A few years ago, cost consultants were about as fashionable as tank-tops and Y-fronts. Now more and more countries are giving them rapturous receptions as QS mania sweeps the globe. We report on a new British invasion
Five years ago, Building described quantity surveying as “a profession on the brink”. The magazine wasn’t just pandering to the prejudices of the rest of the industry, which often regards a QS as someone who took the job because they found accountancy too exciting. Rather, it was expressing a fear that emanated from the QSs themselves. A survey of 12,000 of them had found that more than half thought their traditional cost-modelling role was under threat and three-quarters thought that accountants and management consultants could usurp their role. As the new century approached, the future was promising to be a grim struggle to stave off extinction.
Fast forward five years and the doom-mongers appear to have been way off the money. In the past three to four years, a revolution has taken place: the international expansion of quantity surveying. Whether it goes by that name or not, the basic tenets of the profession – independence, cost control and a the provision of a portfolio of complementary services, such as dispute resolution, have become a major export around the globe. The largest firms, from Gardiner & Theobald and Davis Langdon to Cyril Sweett, Turner & Townsend and EC Harris, are now spreading from their traditional territories in the Middle East and the Commonwealth countries to mainland Europe, China and North America. And there is the possibility of an eventual move into South America, India and Africa. Richard Steer, Gleeds’ senior partner, speaking during a tour of Shanghai, sums up the curious position that the profession finds itself in: “Just as we’re trying to lose the name “quantity surveyor” we are getting requests for QS services.”
Nobody is more aware of this than the profession’s principal institution, the RICS, which embarked on a drive to increase membership worldwide as part of its Agenda for Change, the restructuring of the body that was voted through in 2000. The policy has not been without its critics both home and abroad – when the RICS tried to poach Australian QSs in 2002, the Australian Institute of Quantity Surveyors accused it of practising a “new imperialism”. The approach is, however, starting to reap rewards. Although 90% of the institution’s members are based in the UK, there are now more new members joining from abroad than from the UK for the first time in the history of the RICS.
Carolyn Slater, head of the international division of the RICS, sees the appeal tapping into universal needs across the global construction markets. “There is a huge coming-together of big themes across the globe,” she says, referring to the worldwide interest in sustainable construction, dispute resolution and adjudication, PFI procurement and the need for an independent voice in the construction process – all of which are now key parts of the QS’ trade. “Professional ethics is back in fashion, which is part of the appeal of the RICS,” Slater adds. This point is stressed by EC Harris chairman Richard Clare, who claims his firm has worked in 200 different countries during the past three years. “When clients go into developing countries they want to make sure there’s fair play. It’s an advantage of the QS system,” he says.
One of the unlikeliest successes for UK firms is breaking the North American market, where QSing barely existed, even as a concept 10 years ago. Firms have begun to push back the frontier under the guise of “cost management”, “project control” or “procurement advice”. G&T has established itself in New York, a notoriously insular market, and
There’s definitely a legacy of Enron. Auditors are wanting to see greater cost visibility, as well as clear processes and procedures to manage it
Ian McWhinney, president, Currie & Brown USA
has three other offices on the east and west coasts; Gleeds has just opened its second office in Denver; and Currie & Brown is also well-established across the pond, with a list of credits that includes early work on the redevelopment of the former World Trade Centre site. Gleeds’ Steer argues that the US construction market is undergoing a culture change. “Clients used to go to a friendly contractor, give them a budget and – lo and behold – the contractor would build it to that budget,” he says. “Now there is a greater concern about capital expenditure.”
Iain McWhinney, president of Currie & Brown’s US division, points out another factor behind the growing popularity of quantity surveyors – Enron. In the wake of the accounting scandal sparked by the firm’s collapse in 2001, private and public sector clients have new, more stringent, accounting regulations. This is where an independent cost manager comes into their own. “There’s definitely a legacy of Enron,” McWhinney says. “Auditors are wanting to see greater cost visibility, as well as clear processes and procedures to manage it.”
Some QSs are slightly less evangelical about the globalisation drive, pointing to the investment required to set up dedicated offices. There are also basic problems involved in doing business in certain regions, such as the Middle East and the Far East – for example, not getting paid. High-Point Rendel found this out to its cost last year when it was shut out of £4m in fees.
Others firms, such as MDA Consulting, have struggled with controlling their international operations. The staff’s mock motto for the firm was “we are not good but we are everywhere”, and the firm’s overall performance – it lost £2.5m in the 15 months to 30 September 2000 – was partially explained by losses on its overseas business, and it led to offices being sold to the local management in countries such as Australia, Spain and Germany. A former MDA staff member put the problems down to a lack of communication. “It was mixed internationally,” he says. “A lot of the local managers were very focused on their little marketplace rather than sharing their knowledge with the group.”
Since the firm’s management buyout in 2002, chairman Charles Johnston says the firm has rethought its strategy. It now has three permanent offices in Belgium, the Czech Republic and Hungary, and has established associations with local outfits elsewhere in Europe. “We are building something much more dynamic,” says Johnston. “It’s got to be much more than just a club for putting on each other’s letter-heads. We want to transport skills we have in the UK, such as risk management, to associated offices.”
PPP and PFI have so much potential. Any country that is running huge budget deficits will not have the money to invest so will look at alternative ways of funding projects
Jimmi Bradbury, international director, Cyril Sweett
While recognising the importance of expansion Mark van den Berg, chairman of Northcroft sees it as less profitable than domestic work. “My gut feeling is that everyone makes a lower margin overseas. We want to be a global player but there’s a lot more risk in it.” Despite such reservations, new regions are still being sought by firms. Turner & Townsend is now establishing itself in Japan, Cyril Sweett is mulling over whether to enter India and north African countries such as Libya and Egypt, and many of the firms are eyeing up South America.
Perhaps the profession should have believed the words of Davis Langdon’s Paul Morrell when discussing the 1999 survey. “People have been predicting the demise of the QS for 20 years but they have been extraordinarily resilient,” he said. “As long as people buy construction and care what it costs, QSs will be busy.” And that seems to apply as much in Donetsk as Dundee.
Making it big
An international sell out: Turner & Townsend’s tour
QS and project manager Turner & Townsend began working for Japanese car maker Nissan in the UK in July 1984 when the firm was opening a chain of showrooms.
People look very, very quickly at the bottom line nowadays. If you are getting funding from the banks for a scheme they just have to know how the funding situation is going to work. The global finance market is much more sophisticated now – almost the first question is, ‘How much?’
Richard Steer, senior partner, Gleeds
It took the firm five years to build the relationship, but once it did, it created a domino effect. Work opportunities opened up in Germany, Austria, Spain, Holland, Italy, America, Canada and South Africa. This summer saw a further flowering in the relationship when the firm was appointed to help roll-out Nissan’s new Infiniti brand of car in Japan itself.
“We have created a model way of doing things,” says Tom Harrison, managing director at Turner & Townsend International. “We then tailor that model to each country.”
The Nissan example is part of T&T’s strategy of growing its international operation by following clients around the globe and chasing particular markets, such as oil and gas and mining. The plan is to open offices in key centres for such sectors – the UK, Houston, and Perth in Australia for oil and gas; and Johannesburg, Brisbane, Denver and South America for mining. “We aim to go where the decision-makers are,” says Harris.
Getting in the swing: Symonds goes global
Symonds (before it was bought by Capita in February and renamed) struck up a relationship with British American Tobacco 10 years ago. Instead of doing the logical thing and starting in the UK, as Turner & Townsend did, the firm’s first work was in Uzbekistan. Since then Symonds has followed BAT as it has grown into countries across the Middle East, the Far East, Europe and Africa. The firm is currently looking into Serbia as a market for BAT.
In the past foreign work was just one-off projects. You went in and came out. Now it’s very different. Clients expect you to be mobile and go where they go. We look at clients now more than projects
Richard Clare, chairman, EC Harris
“We work on feasibility studies for new areas for BAT which may or may not come off,” says Kwok Wam, a director of the firm’s cost management division. “We look at areas that are potentially difficult for them where they need certainty of delivery.” And although the relationship is conducted on a project-by-project basis Kam argues that it is a close one. “We understand their business and culture and I think they understand ours.”
Malta takes centre stage
Where there is work, there is a hungry QS with ready to bid for it. Take Malta for example – not the first country that springs to mind in terms of major development, but one that is being looked at by UK QSs and project managers for future work. The reason is that the island is gearing up for major expansion on the back of it accession to the European Union on 1 May this year. This is not just expansion of its established tourist industry but a more ambitious desire – to become a hub for multinational firms who want to have regional outposts in the north of Africa and the Middle East. “The country wants to become a staging post for those regions,” says Charles Johnston, chairman of MDA, whose firm used to have an office in the country and is looking to re-establish links there.
“They are trying very hard to attract IT and oil companies to set up there. That will mean new factories or facilities as well as housing and support services.” Symonds is also keen on expanding in the province – it completed a strategic study on a £160m hospital in Malta and has just been awarded a project management role on a £200m mixed-use development.