Davis Langdon & Everest’s new boss tells us about his plans for the QS in the chilly days to come. Nothing drastic – just a complete change of culture and business strategy …
There’s a new broom at Davis Langdon & Everest. The firm that has been led for the past five years by the charismatic, at times abrasive character that is Paul Morrell, is now being led by a less cerebral, more approachable personality. Even the name, Rob Smith, suggests a more everyman-like character. Morrell, the thinker and theorist, the ballet and opera fan compared with estuary-accented Smith, a mad keen Manchester United supporter who has “catholic tastes” in music – he’s off to see The Rolling Stones at Twickenham this summer – but draws the line at opera. To use a football analogy, it’s like Alan Curbishley replacing Arsene Wenger at the helm of Arsenal.
The comparison is not lost on staff at the practice. One recent recruit to the firm describes 53-year-old Smith as a “quiet man” but “well respected and briefed”. “He’s not going to have the gregarious and outgoing personality that Paul has,” the staffer says before adding how popular a figure Smith is within the business. “I have not heard anyone saying anything about him that’s unpleasant.”
As Smith concedes, he’s not likely to be your table-thumping, shouty sort of boss. “I think that’s one area the partnership considered in voting for me,” he explains. “I’m quite good at getting the best out of people. I’m very much a team player rather than someone who will tell people ’this is how it’s going to be’.” He’s certainly not one to overstate his case or to bristle or react at any criticism. Smith is more likely to use his high-pitched laugh than a bellow or growl.
And it’s not just the personalities that are changing at DL&E. Smith’s interview takes place in the firm’s new London office – client Stanhope’s Mid City Place development on High Holborn, no less. The move, due for next week, is taking the firm just a stone’s throw away from its previous Kingsway office – “turn right at Holborn Tube instead of left” as Smith puts it – but it seems to signal a change in the culture of the business. The new 4000 m2 floor will be completely open plan, compared with the eight-floor cellular block the firm used to occupy. “It’s going to have a bigger impact on our operation than email has,” Smith reckons. “Partners used to get in a lift straight to the seventh floor without talking to anyone.” The new environment fits Smith’s management philosophy. “I believe in walking about the office. If you listen to what the staff have to say you have more chance of nudging them in the direction they want to go. I want to align their enthusiasm with the business.”
In business terms, new times are also calling for a new approach. The unprecedented turn-of-the-century construction boom now seems to have run its course – particularly in the DL&E staple that was the commercial sector. The cooler climate is calling for a change of direction from a firm that has prided itself on sticking to its guns as a pure QS. This move comes as its major rivals frantically try to redefine the profession, moving to areas such as management consultancy.
Smith’s first words in the interview indicate this change in direction. “We are moving towards becoming a property construction consultancy, rather than how people traditionally perceive us,” he says.
Smith has already instigated the shift of DL&E’s business – he began the process on E E his first day in the helm, last Thursday. Since he was voted in as senior partner last October he has been “gearing up the business for the next five-to-10 years”.
This means expanding beyond its core QS operation, which now makes up just a little more than half the firm’s business. Smith has a target to increase project management from 18% to 25% of the business in three years, and has made two senior appointments as partners – John Lewis and Nick Clare from consultant Clarson Goff Management – to bolster the project management team. And as of last week, the firm’s building services consultancy Mott Green & Wall, is being expanded, rolling out across the UK beyond its London and South-eastern home.
Smith also wants to “sectorise” the business – a current fetish in construction quarters. From Building Design Partnership to Atkins and Bovis Lend Lease, firms are positioning themselves in defined growth markets, such as health and defence, and DL&E will do the same.
Partners used to get in a lift straight to the seventh floor without talking to anyone. I believe in walking about the office
However, the new boss is well aware of the pitfalls underlying big shake-ups. Witness the recent meltdown at Atkins, which is now undoing many of the sweeping changes brought in by former chief executive Robin Southwell. “The Atkins lesson has been a very real one,” is how Smith puts it.
So what of the tough market conditions, that are expected to hit the sector this year, and to last for the next three years? Smith – a keen sailor, having been born and raised in the Kent seaside town of Whitstable – is expecting rough waters ahead but is optimistic that DL&E can keep to its course.
“January and February were tough,” he says. “We were thinking this year is probably not going to be a good one. But in the past six to eight weeks orders have started to flow in. It’s going to be a tough year but not as black as it might have been.” Smith is also encouraged by the firm’s international prospects, citing areas such as Czech Republic, the Middle East and China – the firm is working on Herzog & de Meuron’s Olympic stadium in Beijing – as boom areas.
He stresses the firm’s history of researching its key markets and working closely with architects. “We need a better understanding of what needs to go into a school to educate children better, of hospitals that heal better and prisons that result in people not reoffending.” He adds: “We did work on cost models – they were very focused on design criteria. What we didn’t look at was the functional issues – that’s where the really big push is.”
That expansion of research indicates evolution rather than revolution at the firm. Smith adheres to pride and professionalism in his work – of “going the extra mile” on projects. “Even if a project gets into distress we do not back off,” he says, perhaps alluding here to recent problems at Sir Michael Hopkins’ Saga headquarters, which is facing £8m of remedial works four years after opening. “It’s quite stressful to be a partner in this organisation,” he continues. “It’s not just a case of handing over projects to junior staff and letting them get on with it. You have to be hands-on in every area.”
Smith’s quiet transition will be carried out alongside the continuing presence of Morrell. He describes Morrell’s role as that of a “quasi-chairman” to his chief executive.
In his understated way, Smith sees the handover as freeing Morrell to pursue his pan-industry interests, which include being a CABE commissioner as well as growing the firm in North America and Asia. “He’s not going to have to worry about making sure we have got the right people in the right places. From that angle, we have potentially got the best of both worlds.
Maybe in the past he’s probably tried to do a bit too much. We now have 1100 people with various strands in the business. It’s now demanding a different management style to get the best out of it.”
Smith’s progress up the ladder at DL&E has been smooth. He joined in 1976 when the firm was in its Davis Belfield & Everest guise, and made partner in 1982. He then had tours of duty heading DL&E’s operations in London and the South-east. That kind of pedigree made him an obvious choice to take over. “A lot of people have been saying that I would succeed. I’ve not been preparing myself,” he says, and pauses – “resigning myself maybe”, and adds a high-pitched laugh.
Where do you live? In Chiswick with my wife Sue – she teaches children with learning difficulties. We have no children. How did you start supporting Manchester United? I get a lot of stick from staff about supporting them. It was the FA Cup in 1958. I was about eight. Man Utd were playing Bolton Wanderers and Harry Gregg got his cheek smashed by Nat Lofthouse. It sticks in the mind. Do you think David Beckham will go to Real Madrid? A lot of the fans think he should. I don’t think he will. What are you reading? I read mainly books about the business. The last book I read was Ellen MacArthur’s autobiography, Taking on the World. What kind of sailing do you do? It’s in little laser boats. I still have a place in Whitstable, although the place has got too popular recently. It’s full of journalists.