English sets out his agenda

Gavin English’s CV reads like a microcosm of the engineering consultancy world. The affable Geordie has chalked up stints at both large and small companies, and spells in both private and public sectors. And there are few developing countries he’s not worked in, having cut his teeth, like many an aspiring engineer, building infrastructure far afield – in his case, six bridges for the Tungku Link Road improvements in Brunei back in 1993. English hopes that this breadth of experience will stand him in good stead in his latest role, as chairman of ACE. “It’s quite an honour to be asked to be chair, and I think I have something to contribute because of my background – from working with a county council, to operating in both large and small organisations, and working internationally as well,” says 

English, whose day job is as managing director of IMC Worldwide, a multidisciplinary SME specialising in overseas development work that was created following a management buyout from WSP in 2011. “I also think I have something to offer on the leadership side – having led and built up a business and carried out a successful MBO – as well as the secondary buyout last year,” he says, referring to the £25m-turnover firm’s buyout from its private equity partners. “So hopefully that demonstrates a vision and leadership which I’d like to use to contribute to ACE.”

 English stepped up to the chair having been a board member and chairman of ACE’s international business group for six years. He became ACE’s first vice chairman in 2015, as part of the organisation’s succession planning. Two new vice chairmen have been appointed for 2016.

 The 55-year-old civil engineer is one of IMC’s eight equity partners and is based in Redhill, a few miles down the road from his Surrey home. Unsurprisingly, in his year in the top role English wants to prioritise batting for SMEs, as well as to spearhead greater recognition of engineers generally. He’d also like to nurture and embed better innovative thinking in our industry and see the ACE become more engaged with the regions.

 Then, of course, there are the perennial issues to contend with, such as skills shortages, low fees and increasing competition. “The UK and ACE can be seen as a bit London-centric – so we need to get the regions more involved, which means going out visiting and listening to those concerns. This mirrors government’s push to boost economic activity in the regions – HS2 is a classic example.” On SMEs, which make up nearly nine-tenths of ACE’s members, he says: “They have slightly different needs and drivers compared with large businesses; both are very important to the ACE and to the UK economy. 

Large businesses are pretty self-sufficient when it comes to business management and administration. Smaller businesses can do with more support, including HR and legal. Some of this is already in place – so it’s about making sure they know it’s in place and using what’s on offer.”

 The widespread use of suicidal bidding during the recession caused great hardship for contractors and engineering consultancies, sending many to the wall. As workload becomes healthier, English is keen for firms to acquire greater resilience, ready for when the lean times inevitably recur. “Businesses tend to forget the bust times when going through a boom. They tend to push out and bring people in, push systems to one side, and just get on with delivering work.

 “I think we need to make sure that companies, both large and small, focus on creating a robust business so when the next downturn cycle does come they are in a much better place to survive it.” English was managing director of WSP’s international development business before he and his partners bought it out. Now IMC employs 85 staff at Redhill, together with another 80 international consultants, delivering programmes across 25 countries – in Asia, the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and parts of the Middle East. Its largest current programme is rebuilding 3,000 schools in Pakistan, funded by the UK government. 

English travels less than he used to, but still managed trips to Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Malawi and Dubai in the space of a couple of months towards the end of 2015. Cycling, running and generally keeping fit – as well as being a husband and a father to three boys – fill his down time. The nature of his firm’s work, which includes economic and social development as key elements, naturally brings an even gender split; half the employees are women.

 English believes it’s imperative that companies grow more women into senior positions, by creating the working conditions to allow this to happen, such as flexible working. He adds: “Men want this as well. When you survey younger people about what they want from work, their priorities are training and development and flexible working; salary might be third. It’s important that all organisations and leaders recognise that.” 

Firms also need to get their younger staff into leadership positions much more quickly, he says. “You tend to find engineers working in the UK don’t take leadership positions at as young an age “The UK and ACE can be seen as a bit London-centric – so we need to get the regions more involvedas they do when working on overseas assignments. Overseas you tend to be given a lot of responsibility very quickly. And you either float or sink.”

 The Manchester University engineering graduate reflects on his work in Brunei when he was just 33: “I had total responsibility leading a national consultant to design all of the bridges. I look back on that and think that was by far the most responsibility I’d had up to that point.” Ensuring greater representation at the top for rather younger colleagues is not only a way of attracting and retaining talent, he says; it will also help galvanise the industry to be more innovative in terms of improving efficiency and value for money.

 English won’t be short of things to champion in his year in office, and he acknowledges that trying to balance this with running a business will be challenging. “But if no one does it, then nothing changes,” he says. “There are very few industries that contribute significantly to society/the economy, and engineering does in tangible terms. So I’m proud of being an engineer and I want to give something back and raise the profile of what we do.” 

The big issues: English on… 

the profession’s biggest challenge “We’re in a boom, and finding the right people and holding on to them is our biggest challenge. So capacity-building in the industry is something we have to tackle. We have to get right down into the schools and bring young people into the industry, then help them become leaders. There are already a lot of good things happening, such as the higherlevel apprenticeship schemes, which are already having an impact. For a stronger and more sustainable industry, we must continue to build on this momentum.”

 … more recognition for engineers “An issue we’ve always had is raising the profession’s profile and getting the recognition we deserve for the contribution that we make. It’s about being called in by politicians when decisions are to be made or advice sought. The setting-up of the National Infrastructure Commission shows to a certain extent how we are being listened to more by government. But it needs to be built on.”

 … management consultant rivals “Engineering consultancies need to be looking at how we can get involved in financing of projects. We seem to stand back and let other people do that. But that’s where it all starts for projects, and we need to move ourselves further up the food chain. Management consultants do it, and meanwhile they are moving into some of the higher-level service areas that we get involved with – so we should be pushing ourselves further into the high-profile, high-fee areas where they have expertise.”

 … low fee bids “Engineers’ salaries are significantly lower than many other professions. The fact that we can’t charge high enough fees is part of it– but the industry is so cut-throat, so we don’t help ourselves. Yes, fee levels are improving – but not drastically, even though volume of work is increasing. There’s a culture of clients selecting on lowest cost rather than quality. The ACE is trying to get procurement focused on value for money, and that’s clearly a good thing.”

 … consolidation “Consolidation will continue as companies have a natural desire to get bigger. But I think there’s a case for being smaller and focusing on quality. I think smaller businesses often have better margins because they are more nimble and agile. “There is this drive to have a one-stop shop to satisfy all the client’s needs in one organisation. But I’m not convinced clients necessarily want that. I think what they want is organisations that can project manage and co-ordinate other organisations and people who are the best in certain areas, and connect them up to deliver best value for money.”

 … integration with contractors “Well, it’s happening, isn’t it?” – referring to Sir John Armitt’s suggestion that contractors could raise their profits by providing an integrated service with designers. “Some acquisitions where contractors have acquired consultants have been quite successful; others haven’t. I think we’re likely to see more management consultants buying engineers because they want to get into the so-called upper levels of engineering services. I think that is a bad thing for engineers, because it’s taking away the cream of engineering services and pushing the engineering aspect to become more of a commodity. We should be moving the opposite way and taking over some of the services the management consultants provide.