John Williams interview: Built assets

Partner and Middle East regional leader at EC Harris, talks about the myriad challenges facing consultancies as Qatar and Saudi Arabia help to shape the future of the construction industry

Job security has promoted staff retention, notes Williams

Job security has promoted staff retention, notes Williams

Having completed its first project in the Middle East in the 1950s, EC Harris established a permanent presence in 2000. Its flagship projects since then include the $1.5bn Atlantis on Palm Jumeirah, while it is currently working on Sowwah Island and Saadiyat Islands in Abu Dhabi.

Partner and Middle East regional leader John Williams explains that EC Harris is a built-asset consultancy as opposed to a multi-disciplinary services consultancy. “The whole approach we took is how we interact with our clients’ needs, where built assets are an important part of their own portfolio. Our primary driver is to look at those client needs against their built assets, and what solution we can put together to deliver these.”

This approach is what differentiates EC Harris as a built-asset consultancy, says Williams. Instead of clients requesting consultants or project managers, “they present us with their specific problems, and sorting out what services are needed is our problem. Of course, we still pitch for cost and commercial or project management work, but actually our relationship with our clients has become much greater, as more and more it involves understanding what makes their businesses tick and their balance sheets work.”

Such a ‘one-stop shop’ approach seems ideally suited to the current environment of cost-cutting and the demand for increased efficiency. “The other thing in this market is that most people begrudge spending on a purchase that is very functional, whereas actually by appointing someone like EC Harris, there is an opportunity to add some value to their portfolio, to save some money, to build things quicker, to get genuinely tangible value out of their assets – that is where we are trying to achieve something,” argues Williams.

He adds that, while the market itself has changed, multi-disciplinary consultancies have had to adapt accordingly to keep pace with changing client needs. “In the ebb and flow of boom and quieter times, you do see teams expand and contract. When they contract, they need a more dependable consultant to work with them. When they expand, you maybe opt more for single-service lines, and your internal team will manage it. That is a big change. In terms of the major projects in the market at present, from Qatar to Saudi Arabia, they want someone to manage the programme of works for them. Clients want one person to sort it out, single point of contact and a very senior person to deal with it – actually how you sort it out is the consultant’s responsibility. We are going to be seeing more of this,” notes Williams.

“So, yes, it is probably a good time for built-asset consultancies. I think another aspect of it that we are starting to see – and this is early days – is that there will be more opportunity to refurbish and reconfigure assets. Maybe in a boom time you knock the old assets down and build new ones; maybe in a time like now you would think more about it. Maybe a five-star hotel is not working – can I get more rooms out of a four-star and raise the occupancy rate? I think that if we have the data that proves build costs and hotel efficiencies, we can get a head start on such opportunities.”

In this regard, Williams says about the Dubai market in particular: “We are starting to see more investors looking at partially-built properties. It is interesting. Dubai generally is getting busier – everyone is saying that. Real estate was always the market that got hit the hardest, but the leisure market – hotels, retail – has always been quite strong actually. We are starting to see much more movement now, though not on the scale of the mid-2000s, nothing like that. What we are starting to see here are a lot of projects getting completed, and a lot of areas looking more finished off, even though the rental levels may still be quite low. So there are positive signs here.” However, the construction industry itself is changing, and Williams says “we are seeing a real shift from commercial developments to physical and social infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and residential units, though more social housing – these are the sorts of projects that are being announced. In some cases it will require skills sets, and we will bring new capability into the region.”

What stands EC Harris in good stead in this regard is its involvement with the schools’ building programme in the UK, since cut back due to the government’s imposed austerity measures. “Hence we are able to bring some of that capability over here, which is pretty much of the moment in terms of standards,” says Williams. This has the added benefit of keeping the region up to date with trends in Europe, “as a lot of thought leadership comes from that part of the world.”

Williams explains that EC Harris has about 250 people in the UAE, spread between its Abu Dhabi and Dubai offices. “Our people have become more flexible,” he says. Staff retention has been high, which he attributes to the prevailing need for job security. “I think it is possibly true all over the world at the moment: if you say to someone, will you go from what you are doing, and do six months over there, what am I going back to? Security is what people want currently; then we still have an Arab Spring type of situation going on here.”

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Posted by: Abdul Rassam

Good to hear about job securities and retentions at EC Harris again, hope all what is said is fully implemented

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