Ove Arup’s chairman designate has the job of preserving the Arup ethos while the firm changes into a heterogenous multinational. Here’s how he will do it.
Ove Arup can rest easy. If the late engineer ever feared that the principles on which he founded his partnership in 1970 would not endure into the 21st century, he need not have worried. Bob Emmerson, 62, who takes over as chairman of Ove Arup Partnership in April, is clearly a kindred spirit of “the old man”, as he refers to the founder.

His personal favourites out of Arup’s six key principles are quality of work, straight and honourable dealings and the reasonable prosperity of stakeholders. “You could, if you were being cynical, argue that it’s motherhood and apple pie, but people really believe in it,” says Emmerson. And he should know – not just because he has worked for Ove Arup for 40 years, but because he understands the firm from top to bottom. “He’s very approachable, and he really knows people in Arup,” says an associate, who adds, “and he should never be underestimated.”

This last remark is probably a reference to the scale of the challenge facing Emmerson. First, there is the question of leading a rapidly expanding multidisciplinary firm of 4800 employees into the 21st century. Second, he has to follow a very hard act: outgoing chairman Duncan Michael, the “philosopher king” of the partnership. And it may also be an allusion to other views that this tall, slim character, whose bespectacled blue eyes twinkle in a sallow complexion, may be a safe, patriarchal standard-bearer for the Ove Arup way, but is not expected to set the world alight.

The problem of success

Emmerson will take over a healthy organisation. Since Michael became chairman in 1995, the firm’s turnover has increased from £162m to £266m. Pre-tax profit rose to £15m in 1998, a 69% jump on 1999. Emmerson is aware that sustaining this level of performance has not been easy. Ove Arup may enjoy an unparalleled reputation for flair and innovation in engineering design, but commercial success has often proved elusive. For example, it made an ill-fated foray into Germany in the mid-1990s and suffered badly in the last recession.

Ove Arup’s erratic balance sheet has also been attributed to shortcomings in its management of risk and project delivery. This may also have something to do with the firm’s ownership structure: it is owned by trustees and employees, and is insulated from investor power. Certainly, there is nothing mercenary about Ove Arup, underlined by Emmerson’s view that money is a means to an end. “Profit is not the point,” he says. “It’s nice to have profit because it’s important for our future: training people in new technologies, new ventures, setting up in new areas.”

And Ove Arup is a fast-growing organisation. The partnership has recruited 650 new staff during the past five years, nearly all of them outside the UK, and is considering six proposals to open new offices abroad. Emmerson’s problem is to preserve the soul of Ove Arup – small-scale, communal, democratic – while it becomes a sprawling multidisciplinary multinational. In his inaugural address, Emmerson said his challenge was to resolve the contradiction between the two principles that “creative people need freedom from too much bureaucracy” and “complex global businesses need to have an organised process”.

Emmerson plans to reconcile these demands by decentralising within an overall strategic framework. This process, which was started by Michael, will see responsibility devolved to the firm’s businesses. “The intention is to make the management structure even flatter and keep at the centre only what is essential: treasury, personnel and knowledge management.”

All the firm’s operating parts have been asked to produce a business plan by April, while Emmerson is developing “a strategic vision that all the operating parts can interpret but broadly keep to”.

Sitting in his office in the partnership’s Fitzrovia headquarters in London’s West End, Emmerson looks at home, even though he spent many years designing schemes as far afield as the USA, Iran and the Philippines.

At the start of his career, it looked like he would not be designing buildings at all. He learned to fly a Tiger Moth biplane then he went to Cambridge University with the intention of becoming an aircraft engineer; a recession in the aircraft industry rerouted him into civil and structural engineering.

Career developments

Within weeks of joining Ove Arup’s 1960 graduate programme, he was testing models for Sydney Opera House. He was then project engineer on London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery. After that, he spent five years in the USA working for Boston-based engineer Bill Le Messurier, whose projects include the original Citicorp headquarters in New York. “I wanted to go to America because the speed of delivery was so fast. In two years, I probably saw five times as many projects as I would have in the UK.” Nevertheless, he turned his back on the higher status on offer in the USA to return to the fold: “I liked the culture of Ove Arup and the UK.”

He started off the firm’s first multidisciplinary team in 1970 and still champions this design approach. “Projects are getting much more complex,” he says. “We have been adding new skills to complement our core disciplines at the rate of about one a year. Those skills need to be pulled together.” He is particularly aware of the need to recruit talent and provide the conditions for it to flourish. “The only assets are people. Unless you keep replenishing the right people, you’re dead.” This is given more push by the rapid maturation of e-commerce.

Emmerson is aware of that, in this area, the neophytes may know more than the management. “We have a task group looking at e-commerce, but the youngsters are overtaking them on ideas.”

More generally, Emmerson sees the 800 members of Ove Arup’s graduate programme as a way of dealing with change. “They are going to want to take the company in new directions, some of which I can’t imagine.”

However, the sensitive issue for Ove Arup is staff retention – many top engineers have departed in the past two years. Emmerson counters that this follows a long-established pattern. “Half the industry is populated by people trained by Arup and that’s great.” On the other hand, he is doing his best to hang on to talent by “encouraging young people to move between design studios and around the world”.

Emmerson is addressing weaknesses in management by tying up a deal with the London Business School, under which senior staff will be trained in leadership. About 160 senior staff in London, Hong Kong and New York start the programme next month. “A lot of engineers are bloody good at engineering, but might not be good at some of the other issues,” he says, with a chuckle.

He says Ove Arup is in the process of bringing the distance learning schemes it has invested millions in at Reading University, the London School of Economics and Cambridge University on to its intranet and may open it up in future as a virtual university.

In the same spirit of self-improvement, the firm has just launched an appraisal system, to be overseen by the board of trustees. “We are trying to improve the accountability of the main board of directors,” he says. “Even I am getting appraised, probably by the chairman of the trustees – one Duncan Michael, whom you may have heard of,” says Emmerson, with a grin. This gesture of humility displays his democratic spirit. You suspect he will do fine.

Personal effects

What do you do to relax? I like reading, painting and history of art. I play golf and enjoy skiing, and I also enjoy my grandchildren. What car do you drive? A Saab convertible. Where do you live and who with? In a semi-detached in Barnes, with my wife Ann and our dog. What’s your favourite building? The Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. It combines beauty, structural elegance and appropriateness for climate. What’s your favourite city? Besides London? Sydney. It’s wonderful –so different. The attitude of the people is refreshing – pomposity doesn’t exist.