Paul Reilly, managing director of infrastructure and buildings at Stantec, UK, talked to The Business Magazine about how Thames Valley-based Peter Brett Associates became part of the Canadian global design and consulting giant.
He emphasises the importance of bringing new blood into the engineering sector and enthuses about opportunities for more community-focused developments in a post-coronavirus world.
It’s possibly no surprise that the acquisition of Peter Brett Associates (PBA) by multinational Stantec two years ago went largely unnoticed beyond industry observers. “That’s typical of us,” said Reilly. “We tend to keep our achievements to ourselves and don’t spend time shouting about them. We just focus on solving planning and construction challenges and supporting our clients.”
That said, Stantec’s portfolio of projects completed under PBA’s name – particularly in the Thames Valley – is certainly worth noting. Reading’s Thames Valley Park and Green Park are among the most prominent. Together with Reading Station and major highways schemes along the M4 they have contributed significantly to the local economy. “We design business parks to have strong environmental credentials with attractive spaces for employers based at them,” Reilly explained.
On a smaller scale, Reading’s Christchurch pedestrian and cycle bridge linking Caversham to the town’s railway station captures an ethos to blend the functional – reducing car journeys in this case – with attractive designs that give a sense of place.
No surprise, then, that the original founder Peter Brett was the structural engineer behind Henley’s eye-catching post-modern Royal Regatta headquarters on the Thames. And when you’re next at London’s King’s Cross train station, take a few minutes to admire the Granary Square fountain. As part of an extensive regeneration project spanning 20 years, PBA designed the water feature to soften the urban landscape with entertaining rhythmic water jets. It has become a tourist attraction in its own right.
The company focuses on regeneration, residential and commercial developments, including offices, industrial, business, science and logistics parks including Segro in Slough. Another speciality for its clients is restoring former military airfields to benefit local communities by cleaning them up, bringing in road and rail links, and designing workplaces to attract investment.
Stantec’s Reading and Oxford offices are particularly busy. “The Thames Valley is estimated to have added about 100,000 jobs in the past 20 years. That’s a large population needing homes, workplaces and infrastructure to move around,” Reilly observed. “Opportunities in the UK as a whole are phenomenal, with the prospect of around £350 billion of investment in infrastructure committed over the next four years.”
Perfect fit with Stantec
While you might think PBA had been targeted and swallowed up by an acquisitive Stantec, the deal actually happened the other way around.
Reilly took up the story: “We had reached the point where we were well known for our community development projects, supporting residential and regeneration schemes, and our innovative planning and transport infrastructure work. Our strategic insight and vision for places were highly regarded. But as we became more engaged in larger scale project delivery, we found we weren’t always able to match the scale of our competitors. We were looking for an older sibling with an appetite to fund our growth ambitions to pursue more large-scale infrastructure projects nationally and internationally,” he said.
An extensive global search took PBA across the Atlantic. The first visit to its potential new partner confirmed Stantec was the right choice. “When we visited their Boston and Edmonton offices we could have been walking into our own. They have the same community focus, an ambition for growth, a multi-disciplinary approach and a commitment to developing younger staff,” said Reilly.
For Reilly and his team, the cultural fit was essential. “We needed to know our staff and clients would be happy. We wanted to retain our culture and identity while tapping into Stantec’s global capabilities. It was also really important that, like us, they were committed to smaller as well as large-scale projects. Every client matters.”
Stantec also acquired UK water and natural resources engineering and consultancy business MWH and has pledged further funds for UK acquisitions. The global business operates in over 350 locations with a 22,000-strong workforce. Reilly expects a UK headcount of 1,700 will rise to 5,000 in the next few years, operating in a national network of over 20 offices.
The UK business has come a long way since Peter Brett left engineering giant Arup in 1965 to start his own business in Reading. A consistent factor over those years has been the firm’s reputation for technical excellence.
It also has a strong ethos to develop young talent. This is achieved through its graduate and apprenticeship programmes. The company has around 50 apprentices and 60 current graduates and plans to recruit around 30-40 a year as it grows.
Difficulty recruiting graduates during a period of rapid growth six years ago was a wake-up call for the company. “We realised we needed to put more commitment and structure into our graduate programme,” he said.
To that end, Stantec focuses on around 20 further education institutions and liaises closely with them. It wasn’t long before the usual 450 graduate applicants each year mushroomed to over 5,000.
A similar effort is made on its popular apprenticeship programme. “A number of our most senior staff started out as technician apprentices so we knew this was another vital way to attract design talent,” said Reilly. “We work with local schools to give STEM subjects greater kudos among school leavers and offer degree apprenticeships. The quality of our apprentices and graduates is brilliant. They are fully engaged from day one and highly valued by the company. When the Stantec board visited last year, they were bowled over by the quality of our youngest staff.”
Reilly also praises the efforts of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education and the industry body, the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE), for whom he has been elected chairman for 2020. “They are defining apprenticeships in a positive way and helping make them a permanent feature of the UK industrial landscape. There’s been a massive change in attitude for the better in recent years.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has altered the social and economic landscape in ways Reilly expects will put pressure on the construction industry to help build the recovery. At a personal level, Stantec has coped with the impact of the coronavirus crisis by sharing the experiences of colleagues working in countries affected early, such as China, Taiwan and Italy. “A key area for us was mental health and how we support staff. We have tried to make sure this is a priority for us as we slowly get back to normal,” he said.
Stantec believes the Thames Valley should be relatively well placed to come back strongly in the ‘new normal’. The company sees a lot to be positive about, particularly the way the Government is backing major construction to kick-start the stalled economy.
“There’s no point being negative,” reckoned Reilly. “As engineers and consultants, we’re always excited by the challenge of finding ways around constraints, solving problems like how to decarbonise our communities. The Government’s recovery plans, economic stimulus measures, longer working hours on construction sites and reduction in property stamp duty are all going to help speed up the recovery.”
Prime minister Boris Johnson’s pledge of a ‘levelling up’ of society as well as the zero carbon emissions agenda also resonates with Stantec. “For us, it’s about taking carbon out of construction design processes, for example, by reducing the amount of steel and concrete used. It’s also about reinventing and regenerating town centres, so land and buildings support more health facilities, social housing and amenities,” said Reilly.
He also believes a fundamental component in communities – local authorities – need support more than ever. “Over the past 20 years, I think our local authorities have done a really great job of supporting our towns and cities. Their task now is to transform urban landscapes on limited budgets that are severely curtailed by the cost of the Covid-19 crisis. It is down to all of us to help them.”
In good hands
In the same way it designs community-based projects that improve lives for the longer term, the company is ensuring its own legacy through its commitment to its workforce. As Reilly noted, the younger generation will have to live longer with the consequences of not only Covid-19 but also the impact of climate change.
“That’s why we fully engage with all our staff by giving them responsibilities to solve problems and influence the shape of our communities,” Reilly concluded. You may even find Stantec’s engineers blowing their trumpet a little louder in future.