John Purvis, chief executive of White Young Green, explains why the £120m-turnover firm is looking to Europe

John Purvis enjoys fielding difficult questions. The chief executive of multidisciplinary consultant White Young Green encourages monthly grillings from his staff. Topics range from the state of the

air-conditioning system to how far the firm is expanding and to Purvis’ working life since taking over as chief executive at the start of the year.

The sessions are part of regular business reviews held across WYG and 56-year-old Purvis thrives on them. “It’s healthy. You give people the opportunity to ask difficult questions,” he says. “It’s important to me to show integrity and honesty to the staff, so that they trust me.”

Purvis says these days allow him to meet about half his 1730 staff each year. “It’s uplifting to hear and see the vast amount of talent in the business coming through. You see the confidence growing among the staff,” he says.

It’s been a challenge for Purvis to keep up with the influx of new staff, given the rapid growth of the consultancy group in the last six years from a turnover of £30m to a projected £120m this year. Growth has been split between organic growth and acquisitions – 22 mainly small, regionally based businesses have been swallowed since 1998.

Purvis is particularly pleased with the latest acquisitions, IMC Consulting and IMC Europe, bought from mineral extraction group Rio Tinto in May. WYG first expressed an interest in the firms in 2002 but a fall in its share price, mirroring the overall drop in the Stock Exchange over the period, stalled the £10m deal for 18 months.

The share price has gradually returned to form – 217p as of last week, up from the 100p mark in late 2002 – and the firm raised nearly £10m by an open placement of new shares to existing WYG stockholders at the end of last year. “The placement exceeded our expectations,” Purvis says. “We promised not to sit on the cash. It wasn’t about improving our debt profile or balance sheet. We gave them compelling reasons as to the strategic direction of the company and have completed five acquisitions since.”

We promised not to sit on the cash. It wasn't about improving our balance sheet

John Purvis

The IMC buys have enabled WYG to achieve a long-held ambition of moving into the Continental market and expanding its skills base. Earlier attempts to expand into Europe – to set up an office in Greece and form a joint venture in Poland – stumbled. “We found it extremely difficult and extremely expensive,” says Purvis.

He adds that the firm realised it needed to acquire existing operations in the regions rather than expanding there themselves. Yet as well as offering new geographical markets – IMC has offices in Poland, Russia, Turkey and Romania – the firms have opened up skills markets for WYG, such as social and economic regeneration consultancy. “There are opportunities to cross-sell these to UK clients,” says Purvis.

It underlines how acquisitions can generate organic growth by spreading the skill of the new division across the group. “We have the opportunity of making one plus one equal three or even four,” says Purvis.

His vision is to broaden the group to cover not only its consulting engineering roots but also disciplines across the lifecycle of projects. This will extend to every construction role, from planning to project management – the only exception being architecture.

For Purvis, the switch in his career from largely project-focused work to the business of building has been smooth. “It’s exactly the same as managing projects,” he says. “You are bringing people together and motivating them; you are being clear about your objectives and focused on achieving them. The skills are just a bit wider now I’m running the business.”