Arup’s London office just got a much-needed burst of sunshine from Australia - Robert Care is here, with plans to steer the firm to success in the UK and abroad. David Matthews finds him characteristically optimistic
When Robert Care joined Arup 34 years ago, he spent the first three weeks living out of a Volkswagen camper van in Crystal Palace. “My wife and I arrived back from touring Europe, put in a load of job applications, and got rejected by an awful lot of firms. But I got accepted by Arup.” So while he looked for a house, he stayed in the van. Not that he minded. “I could stand up in it - it was a sophisticated pop-top!” Care lets out one of his distinctive Aussie bursts of laughter that echoes around the room.
Care is a sizable, jocular new presence in Arup’s London offices, and an anecdote is never far from his lips. But his first four months as head of the engineer’s UK, Middle East and Africa division is unlikely to have been quite as breezy as his stint in the VW. After six-and-a-half years as chief executive and chair of the Australasia arm, he has flown in to lead a business in transition. Before Care joined, Arup UK’s turnover dropped by almost a fifth in the year to 31 March last year, and a major shake-up of the firm followed that saw 550 staff made redundant, 70 redeployed overseas and 86 vacant positions not filled - a total of 15% of the workforce. But Care, who arrived after the cuts had been decided, hopes he can help this streamlined team to see the whole world as a potential market so that, as he puts it, a Watford office is winning rail work in Africa.
“Is it ideal?” he asks, pondering his arrival in the midst of so much upheaval. Suddenly, as he so often does, he seizes on the positive. “In some ways it is. It’s ideal because now we can make a difference and,” he pauses, “because we can build ourselves up and go forward in a very positive way. See, I’m an optimist,” he adds, and again laughs.
You have to want to change
Arup UK is now divided into five regions, which, plus the Middle East and Africa, all fall under Care’s responsibility. While no offices have been closed or merged, Care says they now work together as UK sub-regions - Scotland and North-east, North-west and Yorkshire, Midlands, West and London and South-east - rather than thinking just about their own city.
“The Newcastle and Scotland offices work together,” he explains as an example.”It’s about balancing the workload between them if we have more work in one than the other,” and adds that Arup staff now switch between UK offices more than they used to, making the engineer more “liquid”.
A cynic might say that the restructure was simply about shedding of staff working on public sector projects. Care admits the shake-up will help prepare for the coming drought in the public sector. “There are some areas where we have people who are really good at doing things that will not be active in the next few years in the UK. But there are others that are,” he says, after a slight falter.
But he argues that the new, leaner business will be able to hunt far more effectively for work abroad. “In the past, a local office in Australia might rather go down the road and do a JV with our competitors rather than call on Arup staff in another office that might be 1,000km away,” he explains. But the attempt to snap up more work in Africa, for example, from the UK is not driven by a restructure, Care explains, but by a change in attitude that thinks he can cultivate in Arup staff.
Care has a real interest, it seems, not in the minutiae of the restructured business, but in encouraging his staff to, well, open their minds. He explains he has just finished talking to an employee not only about how she could work differently, but what would fulfil her purpose in life - and how she could fit her job around it. “I could see their eyes opening to things they haven’t thought about. It’s about bringing a different perspective - ’have you thought about doing it this way?’” he says. “The only person who can change anyone is themselves. I work with my people to let them see how they could choose to change.”
Care tactfully declines to comment on how his style differs from his predecessors’, Alain Marcetteau and John Turzynski, the former chairman and chief operating officer of the region, who moved elsewhere in the business as part of December’s restructure. Marcetteau is now COO of the UKMEA region, and Turzynski is leading the south division of that business. But when asked if he is a tough boss, he hints that there is more to him that a softly-softly leader. “I’m a persistent boss,” he says, with a twitch of a smile, and then bursts into laughter. “I can be tough if I have to be. And that’s something I’ve learned painfully over a long time.” He says he can now sense when people don’t fit in a business, hastening to add that he doesn’t have anyone in mind in the region.
Care acknowledges that Arup staff will be nervous after such a hefty cull. “The market will be foremost in people’s minds,” he admits. “There will be concerns about their jobs. But my objective is to not have any more cuts.” Care admits he can’t guarantee that there won’t be any more job cuts over the next year, but says that his region is on course for a period of stability.
When quizzed on prospects for revenue growth in the UK, Middle East and Africa, and across the world, Care is philosophical. “I don’t see growth as necessarily an objective, but I see sustainable size as an objective, which could mean growth,” he says. But surely Arup is aiming to grow? “I think if we’re successful, we will draw like-minded people to us,” he says. Growth is a by-product of success, he maintains, not a goal in itself.
Yet clearly there are goals. “It is my intention that we are going to be flat or better than flat over the next 18 months, and from there we are going to power on to a new period of growth,” he explains.
Care’s ambitions don’t only lie overseas - he can see potential in the UK as well. Green retrofitting is one of the brightest prospects for the UK, he says. At Mipim in March, Arup announced a partnership with Skanska and GE to offer a package to environmentally conscious owners of energy inefficient buildings. “I’ve got no doubt we’ll be doing a lot of green refurbishment of non-residential buildings. Some 87% of the current non-res stock will still be there by 2050. In many ways it’s the low hanging fruit,” he explains.
He’s more coy about which sectors have dropped off. “Aviation’s going quiet,” he says, but then characteristically perks up about the possibility of work on high-speed rail abroad.
Rattling through the prospects for Arup’s regions this year, Care seems to have been given one of the toughest jobs in the firm. Overall, the company is “good”; Australasia is “growing strongly”; East Asia is “doing well”; the Americas are “holding up”; but Europe and the UK are “tougher markets”.
Care points to Brazil as a crucial new market for Arup, while India, where the engineer is “very, very small” and not nearly as well established as it is in China, merits “cautious expansion”.
The other global target is Indonesia, Care says. “It’s the largest Muslim country in the world - 230 million people on the doorstep of Australia. And we’ve worked there already, through Arup International Development, which is a non-profit part of our business, doing work after the 2004 tsunami. We don’t have a physical presence, but I would say in the next few months we will do,” he explains.
Master of its destiny
The trouble for employee-owned Arup is that it wants to remain the master of its own destiny and not have to push for flat-out growth, but can also feel the acquisitive menace of mammoth engineers like Aecom, Jacobs and CH2M Hill from across the Atlantic. It also risks getting stuck as a mid-sized engineer, too small to compete with the American giants, but too big to be niche - and therefore ready to be snapped up.
But Care has no doubt Arup will still be independent in 10 years time, precisely because its independence will distinguish it from rival American - or Chinese - engineering giants. “The bigger these other companies become, the harder it will be for them to maintain their independence”, he says. “We don’t have external operational debt. We can choose who we are and what we are, which other companies can’t. I’m not saying their way is wrong and ours is right, it’s just a difference.”
It seems that Care is a living embodiment of the brand he is trying to project: international, a bit less corporate, and just a bit more interesting than its competitors. “Recruit good people, and let them do what they like,” is one of the Care’s maxims. And he takes his own advice to take a holistic approach to life. Among plans to take Arup UK global, he wants to travel around Europe with his wife, just as he did 34 years ago. “But not in a Volkswagen. It might be slightly more luxurious,” he laughs. The van still has its attractions, “but my back’s not up to it anymore.” Maybe. Aches and pains aside, Care might just succeed in injecting some Australian sunshine into a UK engineering market that has been so gloomy for so long.
Care in a minute
London or Sydney? It’s where I am at the moment, so it has to be London
If you weren’t an engineer? A frustrated high school maths teacher
Monarchist or republican? Republican
Best day at Arup? Winning projects is always good
Worst day at Arup? When the sea wall broke while we were building a harbour casting basin in Australia in 1995
Cats or dogs? I’m actually a cat person, but my wife and daughter don’t like cats. So we have a Bernese mountain do
Office hours? I’m an early morning person, so I get in here at about 7am. But I will get into the discipline of leaving at 5pm