WS Atkins will spend about £55m this year on IT maintenance, upgrades and new programmes.
The spend, coupled with increased PFI and public–private partnership bid costs, has led to a fall in operating margins of 0.8% to 4.9% for the year to 31 March.

Atkins conceded that the IT budget was "large" but said it was vital for future performance. It said £30m was the group's usual IT budget. Part of the money would be spent on staff, depreciation and maintenance costs.

The rest was capital expenditure, and would go towards new personal computers, local and wide area networks, financial management and human resources programmes and a new payroll package. Exactly how much was spent this year would depend on how fast the upgrades were done.

Chairman Mike Jeffries said: "It's a big spend, but if we get this right there will be a huge competitive advantage."

Finance director Ric Piper said: "We are going to have some cracking systems and this will improve performance. We need a reliable IT system. Unless the IT is working well, as an organisation we don't fully function."

Atkins revealed its IT spending as it announced pre-tax profits of £44m for the year to 31 March – up 14% from £38.5m the year before. Turnover grew 30% to £674m, and half of the turnover growth came from acquisitions.

If we get this right there will be a huge competitive advantage

Mike Jeffries, chairman, WS Atkins

But Atkins' operating margins fell from 5.7% to 4.9% across the group, as a result of increasing PFI and PPP bid costs, and the large IT spend. The group's property division, which handles most of the bids, saw margins drop from 5.3% to 2.6% in the same period.

Atkins said bid costs were £7.3m last year, compared with £3.4m the previous year. The rise is partly a result of the expense of bidding for the Tube. The group has a 20% stake in the Metronet consortium, which is the preferred bidder for the Bakerloo, Central and Victoria lines for London Underground.

Atkins is also preferred bidder for the Ministry of Defence's Colchester Garrison. These two bids cost £6.1m last year.

Piper maintained that operating margins would improve once income from these and other contracts starts coming in.