In light of the Arcadis/EC Harris deal, independent consultants have a choice to make – and they better choose fast

“… And so, another independent UK consultant bites the dust.” So said industry onlookers as Dutch engineer Arcadis swooped for EC Harris on Monday. After Aecom’s purchase of Davis Langdon last year, and more recently CH2M Hill’s raid on Halcrow, the deal is the latest in a lengthening line of mergers in which big UK names have joined forces with overseas giants. The news has also inevitably fuelled accusations from some quarters that the UK is losing the specialist, personal service that has been central to top firms’ reputations, and which helped attract such international interest in the first place.

But despite the regrets of some - including Stanhope founder Peter Rogers - the case for EC Harris’ decision is a compelling one. Chief executive Philip Youell has openly said that the consultant was not able to grow fast enough to satisfy the demands of clients that wanted it to provide much greater depth and geographic reach. The tie-up with Arcadis will do much to meet those concerns immediately - and also in the future, by allowing EC Harris to leverage funds from the stock exchange listing of its Dutch parent.

Yes, a multi-disciplinary consultancy of 19,000 people could end up becoming dependable across many areas rather than outstanding in any one - and may lose out in the eyes of some clients because of it. But for others, an ability to switch resources quickly between international markets, and follow clients swiftly into new territories and on much larger contracts will be seen as ample compensation for that risk.

EC Harris’ gamble is that those clients that want this broader service can offer it more than those that resent the change - and in a market where UK firms are increasingly having to look outside their traditional sources of income, that seems a reasonable choice. Equally, rival firms such as Gleeds, which are fiercely promoting the virtues of independence, may well find that they pick up on work on projects where clients favour a more personal approach - and will seek to use that to cement their position with those customers.

But one thing is clear even before clients have delivered their verdict in hard cash: the UK’s remaining independent consultants need to make a choice. It’s one thing to remain independent as a core strategy - another to be forced to do so because overseas suitors have snapped up firms more open to conversation.

Not many firms remain that are both eligible suitors with strong reputations in the UK and haven’t yet made a move - just Bechtel, Hill International and Jacobs spring to mind - so those companies that may want to take the EC Harris route had better get talking.     

Sarah Richardson, deputy editor

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