What does the world associate with Britain? Last Friday it was bunting, ornate carriages and the class system. But normally, British construction firms say, it’s quality, reliability, and trust that spring to mind when they bid for work abroad. Yet with more and more firms doing the majority of their work overseas, how can they cling on to a national brand that most claim to value?
EC Harris is pushing to get three quarters of its business from overseas. 57% of Cyril Sweett’s order book is international. Five years ago, 60% of Mott MacDonald’s business came from the UK; that figure has now slumped to 33%.
Ten years ago, if you just had an office in Dubai, it was easy simply to staff it with expats and recreate the culture of central London in the middle of the Gulf, just with more air conditioning. Yet as expansion increasingly depends on acquisition of local companies, particularly in China, due to impenetrable markets and language barriers, making sure your clients get the same service in Manchester and Guangzhou is getting harder.
Significantly, EC Harris is planning to immediately rebrand its latest Chinese acquisition, MB Project Management. The 30-strong outfit was also jointly founded by a British expat. “They will have senior expat managers look over it,” says Dominic James of consultants’ organisation British Expertise, who concedes that introducing your ‘culture’ into an acquisition is “difficult”, but has been done the other way around. “Honda and Nissan have come in and brought in a Japanese culture to the UK,” he says.
But why not go the whole hog and dispense with ‘Britishness’ altogether, becoming ‘global’ instead? The end result of losing the British tag could indeed be a woolly brand. Still, will a London HQ be of any relevance to clients in emerging economies be of any relevance in 20 years time, particularly as countries like China close the quality gap with the West?
“In 20 years I think they will be very proud to be British with HQs in Britain,” thinks James. “Britishness means quality, reliability, and trustworthiness.” Er, what about BP? “There are very few examples of British companies making a mess of things,” James argues. For now, many UK consultants are happy to put out the red, white and blue bunting when they bid for work abroad. But if most of your staff and work is outside Britain, will clients be convinced?