Consultancy Currie & Brown is now owned by multinational giant Dar Group and has ambitions to expand its turnover by around 50% by 2027. New boss Alan Manuel tells Carl Brown about his plans

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“Dar has the strongest balance sheet in the world, so there’s no limit. If we go and find opportunities and bring them to them, they will listen – whether its [acquiring] a £60m business or a £600m business,” says Alan Manuel.

The brand spanking new London offices for the Dar Group, in which Building meets the boss of its consultancy business Currie & Brown, certainly give the impression of a company not short of cash. The light and airy nine-storey “smart” building, designed by Perkins & Will (another Dar company), with its atrium and roof gardens and views towards St Pauls, is certainly one of the more impressive venues for a Building interview.

While the smart building, which Manuel jokes is “too smart” sometimes for him, is the very definition of modernity, there is something almost old-school about Manuel, who apologises straight off the bat for conducting the interview without his jacket on. “That’s unprofessional of me,” he says. He may say that but Manuel, in his tartan waistcoat and blue shirt, looks every inch the smart executive.

This mixture of the traditional and the modern perhaps befits Currie & Brown, a consultancy formed in Victorian times which is seeking to expand in “modern” markets including data centres and life sciences, more of which later.

We kick off our chat by talking about how Manuel is adjusting to his new chief executive role, after being promoted from chief operating officer in January of last year.

“I’ve been involved in various bits in our global business around the UK and European businesses for six years, but still the step up to running a global business is, well, interesting,” the Glaswegian chuckles.


1987 Becomes a chartered surveyor and later runs his own quantity surveying/projecy managament business

1999 Joins consultant Cyril Sweett as a director 

2016 Becomes chief operating officer of Currie & Brown’s UK and Europe businesses after the firm acquires Sweett Group

2022 Appointed chief executive of Currie & Brown globally

Manuel initially oversaw the integration of Sweett Group, the retail and mixed-use sector construction consultant, into Currie & Brown seven years ago, before heading up the firm’s £60m-turnover UK and European businesses. He is now boss of the whole global operation, with its £204m turnover and 2,500 staff, delivering cost management, project and programme management and a suite of advisory services.

So, what’s his brief as chief executive?

Manuel stresses that Dar Group gives its businesses, including Currie & Brown “total independence” in its decision making.

Targeted turnover growth

“It was a case of me coming up with a strategy that they were happy to appoint me on, and then letting us get on and do it. Dar being Lebanese, they always say they take a long-term approach to life, and they are very very supportive. Our role is to grow the business across the globe, to make it a predominant brand 100 or 150 years from now,” says Manuel, taking the long-term approach to extremes.

So what form does this growth take?

“There’s a lot of people rushing to be the biggest. I’m not bothered about that – there is a vanity about wanting to be the biggest. We want to be the best and we are constantly making sure we are adding value to every project we are working on,” he says. 

The size of Currie & Brown’s different regional businesses 

UK & Europe £86m 800
Americas £36m 335
Middle East £40m 430
Asia Pacific £42m 934
Total £204m 2499
Source: Currie & Brown

Manuel is undoubtedly sincere about his aims for the organisation but there is a strong focus on growth also. He says Currie & Brown is looking to grow its global business’ turnover to £300m by 2027 through organic expansion of the operation.

So which areas does he see growing? He sees growth spread throughout, but the business’s four core market areas are health, high tech including data centres and EV battery production facilities, office refurbishments for large financial institutions and life sciences.

He says he wants to continue to grow in the UK and mainland Europe but sees huge potential across the Atlantic. “Our North American and Latin American businesses have caught hold in the last five years and they are growth areas for us,” he says.

Currie & Brown’s north American business has grown from 60 or 70 people to 280 in just a few years but is “still 2,000 people too short”, meaning it has to turn opportunities down currently.

Part of the strategy is doing more with global clients in Currie & Brown’s core areas. “Our client list is fantastic, and we just want to widen where we deliver for them across the globe.”

Mergers and acquisitions

While Manuel believes £300m turnover through organic growth is do-able, he is also looking at acquisitions, with north America, again, and Europe the obvious places of interest. So what does a good acquisition opportunity look like for Currie & Brown?

Manuel says that, in his view, it is not worth acquiring a business with less than 150 people as taking over a small business is as tricky as a large one and the scale is not there. He does point to exceptions, such as a deal last year to acquire German firm ALBA Bau Projekt Management GmbH, which only has around 70 employees but allowed Currie & Brown to break into that German market.

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Currie and Brown’s headquarters is in Dar Group’s UK offices in Holborn, London. The building was built by McLaren and designed by Perkins & Will

He stresses there are lots of opportunities for deals, but Currie & Brown is selective again about only signing contracts where they can add value. “We have a really strict ‘go, no-go’ process, which is rigorously enforced. We probably say no to 40% of the bids that come across the desk but we have a fantastic win rate because we only pick bids we think we can make a difference and add value on.”

“You can kick me under the table every time I say ‘add value’,” he laughs.

But what does adding value actually consist of?

On the project management side it is about being able to “look ahead to the issues that might arise, but getting ahead of them so they don’t become an issue” and turn into problems. On the cost consultancy side he says it’s not just stripping out cost upfront but also adding value by providing skills and expertise in areas such as zero carbon and carbon usage.

 If you look at the history of the profession, in the UK in particular, it has always been full of acquisitions

Consultancy mergers in construction are currently a hot topic following Alinea’s surprise decision to join Turner & Townsend this year.  Does Manuel see a flood of opportunities for further acquisitions as smaller firms seek to “do an Alinea”?

“I think, if you look at the history of the profession, in the UK in particular, it has always been full of acquisitions. And what happens typically is a business will buy another business and then two or three people split off from that and set up their their own business. Then, in four years’ time, they will be bought or they will buy somebody else.”

He says much acquisition activity is driven “by global engineering businesses who want to do everything for their clients”. He stresses however that Currie & Brown, while being owned by a company with 18,000 employees, does operate independently with no pressure to use the services of its sister organisations.

Price vs quality and the UK market

So, with his new-found experience of running a global business, how does Manuel see the UK market compared with other global markets? He says the UK market remains a good place to do business but inflation in recent months, driven in part by last year’s disastrous mini-Budget, has deterred some investment in the commercial sector especially.

“Once we get through this year and people can see a more normal level of inflation and tender price inflation, the commercial clients will be more willing… The last thing they want to do is start up projects only to find that costs have gone up 15% – and then there goes the margin,” he says.

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And that brings us on to the perennial problem in the industry about the race to the bottom on price.

“We need to get together and have proper grown-up conversations about the value of the consultancy market. There will be no problem competing on quality, none whatsoever.

“But none of us like competing on price, because necessarily something has to give. You can’t take £100 and go and buy a Rolls-Royce.

“I don’t think procurement departments understand that, because most of them aren’t specialists in procuring construction… If you want the best service, you need to balance the quality of service with the price you pay.”

UK’s flawed infrastructure policy

While price has long been a debating point in construction, not least through the Building the Future Commission, another area of concern for Manuel concerns infrastructure. As a key player in the health market who has been involved in work on new hospitals, he has views on what has gone wrong with the “stalled” New Hospital Programme (NHP), which is expected to deliver 40 new hospitals by 2030.

Speaking before last month’s government announcement of a new funding package for NHP, Manuel says there is definitely a need for a more phased, “programme” approach to hospital building. “We haven’t got the capacity to build all those hospitals at once. We’re not sure how to procure it properly, it needs to be phased,” he says.

He thinks there is a bigger issue around infrastructure policy in the UK which needs to be “better organised”.

He adds: “We tend to get a flood of projects. A period of uncertainty, than another flood of projects. It really does need to be taken away from the politicians somehow, so we can have a planned infrastructure programme over the next 20 years.”

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Views from the top of Dar Group’s offices towards St Pauls cathedral

And, then, after about an hour or so, our time with the smart-dressing, thoughtful sounding Scot comes to an end. It is clear that construction is in his blood. His father was a clerk of works and he became a quantity surveyor at the age of 18, before “morphing” into project managing.

“A client of mine said I was a surveyor with an opinion, so that must mean I’m a project manager,” Manuel laughs. And he clearly has some projects firmly in his sights. 

As Manuel nudges Currie & Brown’s turnover up to £300m in the next few years, do not be surprised if the 147-year-old firm expands rapidly organically, but also through acquisitions on both sides of the Atlantic.