We meet the man with one of the truly epic jobs in British construction: taking over Britain's biggest consultant, redefining its strategy and making it work. Here he talks to us about how he plans to tackle this mammoth task – with detours around plastic lunchboxes and leather underpants.
"I'm really dull; I'm a really dull person," says Keith Clarke. Not a promising greeting. The public relations man grins, but already he must be dreading the headline.

Clarke has been chief executive of megaconsultant Atkins since October, taking the reins after one of the most disastrous patches of the company's 60-year history. Atkins is in better shape today; its most recent interim results showed a £17.8m pre-tax profit compared with a loss of nearly £33m for the previous year. He may claim to be dull, but Clarke's exuberance is evidence enough of the company's restored confidence.

Clarke is hosting an investor day presentation, the first Atkins has held for two-and-a-half years. He admits: "The company got a bit distracted with other things."

Such as the lengthy hunt for a new chief executive. After Robin Southwell left under the shadow of a shock profit warning and 400 job losses in September 2002, it took more than two years to secure a replacement. Atkins finally found its man in Clarke, who was a vice-president of Skanska at the time.

Of the old regime, Clarke says: "We at Skanska thought that Atkins was a phenomenal engineer – as good as you get – but corporately it had gone slightly barmy."

Clarke's own sanity seems to be in question as he grabs one of about 20 bright red school lunchboxes emblazoned with the legend "My new school is cool". Inside is a design proposal for a PFI school building, a press release and a packet of ready salted crisps. "I've sent about 20 investors and analysts out in the City carrying these," declares an evidently delighted Clarke.

Southwell remains a friend of the firm, Clarke claims, and he reveals that their paths had previously crossed: "We still talk to him. He's alright. In fact, he tried to sell me half of Atkins once," says Clarke.

This may sound like a jaw-dropping claim but Clarke goes on to explain that Southwell was considering setting up a series of joint ventures with Skanska at the time, which would have amounted to a merger.

Southwell himself is a little sketchier on the details: "Who is Keith Clarke? I remember meeting the chief executive of Skanska, but there was nothing of a substantive nature."

Southwell's joint venture ambitions may have been little more than thinking out loud, but what is clear is that Clarke is steering Atkins in a very different direction to his predecessor. Whereas Southwell tried to expand the firm extremely quickly, this aggressive strategy does not appear to appeal to Clarke. "The aim for us is to give shareholder value," he says.

Clarke's fear is that the market does not understand Atkins. The company was often linked to Amey, a company also listed as being in support services, and which suffered an even more grisly fate than Atkins during the same period. But Amey is essentially a contractor, and Atkins is more of an engineer.

The support services sector, Clarke argues, will inevitably be split into at least two subgroups by 2006 so that investors can better define what these companies actually do: professional services, which is how Clarke views Atkins' role, and a lower-end services group.

PFI is about choosing what you want and why you want to win it. There is no free lunch with PFI

"One of the objectives is to explain where we sit in what is the very broad category of professional and support services," says Clarke. "Certainly, when talking to investors they're beginning to group us into comparable areas, because they realise that you cannot look at the sector and assume we're all behaving according to the same business model."

Clarke offers a breakdown of his group's figures to show that Atkins is more clearly focused than might be perceived. Roughly £1bn of the company's £1.2bn turnover is in design, planning, and procurement – high-end stuff – and only £50m in facilities management. Its property business, Lambert Smith Hampton, generates only £70m and is a stand-alone company outside the Atkins brand.

Facilities management work will not be run down under Clarke, but he intends to focus it on clients with whom the company has a strong relationship, such as the Ministry of Defence, for whom it works on the £600m Colchester Barracks PFI.

The company's approach to PFI will change. "The PFI model we will use will involve putting in the minimum equity needed, which could be zero, and recycling it at the earliest sensible point," he says.

This trend started in November, when Atkins sold off its stakes in two road projects to Balfour Beatty. Clarke also reveals that at least part of Atkins' 20% stake in the Metronet, the consortium that runs half of the London Underground, could be sold off by 2012. "The biggest investment we have in equity is Metronet and we're more than content to hold on to that for at least four to seven years," he says, "but I'd be surprised if we held on to it for much more than eight."

Clarke's strategy is underpinned by a belief that the financing structure of PFI is set for radical change. "What will happen is that the finance side will start to evolve out. That's a bit odd, isn't it? PFI without the finance.

"I think you'll see the government reserving its right to doing some other type of finance than bank debt. It could be a bond or a government loan wrapped by something – it would be a model we're not familiar with."

This move could involve a separate financing competition to the one run for finding the contractor–designer–consultant team. This would benefit companies such as Atkins as it would allow them to focus on complicated design-and-build issues, rather than being distracted by raising credit.

Clarke intends to focus his strategy on the PFI. His aim is to make sure the company wins one in three of its bids – a target he bettered at Skanska. He says that the company will put more money into PFI tenders, but declines to quantify this. "Any time you ask for numbers I'm going to be difficult and say we don't give numbers," says Clarke.

"You'll find I've said this before – I'm really dull actually – PFI is about choosing what you want and why you want to win it. There is no free lunch with PFI."

Cagey about numbers he may be, but Clarke outlines his PFI strategy in some detail. One aim is to increase the provision of technical due diligence for other companies' PFI bids. Atkins has already done design work for Japanese contractor Kajima on a series of its school PFI projects.

Conversation turns to Clarke's illustrious predecessors, Tyrel Wyatt and Bill Atkins. "People talk about Tyrel all the time. It's a bit embarrassing. I did a little bit of reorganising, and one of our chaps said to me, 'There's nothing new here, you know; Bill Atkins used to do that.' I asked him if it worked, and he said, 'Yeah, brilliantly'.

Clarke on ...

‘personal effects’ boxes
Building does a personal effects box with its interviews … I know. I hate them.

Aww, come on No, it’s just private. Who wants to know that stuff?

What about if you just tell us your favourite drink? Whiskey and soda, but who cares? Who cares? Who cares? Clarke wears leather underpants. Put that. It’s ridiculous! Who cares? I have a private life, I’m a family man, that’s my business. The share price doesn’t go up and down on whether I play squash.

Aha! So you play squash! Actually no … Uch! I have a life. I’ll tell you something else though … [The ensuing rant was off the record. Sorry.]

… Mike Jeffries
When Robin Southwell left Atkins, it was rumoured his relationship with chairman Mike Jeffries was at the crux of many problems. This prompted speculation about how you would react to working with Jeffries. So what’s the story? I thoroughly enjoy working with Mike. He’s a cracker. He’s one of those people you can argue with and enjoy doing it. He’s as unreasonable as me and it’s brilliant.

… working in Iraq
We’re not going there, it’s too dangerous. As a management risk test; would you send your 21-year-old graduate son or daughter out to work there? If no, you shouldn’t send anyone there.

… working hours
I don’t tend to work weekends – occasionally Sundays. You shouldn’t be working regularly at the weekend. Normal hours are about 7.30am to 7.30pm. You’ve got to have a life. If you can’t go out and enjoy yourself, what’s the point?

… rivals
The most comparable with us would be WSP and White Young Green – but we’re broader than both. We’re significantly bigger than Arup and Mott MacDonald. We do far more high-end engineering than Bechtel and they do much more programme management and top-end co-ordination than Atkins, but I think that will change.