Face-to-face: Tom Bower

WSP's acquisition of Parsons | Brinckerhoff has provided a wider scope to target potential clientele with new services, Middle East managing director Tom Bower says

Tom Bower, Middle East managing director, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff.
Tom Bower, Middle East managing director, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Few industries can match the intensity of the construction sector, especially in a region as ambitious as the Middle East. Companies involved in taking awe-inspiring structures from the drawing board through to construction and beyond require strong leaders, and at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, Tom Bower is ready to show his strength.

At the end of 2014, Bower went from managing 700 people to 1,450 within the space of just a few months. WSP Global’s $1.31bn acquisition of Parsons Brinckerhoff, announced in September of last year, increased the former’s worldwide workforce – 500 offices spread across 39 countries – from 17,500 to 31,500.

Bower, WSP’s former managing director for the Middle East, now heads regional operations for the combined company, which has been rebranded as WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff.

On a busy Tuesday afternoon, the regional MD sits down with Construction Week at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Dubai office to talk about the corporate transformation brought on by WSP’s acquisition of the engineering firm.

“It was a merger of two strong organisations, which in their own right, would have continued to perform strongly,” he begins. “A lot has been written and said about the positive synergies surrounding the acquisition, and that is something we’ve been seeing too. The performance of both companies’ operations is better than it would have been individually.”

Bower explains that the company is taking its time to explore the scope for revenue maximisation, operational collaborations, and cross-selling opportunities.

“The merger has given us the chance to look at what we’re doing and how we can improve it. Our operations are now divided across four market segments – property and buildings; transport and infrastructure; power and water; and, environment and sustainability.

All of these will be supported by an in-house, integrated project delivery team for the combined group,” Bower says, adding the companies’ offices and work delivery models will also be re-examined in the pursuit of greater efficiency.

Rewards are already being reaped. In May 2015, WSP Global’s Europe, Middle East, India, and Africa (EMEIA) operating segment reported first-quarter growth of 16.4%.

In a statement at the time, WSP Group – which, in the wake of the acquisition, now runs five offices in the UAE – said that this increase had been driven by the company’s operations in the Middle East, UK, and Swedish markets.

WSP Global’s net revenue for the first quarter of 2015 amounted to $1.024bn, up 132.6% compared to its performance during the same period of last year. Indeed, the company attributes its increased revenues to the business acquisitions that it made during 2014. According to a statement from the group, “the integration of Parsons Brinckerhoff, acquired in 2014, is progressing as planned.

“We are on schedule to deliver on previously announced annual synergies [potential financial benefits] of $25m, of which half are expected to be realised by the end of 2015,” it continues.

In the Middle East, the company reported 53.4% growth “despite a challenging and volatile oil and gas price environment”.

To Bower, these first-quarter numbers are particularly significant, considering it is the first time the combined firm has announced results from a “business-as-usual” environment.

“There [are] two aspects to the first-quarter results for this year. From a global point of view, the business, which is growing to 32,000 people, has performed very well in the duration. The fourth quarter of 2014 was the first time we reported as a combined business, but the results from the first quarter of 2015 are more telling of how our overall operations work in a business-as-usual environment,” Bower explains.

“Here in the Middle East, the results were flat. WSP grew between the first quarters of 2014 and 2015, and reported a year-on-year growth of 40% for the duration. Parsons Brinckerhoff was also growing at the time. The acquisition means we have a wide variety of services and projects, and the first-quarter results reflect that.”

Predominantly known as a consultancy powerhouse, the acquisition of Parsons Brinckerhoff means WSP can now boast of enhanced and increased programme management capacities. Bower says the firm is “spending some time at the moment” to understand the new operating model and how the combined organisation will be structured.

This time allocation, he claims, is only “natural” following a merger, to ensure client satisfaction is maintained.

Combining two firms as big and busy as WSP and Parsons Brinkerhoff has also raised the question of workforce training and enhancement. Despite the challenge, Bower is optimistic about the ability of his staff to evolve into a cohesive unit.

“The challenge we face is one we’ve been facing forever, doing the things we do. Contributing to the development of a project involves multidisciplinary understanding of construction works. For instance, if you’re a firm looking at air-conditioning handling, you could either just look at that; or, when working on a project, understand the operations carried out by other project parties too,” he says.

“We’re trying to bring those services under one business to understand how those units work with each other, so that we can provide integrated and coordinated solutions. It is challenging because you’re essentially asking people to understand a broader range of items than a single disciplinary firm might.

“But if you think about it, every project needs those operations. Multiple companies can provide those services, or you can hire one company providing all those multiple services. Our belief is that by being a multidisciplinary firm, we can become the best single-disciplinary firm too, in that we absorb in-depth knowledge about different operations, and vice versa,” Bower asserts.

“We now also have the chance to talk to different client bases about the new things we can do for them.”
Combined operations offer WSP greater opportunities within markets and sectors that it may otherwise have missed. Even so, Bower is unwilling to be carried away by the massive scope of projects brought on by the merger, and insists that construction specialists must practice discretion to ensure project success.

“We have to focus on clients and sectors that are in a position to require the services we can provide. A couple of years ago, we worked on complex façade designs for a building in Kuwait. Now, that’s not going to be every building in Kuwait, but that’s a project we can provide our full gamut of services for,” he explains.

“For instance: the type of work we do as a company, and its compatibility to the Saudi market – in some areas, it isn’t compatible. High quality is one of the core themes of our company. Does the Saudi market want a high-quality product in all areas? Our view would be it doesn’t.

“So, it’s important to be focused when approaching any given market. We have to make sure the place we’re facing is ready to buy what we want to do. The merger with Parsons Brinckerhoff gives us more opportunities to face the Saudi market.”

Unsurprisingly, Bower is optimistic about the future of WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff in the Middle East. However, he points out that performance – both operational and financial – will be “somewhat subject” to market conditions.

“The market has the price of oil in the background, and that tends to have an impact on local operations for firms. So far, we haven’t noticed any changes in what companies are doing, but at some point, it will have some degree of impact,” he says.

“You have the overarching price of oil as an economic driver; we also have the situation with all the currency exchanges against the relative strength of the dollar. Expo 2020 work is driving the UAE and Qatar’s market is being steered by FIFA World Cup 2022. So in a way, you have all these contradictory market drivers that could affect construction work.

“I think there was a general sentiment that things had softened slightly in the market, but there appears to be more activity again. We’re expecting project allotment to pick up as Expo 2020 moves from its current planning phase over to design and construction,” he adds.

Bower ends by calmly arguing that the global recession actually served to improve the Middle East’s construction industry.

He concludes: “[Any] challenging moment like that leads organisations to refocus on what they want to do best. For us, [should] there be an encore, it [would] be a positive challenge... at the end of the day, we can’t drive the market; the market is driven by other factors, but we can ensure we make the most of the opportunities available.”

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