At just 44 Steve Morriss was headhunted to take on one of the most high profile roles in consultancy - heading up Aecom Europe. Emily Wright talks to him about his plans to grow the business and how the merger with Davis Langdon is working out
When Steve Morriss first started off his career as an engineer, he swore he would never wear a suit. A jeans and T-shirt fanatic, Morriss is not a fan of hierarchy, “doesn’t do formal” and didn’t ever want too much involvement in the corporate side of any business.
But that was then. Now Morriss is chief executive of Aecom Europe, arguably one of the most high-profile roles in consultancy. He took the job in January at the height of the buzz following the acquisition of Davis Langdon, meaning that all eyes have been, and will continue to be, on him as he undertakes the huge job of guiding Aecom Europe through the end of the downturn, post-merger.
So has his rapid rise through the ranks turned him into the corporate machine he spent much of his early career trying to avoid? Not really. While he has finally conceded that a suit is something of a must and he is fiercely ambitions when it comes to the future growth of Aecom’s European business, Morriss has retained his calm, relaxed attitude. But behind this lies a ruthless company strategy and a plan to grow Aecom Europe, which only makes up 10% of the $7.2bn (£4.4bn) Aecom business, by 30% in three years and to eventually see it mushroom to 10 times its current size.
An interesting call
The phone call from Aecom came in the summer last year when Morriss was managing director of Mouchel’s government and business services division. As one of the few extremely senior people to be headhunted from outside of the Aecom business, he says it was a bolt from the blue. At only 45, some might say he is young for the role. Morriss is aware of the potential to be written off because of his age and says he would hate to be defined by it. But he reckons he is passed the point now of people judging him on his lack of grey hairs: “It may seem young, but that never reflects how good someone is at their job. I have worked for four big firms [Atkins, Serco, Mouchel and Aecom] in different roles now and it doesn’t come up as an issue now.”
In fact, most of the people working with Morriss or looking at what he is doing externally either feel admiration or jealousy: “I wish I could make it to that sort of position by my mid-forties,” says one regional director. “I am only a year off 45 and it’s unlikely I’ll make it by then. But Steve is already making changes and doing the right things.”
And that’s the key - Morriss knows that his strategy and leadership skills will be what he is judged on now. His every move is under the microscope, from his staff, peers, competitors and not to mention the 52,000 strong, multibillion dollar-parent firm, the biggest architect and consultant in the world, relying on him to grow the £467m European branch of the business. It’s one hell of a challenge, but Morriss says that an attitude between complete arrogance and a debilitating lack of self confidence is the key to his success. “Extreme arrogance is dangerous,” he says. “But you have to believe in your abilities and I hope I am confident enough to make a positive difference. I want to be able to admit I can make mistakes too. Any of the bright, young people here could have the next good idea and [my ideas] could have room for improvement - that’s how I look at things.”
Then there is the value in an honest evaluation of how the business is doing, something he says Aecom was open about before he joined: “The business is not as good as it will be,” he says. ” When I was approached, Aecom was quick to tell me what still had to be done rather than try to impress me with how incredible the business is. There is still a lot to learn and to do. I know that and so does the rest of the business.”
Growth in adversity
So what exactly is he doing? Growth is top of the agenda and here Morriss says that it’s all about investing where you see a future and shutting down anything where you don’t. “Because Aecom Europe is under-represented as part of Aecom globally, there are plenty of opportunities,” he says. “Geographically these are in Russia, Turkey, Romania and Poland. And the UK on the commercial side, which is why David [Glover who joined Aecom from Arup in July] was such a key appointment. Sector-wise we’re focussing on sport, transport - a strong part of what Aecom does and something we’re not represented enough in within Europe - and water.”
He adds that mining is another key area, mainly in Eastern Europe, but that this is more of an “incubator” sector - one that the company will “seek more information in before making a bigger investment.”
Morriss says that Aecom Europe plans to invest about £45m in emerging markets each year for the forseeable future. He has no time to slow down as he aims to grow European and staff presence across continental Europe and the CIS. But for the markets where he doesn’t see a future, it will be a case of no investment, no existence. “If you are not going to put funds in a certain part of the business,” he says, “you may as well shut it down tomorrow. And yes, we have been closing down parts of the business, like our operation in Georgia. We are also slowing down operations in France and Scandinavia and areas like education and health in the UK - where there will be little work over the next few years, even if we do have expertise. This is so we can focus on other sectors or mobilise staff to work in emerging markets.”
Have two become one?
Apart from some bold moves to take the Aecom business forward, Morriss has taken the helm at a period of massive change following the consultant’s much-published merger with Davis Langdon. It has been the story of the year and one that everyone has an opinion on; so what does Morriss think and how does he see the firms working in tandem? “We’re on a journey with DL,” he says. “There is potential there for both parties. But we are never going to amalgamate everything. There won’t be a big grey area as we try and squeeze everything into one brand. But there are opportunities and DL has brought us some great customer relationships. I have seen mergers in the past that have not gone well and I think the key here is to make sure it doesn’t feel like a one-way ticket and that the parent company will dictate the future. But while you should respect the past, it’s important not to dwell on it too much. DL would have changed anyway - it has always been good at developing - so we will not be so attached to that historic position that we can’t move on.”
The important things in life
Morriss talks persuasively about his goals regarding the future of Aecom Europe - making it all sound very possible, despite a tough market and a difficult few years ahead. Perhaps it is his laid back attitude that makes him all the more convincing. Has he always been this way?
“I used to be a sports fanatic,” he says. “Rugby was the real passion. But when I was 16, I got an injury playing - I broke my neck and spent six months in a hospital bed. Then I had to learn how to walk again. Everyone told me how lucky I was to be alive and all I could think was how unlucky I felt. But it helped me put things in perspective. I suppose that’s why I have never got terribly stressed about work. Becasue I know there are worse things than a bad day at the office.”
Aecom company factfile
Chief Executive: Steve Morriss
Key areas and skills covered: Architecture, building engineering, design and planning, environment, sport, transport, infrastructure, water, oil and gas, mining
Current key projects
Aecom’s Davis Langdon subsidiary has been working on a $2bn eco town based around a health-focused science park near Istanbul, Turkey. The scheme, masterplanned by Atkins will see homes for 10-15,000 people built in a new town zone around Istanbul around a hospital and science park providing working accommodation for 40-50,000 people. Aecom has been providing cost management and programme management advice on the project at concept stage, and will be retained as lead consultant on the main build out, starting next year. the project will generate fees of “tens of millions of dollars” over the ten-year life of the scheme according to the client, which is a joint venture between Turkey’s housing department Toki, and Dutch developer Bio City.