Tom Bower interview: Quality control

Significant contract wins have seen WSP Middle East consolidate its regional presence
Both large and smaller scale tenders are now stipulating BIM design as a requirement, says Bower
By Gerhard Hope
Sat 11 Feb 2012 09:38 PM

Significant contract wins with Ashghal in Qatar and the Royal Commission in Saudi Arabia have seen WSP Middle East consolidate its regional presence. CW speaks to MD Tom Bower.

Although WSP, which is headquartered in London, has had a regional presence for the last 25 years, it really only began to establish itself in the Middle East with the acquisition of PHB and LC Consulting in the mid-2000s. “We probably only had about 20 people here before those acquisitions. They added maybe 250 people. PHB has actually been here since the mid-1970s, so the companies we have acquired have had a long history in the region,” explains WSP Middle East MD Tom Bower.

“I think there has always been a degree of interest in the Middle East from the UK, and probably more than any other Western country. We and many of our competitors were over here, and through that people swapped companies and then also wanted to go to the same locations. It has always been of interest, particularly Dubai.”

While WSP Middle East started out as a building services or MEP firm, which was the main focus area of its acquisitions, it has since branched out into other sectors such as transport, infrastructure and environmental and energy. Unlike some of its competitors, the consultancy only offers minimal architectural services.

“We retain architectural services for two reasons: the first is that by having a number of registered architects working for us, we can submit drawings to the authorities, and the second is so we can do a small amount of architecture on some of the projects we do. However, architecture is not our main focus. WSP is what we would call a technical consultancy. Our primary role is technical, engineering and environmental consultancy,” says Bower.

Engineering and architecture require different skills and mindsets, and therefore Bower says “it is a challenge for those companies that have both in-house.” However, WSP does indeed secure a lot of its work via architectural firms. “It is one of the main reasons we do not focus on architecture ourselves, so that we can maintain those relationships and procure a lot of our work through architects, both locally and internationally.” This is what differentiates WSP from its competitors, notes Bower. Another differentiating factor is Bower’s contention that sustainability, which is a top regional construction priority at the moment, and cost-cutting, which is equally important due to the downturn, are incompatible.

“I know a lot of consultants will say that. People probably think that sustainability and being cost-conscious are not two things that you can do simultaneously, but I do not think they are mutually exclusive. In fact, WSP has been focused on sustainability, certainly within the UK and Northern Europe, Scandinavia and the US, for many years, and we are trying to utilise those skills and bring them over here.”

This is particularly important in a regional context, with Abu Dhabi, for example, promoting Estidama and its Pearl rating system. “Our environmental and energy business has been undertaking a lot of work in relation to Estidama. We have a team of 15 to 20 that focus exclusively on sustainability consultancy. We have also included that within our core engineering disciplines, so sustainability is built into everything we do. For the WSP Group, it is one of our values. It is also one of our main strategic aims, both internally and externally.”

In terms of its specific service offering, Bower says this can be as broad as advising organisations and companies on how to minimise their environmental impact, from a corporate social responsibility point of view, as well as from an employee perspective in terms of individual carbon footprint, to a narrower focus on sustainability in terms of planning for specific projects.

“If we are planning projects, how can those buildings be done in a more sustainable manner? How can we use technology to reduce the impact?” As an example, Bower says WSP Middle East is still actively involved with Masdar City, one of the region’s leading sustainability initiatives on a city-wide scale. “They are focused on their core strategic goals of being sustainable as a location to live and work in, and that is key to the way we are operating at Masdar City.”

Technology goes hand in hand with sustainability, and this of course means using Building Information Modelling (BIM) as a design tool. “We see it, as do many people, as the future of the design industry,” says Bower. As a sign of its commitment, WSP has a global agreement with Autodesk to use Revit to develop its BIM capabilities across the board.

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“I think it is going to take time though, as it is not applicable to every type of project. It is more suited to those projects which are maybe more complex, or where you are trying to bring in lots of different services and items. We are developing our capabilities both structurally, and in terms of building services, as well as in our infrastructure business as a potential design tool,” says Bower.

“BIM is important. Is there enough uptake of such technology in the region? I think it is slower than other parts perhaps, but it is happening.” Bower acknowledges that smaller companies may be struggling to adapt. “I think it is a technology that probably favours the larger companies, such as our leverage with Autodesk, which then gives us access to the software tools at a lower cost, rather than having to buy packages off the shelf, and that has definitely helped us. But it is a learning process for our teams as well to learn how to use it properly. I think that once you have gone through that learning process, then the effectiveness and efficiency will run off the back of it. It makes perfect sense for projects to be designed in a system where all of the people involved are using the same platform and model,” says Bower.

“I have seen quotes that say BIM will have a larger effect on the construction industry than CAD did. It is, we believe, going to be a step change in the design of projects and processes, so it is something we have focused on, and we are seeing actually more clients, even in the last three to four months, taking it up.” Bower attributes this interest to the education and awareness strategy embarked upon by WSP. “In the wider Middle East, we are seeing clients showing quite a bit of interest, and if there are probably two issues that clients are particularly interested in, it is sustainability and BIM.”

This is because the former can support the latter. “The value of BIM is not only in the design process, but it is then also seen in the management of the facility or asset after it has been constructed in terms of knowledge of all the different parts and how it works, and preventative maintenance and that sort of aspect. From a sustainability point of view, that is where it can have a good impact. And I think the Middle East market has a lot of areas it can develop with respect to that maintenance side, which has been rather neglected,” says Bower.

Linked to such design and durability considerations is the fact that many tenders are now specifying BIM design. “More and more across the board, and certainly the bigger ones, are definitely focused on BIM,” concurs Bower. “We are even seeing it coming into the smaller projects that are being planned as well. I think some of that is around the fact it is a bit of a word or activity of the moment, so people are hearing about BIM and therefore feel it is something they should include in the tender, but I think a lot of it is driven from the value that BIM can provide, so we are focused on training up our people and being able to provide a BIM solution as well as a more traditional solution.”

Bower says that BIM is a key focus area for WSP worldwide, with some of its largest projects in Europe, for example, being undertaken with BIM design. “We have set up a specialist team in the US that focuses on BIM modelling. One of the challenges of BIM – certainly for a company like WSP, which is global in nature in terms of the many different offices it has – is the way we try and link all our engineering service offerings together globally. If we are working on a project with a team in the US, the UK and the Middle East, and we are using BIM, then it is about where that model actually sits, and how do all parties access the model from a technology point of view, so that the work is as effective as possible, and that is one of the challenges the industry faces.”

Looking at regional opportunities, Bower says that WSP Middle East, in JV with Khatib & Alami of Lebanon, recently clinched a $90.6m Ashghal tender in Qatar, which saw other major consultancies like Hyder, Atkins and Parsons all win significant contracts in tandem. “Qatar is a focus area for everyone,” says Bower, revealing that WSP Middle East recently recruited Andrew Seymour, the TDIC infrastructure director who oversaw major projects like Saadiyat Island, as its country director in Qatar.

“We have a registered office in Qatar, and are linking it into our Middle East network so it can operate effectively along with the rest of the organisation. We see the market there, certainly for the time being, as focusing on delivering the services we have across the globe into Qatar. In time I think that will develop into a more local business, although not necessarily that large,” says Bower. While WSP Middle East currently has six or seven projects ongoing in Saudi Arabia, it does not have a permanent presence. “Our next area of focus will be Saudi Arabia. We see a lot of opportunities, as it looks like a good place with huge projects.”

Indeed, the consultancy recently secured a major project in the Eastern Province for the Royal Commission, which is helping to consolidate its presence in the Kingdom.

While Libya does not fall under WSP Middle East, Syria does. “We have a limited number of projects in Syria, some with Majid Al Futtaim. We are waiting to see what happens in Syria and how it develops. Once that has settled down, it will be a case of reviewing it and making choices as to what is next,” comments Bower.

Looking back on 2011, Bower acknowledges that this was a challenging year for the consultancy. “I think it has been a better year than our previous two, which you can say were the post-boom years, so that is good. We are encouraged and definitely optimistic about 2012, and where we see 2012 moving.”

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Such optimism is reflected in recruitment, with WSP Middle East expected to boost its numbers from 350 at present “to around 500 people over the next two to three years,” reveals Bower.

Part of this growth is due to the consultancy’s burgeoning low-cost design centres in India and the Philippines. “We see the 500-person growth here in the Middle East being complemented by our low-cost or complementary resources centre in India. That could easily be another 200 people to the Middle East business over time,” predicts Bower.

These centralised design hubs cut costs and maintain competitiveness. “Skill levels in India are increasing, and technology is getting better, so it allows us to work together more effectively.

“As well as our deal with Autodesk, we have also signed a global arrangement with Microsoft, which gives us global access to the Microsoft suite of products, one of which is Link, a desktop video conferencing and call-sharing system, which we now have across our entire global network as a point-of-presence system, so you can see where everybody is and can hold multiple conference calls,” says Bower.

The main benefit of this approach is that it also leverages specialised skills across the global group, such as bridge building from the Finland office or super-tall towers from the New York office. “The way we work is becoming more and more integrated. So while the group is constituted on a regional basis, we are integrating our service streams across the world.”

“I think the future growth is very positive here. That is my overall view. It is very exciting times, and I think that will drive the wider region as well, as it creates competition between the different countries as to what each is doing,” says Bower.

Reflecting on his 19 months in the region, and 13 years with WSP, Bower says: “Since I have arrived here, I have been very focused on improving the quality of our business, and ensuring what we do is of the highest quality. While there is a lot of pressure on costs, it should not be at the expense of quality. That presents some great opportunities, because by driving the business down this quality route, we have the opportunity to recruit the best people, and they are attracted to the organisation because they see it is focused on what they want to be involved with. As a result, we have recruited a number of senior people into important roles, who will then be able to influence our clients and win work.”

In terms of current challenges, Bower says it remains “a tough business environment, and again that comes back to the quality of what we do, not just the product we produce, but our interaction with clients and our administration of contracts needs to be of the highest quality to ensure we are able to deal with the challenges that the business environment presents.”

Key to this is the perennial issue of cash flow, the lifeblood of the construction industry. “We still have a number of outstanding issues with various clients [in terms of outstanding fees],” notes Bower. “We are seeing a bit more liquidity coming back into the market, which means some of those outstanding issues are being resolved,” he adds. “Generally we are seeing that, while money takes a long time to come through, it does come through in the end, and our clients are wanting to settle their outstanding debts. So we have been very patient generally with our clients here, and we believe that has been the right approach in terms of maintaining relationships at all different levels within the region.”

Bower concludes: “I think we definitely see the opportunities outweighing the challenges at the moment as a group. So we are very positive about the future.”

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