So, is the little-known Steer the fast-living playboy of the construction world or the sober custodian of one of the more traditional QS firms? First impressions of him do not so much answer the question as pose new ones: his carefully combed hair and bouncy manner could suggest an overgrown schoolboy who would be miscast in either role. In fact, interviewing him at a table, it was tempting to imagine that his trousers stopped somewhere above his knees. He was, of course, properly attired, and very properly laughs off the wild-child stories: "If other people had a bit more fun, they'd have less to talk about." Instead, he concentrates on projecting yet another image, that of Gleeds' visionary moderniser taking the company into a more profitable age. His appointment is accompanied by a new structure for the firm, and the ambitious target of doubling last year's £35m fee income within five years.
But in his mission to sell new services and expand Gleeds' geographical coverage, the schoolboy charm could yet prove something of a problem. The senior partner's boyishness might remind clients and colleagues that this moderniser's course is firmly guided by family tradition. His father, Peter, now retired, was Gleeds' senior partner until 1994, when Nottingham-based John Gregory took over.
"If I was working for Gleeds, [the family connection] would worry me," notes one senior QS in a rival firm. But Steer, who took up the top job at the 750-strong firm on 1 January, explains: "I was next in the hierarchy after the four partners retired – it was a natural progression." Steer has worked for the company since 1984, following stints with the Spicer Partnership and DG Jones, and admits that his father's presence in the Gleeds boardroom did not exactly hinder his career: "It was embarrassing because I wanted to achieve on my own account, but I would have to agree, it's been useful." Gleeds' choice of Steer mirrors the appointment of senior partners Paul Morrell at Davis Langdon & Everest and Richard Clare at EC Harris. In all three cases, the firms chose to bypass the fiftysomething generation in favour of energetic baby-boomers with a more modern outlook, and younger industry contacts. On this point, Steer seems particularly well-connected. His degree from the College of Estate Management in Reading provided him with long-lasting professional friendships, including Jack Lovell and John Morgan of Morgan Sindall. One of the main challenges Steer faces in his new role is to mould a truly national company out of the regional "islands" that have characterised Gleeds to date. Well-regarded bases in Bristol and Nottingham have left the firm looking underweight in London, some observers believe. "For smaller jobs in the regions, Gleeds might well be my first choice," says one project manager. "But they seem weaker in London, and I'd hesitate to put them on a bid list for a large City job." A senior partner in a rival firm adds: "You never quite know where the real power lies. I think a firm always benefits from a fairly prescribed geographical HQ." Steer acknowledges: "In the past, the regions sometimes went their own way, but we've now got an opportunity to make sure everyone's pulling in the same direction." The integration plan involves strengthening Gleeds' main board, which draws its members from the partners in the region. Eight new faces are being drafted on to it, including non-partners with direct responsibility for business areas such as information technology and project management. "It's more like a plc or a limited company than a traditional partnership approach," Steer summarises.
We would consider changing the partnership. But it would change the dynamic … there would be a lot of people to get on-side
The proposed "University of Gleeds" could be another way of pulling the company together. A conscious echo of corporate colleges at firms such as J Sainsbury, the university will be a permanent training centre hosting courses aimed at everyone from graduate QSs to directors. Subjects will include IT, management strategy, finance and customer care.
In the old argument over whether consultants are best served by pursuing partners' financial well-being in a traditional structure, or seeking shareholder value as a limited company, Steer comes down in favour of the status quo. However, he seems to suggest its lifespan may be limited. "In due course, we would consider changing [and incorporating] the partnership. But it would change the energy and the dynamic, and there would be a lot of people to get on-side." But he is not in favour of the method chosen by two rival firms in their attempt to bridge partnership status and global growth. Referring to Gardiner & Theobald's tripartite link-up with Levett & Bailey and Rider Hunt, and DL&E's month-old association with a US and a South African firm, Steer argues that "it's easy to claim amalgamations and associations with other firms, but unless you also integrate the culture, you're not really going to benefit in the eyes of clients. And profit flow is very important in these tie-ups – without profit flow, there's no real relationship." Gleeds' own growth plans will be predicated on organic growth, educating clients on the firm's increasing services and maintaining repeat business with blue-chip clients such as Marks & Spencer. There will also be a focus on Central and Eastern Europe, a Gleeds success story associated with Steer's decision to push the region in the early 1990s. "It's a major part of our income and profit stream," he says.