It’s sad but true that the way we define the worth of people, professions and companies has nothing to do with the value of what they actually do, says Chris Wise
Every so often someone tries to buy our practice. My response is, why would we want to sell? But it does prompt the question about the “worth” of a creative technological endeavour like ours. To test this, while taxiing around the Institution of Civil Engineers’ (ICE) London Awards shortlist recently with Mark Whitby, I tried to glean from him how Ramboll had valued Whitbybird.
In the end, the Danish buyer got a name, an order book, a track record and a lot of people who might vanish like mist. The classic takeover hitches the old name onto the shirt tails of the conqueror, and a year or so later quietly drops it. Many take that road, and it’s goodbye Freeman Fox, Alexander Gibb, Oscar Faber and now Whitbybird. They are absorbed by the White Young Greens of this world, who thereby define the market worth of their conquests. I eventually guessed that Whitbybird had gone for £45m, and Mark didn’t deny it. Whatever the figure, he said, lots of people had benefited from the sale. He seemed pretty confident that the deal was worth it.
Market worth is relatively easy to define compared with social worth. It’s a classic dilemma. Is an engineer or a banker worth more to other people than a doctor or a priest? In the creative industries some justify their vulnerability by going biblical: what profit in gaining the world but losing your soul? Naturally the artistic opposite is foolhardy if you gain your soul but lose the whole world. You’d live a short happy life and die in euphoric poverty. Anyway, creative integrity can be sorely tested by the temptation of mountains of wonga.
Unlike Mark, we didn’t sell, but we did recently change the ownership of Expedition Engineering. After a lot of debate, we set up an Employee Benefit Trust and that now owns the practice. Shareholders Ed McCann, Sean Walsh and I gave the practice to the trust, a gift worth about £5m. We had the devil’s own job with the taxman, who is not used to such largesse. But to us it was worth it for the liberation it brings and the faith in our people that it repays.
Onwards to the Thames Water Ring Main Extensions, but Londoners probably care more about John Terry’s love life than the subterranean infrastructure that keeps them all alive
We call it the Useful Simple Trust. Rather wonderfully, there is a legal obligation to define this kind of trust through its altruistic purpose. So, as we value things such as education, sustainable working, and our contribution to society more than money, we tasked ourselves with blazing a trail in those areas. Trailblazing means we need to be entrepreneurial … so the trust funds start-ups such as Thinkup in education and MustRD in R&D. And a blazed trail needs to be visible, so Sophie Thomas of Thomas Matthews gave her sustainable graphics practice to the trust. This was a gift worth several hundred thousand pounds, but to Sophie, it too was worth it. After all, who knows what a graphic designer will come up with having spent a morning with an engineer? (A Times Roman catapult?) Creatively, it’s very rich.
Back in the ICE taxi with Mark Whitby, we visited a little urban design scheme in Woolwich that, for a few million pounds, has revamped the public spaces in the town, and sorted out the bus stops. It was nothing spectacular, but it had been championed by two men who were committed to making their community better. Their combined annual salaries are less than a footballer makes in a week but I’d argue they are worth far more.
Onwards to the Thames Water Ring Main Extensions. “What lies beneath?” was a question once asked by Hollywood, but Londoners probably care more about John Terry’s love life than the subterranean infrastructure that keeps them all alive. At 80km long, the ring main’s death-defying purpose is to bring drinking water, on tap, to millions. It has access shafts deep enough to swallow Nelson’s Column, and even the extension has 10km of giant tunnels. Zaha Hadid it ain’t, but I’d wager it’s “worth” much more to an awful lot of people, even if they’ve never heard of it. These tunnels will never receive tourists, yet tourists benefit from them every day. Unsung, they don’t make the news, and the considerable daring required to overcome dangerous ground and subterranean water is invisible. So it is pretty humbling to see the work of those engineers whose quiet skill is so little understood yet is worth so much.
As Van Gogh once lamented: “I can’t change the fact that my paintings don't sell. But the time will come when people will recognise that they are worth more than the value of the paints used in the picture.” A century later, his Dr Gachet sold for $82.5m Not bad for a few francs of paint … but, just like those unsung designers and engineers, what a shame that nobody realised Vincent’s worth while he was alive. “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”
Chris Wise is director of Expedition Engineering