handled carefully.
“We recognise the benefits of having a single and consistent brand across the company’s operations and changing to URS will allow us to take advantage of the strength and reputation of the corporation,” says Wells.
“But Scott Wilson is a well-established name within the British and international consultancy profession and it is important for us to reassure our clients that the expertise, skill, values and principles that they loved and respected about Scott Wilson have not disappeared.
“Our careful consideration for the brand’s transition includes a slower, phased approach in some regions in recognition of cultural differences and different levels of brand exposure in each area,” he adds.
It’s vital to crack on - as there will surely be more action like the URS/Scott Wilson and CH2M Hill/Halcrow deals. Wells has access to URS’ San Francisco corporate team which has crunched numbers, analysed market trends and drawn the same conclusions.
“Our peer group comprises a whole raft of truly global entities such as Aecom, Bechtel, Fluor, CH2M Hill and Jacobs.
“We have access to a range of data and analysis to help determine market trends, and this favours whole lifecycle provision and larger, longer framework type contracts. With this in mind, I expect there will be more relevant acquisitions and consolidation of the industry.”
Wells is coy about what success will look like, but is clear on the benefits for Scott Wilson’s staff - UK and overseas.
“Our employees are now part of a much larger organisation - 48,000 worldwide - and this brings them many new opportunities,” says Wells. “They will be able to work on larger and more complex projects in more locations around the world, including the US where URS has a dominant presence.
“They will also benefit from further investment in new areas of expertise as URS continues its strategy for international growth.”
Big times ahead.
Stephen Wells cv
May 2011 Stephen Wells joins URS Scott Wilson as director of strategy and business development. He sits on the executive board as well as the International Operations Management Committee.
- 2003 to 2011 Group strategy and business development director, Costain Group Also an executive board director.
- 1999 to 2003 Sales and business development director, Biwater.
- 1995 to 1999 Strategically and operationally responsible for Wimpey Water Engineering
- 1982-1995 Spent his early career at Wimpey Engineering & Construction after graduating.