Willmott Dixon shows it’s not good enough just to sit still

Your average large family-run contractor is known for adopting a simple, clever stance come a recession. As their more accountable, risk-adverse competitors cut costs, let go of internal expertise and reduce the scale of their ambitions - blighting the quality of their products and services along the way - the families often just sit tight. As the hard times bite, family firms focus hard on keeping clients close and delivering consistent messages to ensure their reputation is left intact. When the markets pick up, they then deploy expert teams to the head of the client queue to deliver on their promises. There is, though, no guarantee that this strategy will pay off - indeed, today’s financial reality means it is fraught with risk and has the potential to knock long-established names out of the game altogether.

Willmott Dixon, a family contractor that has managed to reinvent itself, is one firm that doesn’t intend to put such a strategy to the test. A decade ago the Hertfordshire-based company put family politics to one side and instilled a corporate structure under the stewardship of Rick Willmott. During this period, the business unsurprisingly rode the boom on the back of its traditional contracting roots and became a housing expert along the way, bringing in new expertise and management alongside independent board level advice. Today, Willmott Dixon’s ability to adapt has turned it into a £1bn turnover giant.

As Willmott articulates in our interview, it is not enough simply to sit still - not in boom times and certainly not when the going gets tough. Willmott predicts five years of recession ahead of us, which will impact on the major contractors in a way never seen before. Their primary means of survival will be diversification. For Willmott that has meant housebuilding, the rental market and a greater involvement in core development. And it has even put its own financial clout at risk for the first time to satisfy the demands of increasingly tough and risk-adverse clients. And then, of course, it will do what all growing families do: search for opportunities to pick off other businesses in duress along the way.

Designs of the times

Everyone knows that times are tough for architects. But to get an idea of just how tough, and what the knock-on effect might be for the future of design, we have worked up a double hit feature for you. First it delves into the financials of six of the UK’s top architectural practices by turnover and then goes on to analyse the effect the downturn could have on design. This is where the real debate lies. In the wake of the launch of the Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners-designed One Hyde Park in Knightsbridge last month, arguments between high end, complex design on the one hand and recession-busting standardised architecture on the other are raging. Details of every gobsmackingly expensive bespoke specification for the four-pavillioned
Candy & Candy development sit alongside headlines screaming about the need to cut costs by focusing on simpler, more standard buildings. In short, everyone seems to have an opinion on how far architects will need to strip back designs in order to claw back funds.

Tom Broughton is brand director