Richard Steer, chairman of EC Harris rival Gleeds, says why the latest takeover is bad news for clients and the industry
So EC Harris, another UK multi disciplinary QS consultancy practice, has been swallowed up by Arcadis, a foreign owned engineering behemoth, this time of Dutch rather than US origin.
On the anniversary of 100 years since their formation in 1911, I am not sure a sale in a depressed market is the best way to be celebrating your birthday. To be frank I receive the news with nothing but sadness.
All the usual platitudes will be made about maintaining the service levels as before, increased international support and broadening of the skill set, but frankly on a year by year basis we are witnessing the demise of the independent construction consultant, and the clients and market in general will suffer as a result.
To be frank I receive the news with nothing but sadness
EC Harris, like Davis Langdon and Halcrow before them, had a heritage and a past that said something about the UK construction consultant and the fact that we are very good at independent, solid, reliable and disciplined management, of projects, costs, time and resources. That is not to argue that huge foreign owned engineering conglomerates are not successful but they are different.
They are massive industrial machines that offer a one-size fits all service. It is like comparing McDonald’s to a specialist restaurant. With the American food chain you can guarantee the product is the same in Rotterdam or Rotherham but creating a project is not like making a burger: sometimes you need something that is unique and bespoke.
We have seen what happened in the Banking sector when so-called independent analysts, investment and retail operations are all housed under the same roof. Much of the current economic woes have been caused by the lack oversight into the way these businesses operated and in the end it was the clients who suffered.
Turner and Townsend, Gardiner and Theobald and my own organisation Gleeds are now some of the few firms of our type that are truly independent. With this latest takeover the market will become focused and clients have a clear choice. I feel very strongly that whilst integrated advice and consultancy can work in design, for the management of costs and time it is important for the consultant to be at arms length from the other parts of the building process.
The “Chinese walls” philosophy may resonate with those who wish to bring together disparate and separate business functions to save on overhead costs, but it is often at the expense of the service provided to clients.
I would counsel that because something is big it does not mean it is necessarily better
At Gleeds if a client has an issue they have the ultimate sanction of calling me and getting it sorted. When the chairman is situated in another country, in another organisation, focused more on investor relations than project or cost management, then I think the client has a clear choice with which kind of organisation they would rather deal.
Also you cannot quantify heritage on a balance sheet and for some it does not matter whether a cost consultancy firm like EC Harris played an important role in the formation of the RICS and formulation of the standard method of measurement that is accepted worldwide. Indeed in a short time the name EC Harris will not exist, so we are told.
With heritage comes a company culture which is important when considering with whom you wish to work, how they are managed and how they interface with your own business. Vital considerations when employing a consultant.
At the end of the day the point I make has a sound business rationale. We ourselves are a business with an international perspective and wide client base. Ultimately I think it is important that the client knows that the process under which any project is going to be managed is both tried, tested and has a foundation based on a successful formula.
No-one can predict the future, and I wish EC Harris and Arcadis well in their new relationship, but I would counsel that because something is big it does not mean it is necessarily better.
Richard Steer is a Building columnist and chairman of Gleeds Worldwide