Tony Allum, chairman of consulting engineer Halcrow, has been chosen to lead the charge to win British firms work in Iraq. For all the dangers, he is undaunted by the prospect. Just don't mention the war...
Tony Allum puts a hand over his mouth and splutters. "Don't worry, it's not Sars," he says quickly. "That hasn't reached India yet." The chairman of Swindon-based consulting engineer Halcrow has just returned from opening the group's office in Delhi. The firm has a global network of 61 offices with projects in over 70 countries – international experience that Allum is set to draw on as he embarks on one of his toughest missions to date.

Allum has been chosen to lead the Iraq Industry Working Group, an organisation set up by the government to help British firms win subcontracting work in post-war Iraq. Although it is yet to be finalised, the group will include representatives from Trade Partners UK, the government agency responsible for promoting British business abroad, the Confederation of British Industry and the British Consultants and Construction Bureau.

Within the next month, Allum will visit Iraq on a five-day scoping mission to key cities including Baghdad, Basra, Umm Qasr and Kirkuk. "We need to get a snapshot of what's needed and then decide what British companies are best positioned," he says. "We are also looking to enlist between five and 10 of the best British consultants and contractors to cover the water, power, transport and health and education sectors." He adds that competition is hotting up for places. "Already, too many people have signed up – it seems everyone wants to go."

Allum is quick to counter any suggestion that UK involvement in the reconstruction effort will be short-lived. "Any British companies that go into Iraq will be going in for the long haul," he says. "Iraq is the cradle of civilisation that has been out of bounds for 25 years. There is so much to be done."

He also rejects recent speculation suggesting that British companies will be viewed favourably by American firms handing out subcontracting work because of the UK's involvement in the war. "The US might be more favourable towards the Brits, but only because of our enormous expertise and knowledge of working out in Iraq," he says. "Let's not forget that before Saddam's regime, British companies worked extensively on Iraqi infrastructure including irrigation, dams and all facets of engineering."

Allum, 60, attributes his appointment to lead the working group to his personal experience in the Middle East and Halcrow's presence throughout the region. Since graduating from Portsmouth Polytechnic in 1967 with a degree in civil engineering, Allum's career has led him to work on projects in Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Libya.

Obviously, security is a massive issue, but the British are not squeamish – we can work in difficult conditions

He says: "Halcrow has previously operated in Iraq and we have 360 people out in the Gulf working on projects throughout the region, including the construction of a mosque in Abu Dhabi. I think we are well positioned to assist in Iraq and I am personally delighted and honoured to be leading the British effort."

Although the scoping mission will be his first visit to Iraq, Allum is not a newcomer to post-war taskforces. Following the 1991 Gulf War, he was involved in the DTI mission led by Michael Heseltine to repair the water systems in Kuwait. Allum also visited post-war Kosovo as part of a mission led by Arup deputy chairman Sir Nigel Thompson who headed the reconstruction taskforces to Kosovo and Serbia. "Sir Nigel is something of a mentor to me," says Allum. "He is tutoring me on sourcing out opportunities in Iraq."

So does he have any idea about the situation in Iraq? "I know it's not good," he frowns. "Sources out there are reporting that Basra and cities in the south are slightly ahead of the northern regions, which I suspect are in a very bad way." He predicts the reconstruction effort will span two phases: "The first phase will be the 'sticky plaster' projects – getting the water, roads and hospitals up and running. Then we'll have to look at bringing Iraq's infrastructure, neglected for 25 years, up to scratch."

Security is another factor Allum must assess during his visit. Bechtel, the US construction giant that has secured the main £420m infrastructure repair contract in Iraq, has stressed that subcontractors will be responsible for their own security. "Obviously, security is a massive issue," says Allum. "But the British are not squeamish – we can work in difficult conditions. We've got to evaluate the risk element in Iraq, but there is no question that British companies would ever endanger their staff."

Allum agrees with Tom Elkins, Bechtel's acquisitions manager, who recently stressed that firms able to employ Iraqis will have a greater chance of securing subcontracting work. "Halcrow has already received a stream of emails and calls from Iraqis lining up to assist the company," he says. "The Iraqis are a highly educated people and there is a wealth of exiled expertise in the Middle East desperate to go back in and help rebuild the country."

Personal effects

Who’s in your family? My wife, three sons and four wonderful grandchildren.
Where do you live? In Edington, a small Wiltshire village.
Where do you go on holiday? We have an apartment in Majorca so I often take short breaks to recharge the batteries.
What are your hobbies? I enjoy a round of golf and I play cricket for Hampshire seniors. I also enjoy listening to classical music and opera.