Lance Taylor is chief executive of Rider Levett Bucknall, a global QS that, according to him, resembles a ‘65-year-old toddler’. Here the rugby-playing hard man tells Karolin Schaps how he plans to nurture it through its teething problems.

It’s a crisp Thursday in December, with temperatures barely above freezing and the photographer asks: “Would you mind if we take the photo outside?” My jaw drops but Lance Taylor happily accepts: “I don’t mind – I’m a builder.”

Taylor is also used to tough conditions in his role as managing director of Rider Levett Bucknall, a firm he describes as a “65-year-old-toddler”. It was created last June by the merger of three QSs from around the globe – Bucknall Austin in the UK, Rider Hunt in Australia, and Levett & Bailey in the Far East. For Bucknall Austin, with a £26m turnover and profit that barely scraped £1m last year, it was an opportunity to become a global player with a combined turnover of £87m and 1,800 staff across more than 60 offices.

But the honeymoon was short-lived. Eighteen months after the deal was done, Simon Birchall, Bucknall Austin’s managing director and the man who initially headed the company, was forced out. The board said it wanted “a different style of leadership”. Their eyes lighted on Taylor, who was only 39, but had been running Bucknall Austin’s project management business for three years. He took over as chief executive with immediate effect.

A question of style

So how does Taylor’s style differ from Birchall’s?

“My style is different to Simon’s because I am a natural born leader of people. I’m very direct and results-driven – I would suggest that he wasn’t. I get things done – sometimes probably a bit too quickly.”

But Taylor does admit that it was “kind of weird” replacing Birchall. His voice lowers and his face turn serious. “I was on the board when we selected him and dedicated a tremendous amount of time to help Simon do well in this practice. I never really angled for the number one spot but I was a leading player on the board, so it seemed natural for me to sit at the top.”

David Bucknall, the firm’s chairman, agrees that Taylor is a guy who makes things happen. “He’s got that ‘glass half full’ positive view about him. It’s a very lonely job at the top, so I am glad that Lance has so much energy to share.”

Phil Higham, managing partner at Rider Levett Bucknall, says customers like Taylor for his vitality. “Among colleagues, he’s perceived to be a great leader with lots of energy and who gets to grips with the important issues.”

Six months into the job, Taylor has not yet built up a high profile in the industry, but he is said to have played a key part in the merger. At Bucknall Austin he managed key clients including Tesco and was in charge of the £200m mixed-use regeneration project at Wolverhampton Interchange. Bucknall himself invited him to join the company in 2003, when he was a partner at property agent GVA Grimley, co-ordinating the merger with Second London Wall.

“Of course I was in love with the firm I was with, but I was tempted when David Bucknall gave me a ring and asked if I wanted to co-ordinate a management buyout,” he says. “I love managing takeovers, because I am an expansive person and I know I can meet the challenge.”

But it sounds as if the amateur rugby coach, who bears the traditional cauliflower ears of his sport, is still under Bucknall’s wing. One well-placed source said the chairman was still “running the ship”, and Bucknall describes himself as Taylor’s “eyes and ears”, sharing his contacts and experience with the young chief executive. Taylor describes Bucknall as “an industry hero”. “We share a vision and we did a lot of it together. I hope he lives forever.”

Taylor’s targets

Before Bucknall can tackle immortality, there is the small matter of the firm’s five-year plan to put into action. The aim is to almost double UK turnover from £35m to £60m by 2012, and grow staff numbers to about 600 – roughly the size of Franklin + Andrews or Faithful + Gould. Rider Levett Bucknall was just outside the top 20 surveying firms in Building’s annual consultants rankings last October. Taylor’s targets would put it in the middle of the top 10.

He wants to expand purely by organic growth, he says – which is somewhat at odds with the furious acquisition activity in the consultancy sector. “We have no aggressive plans to buy. We are making massive investments in collecting and keeping the right people,” he says. The company has just resumed its “protégé” graduate programme – although the first round only attracted 87 applications for its 20 or so places.

Another industry trend Taylor seems to want to buck is the me-too round of flotations that have occurred over the past few months. Cyril Sweett listed in October, Baqus followed last month, and Turner & Townsend have announced they’ll be listing as well. Is it a possibility for Rider Levett Bucknall? “Absolutely not,” Taylor says. “We don’t need the money, for one, and we don’t need the requirements of powerful investors.”

Within the five-year plan, Taylor has targeted stadiums, education, social housing and nuclear for growth, on top of its core business in the commercial, residential, aerospace, leisure and retail sectors.

In terms of global expansion, the company will have offices in India, Europe and the Middle East by 2012, and global revenues of more than £150m, an increase of 243%. Offices in Oman and Dubai will be fully set up this year and a further one is to open in Abu Dhabi in 2009. Over Christmas, Taylor visited businesses in Sri Lanka while on holiday. “We are not going to buy anyone, but alliances or buying a few shares in local companies is possible,” he says.

Of course, global relationships have something of a chequered past among QS firms (see box, below), but Rider Levett Bucknall’s management structure reflects is geographic disparity. Taylor is looking after the Europe, Middle East and Africa area as well as global expansion; Levett and Bailey and Rider Hunt’s directors still run the business in their geographic areas.

Nine of Taylor’s colleagues have already taken the opportunity to join overseas offices in the US, Australia and New Zealand.

Taylor also wants employees of the different parts of the company to get to know each other: “The rule is, when you’re on holiday and you’re by an office, you’ve got to pop in.”

Dangerous waters?

Even before their merger with Bucknall Austin, Rider Hunt and Levett and Bailey had history with British QSs. Nebulous “alliances” were all the rage a few years ago, then plummeted from favour in 2006 after the two firms’ eight-year alliance with Gardiner & Theobald turned into a bitter territorial feud.

The merger framework makes for a more stable marriage, but keeping any kind of meaningful relationship going over such a long distance is bound to be difficult. Why risk another fiasco?

“We wanted global reach, inward investment and credibility,” Taylor says. “The merger will allow us to continue improving our sales.”

G&T’s relationship with the firms began to crumble because of a lack of commitment and trust by both sides, he explains. The fact that G&T set up competing offices in Asia caused the breakdown. “As for our merger, we didn’t have fingers in their pies – that’s why we were attractive to them.”

For the back story of G&T’s feud with Rider Hunt and Levett and Bailey search