Face to face: William C “Bill” Bodie, Parsons
Bill Bodie explains how Parsons is working to engender a culture of autonomy amongst its client-facing staff in the Middle East
Parsons’ Middle East and Africa (MEA) operations are in the throes of massive change. The US-based consultancy is looking to empower its client-facing staff in the Gulf and wider Levant by giving them the authority to make big decisions without having to worry about red tape.
“We want to banish the phrase ‘let me get back to you’ from our lexicon when dealing with customers in the Middle East,” says William C “Bill” Bodie, MEA group executive vice president at Parsons.
Having worked in the region throughout his career, Bodie permanently relocated from the US to the UAE in May 2015. In part, this move was Parsons’ way of providing its 5,000-strong MEA workforce with the means to take informed, local decisions without the need to refer back to the firm’s Pasadena headquarters.
“In January 2016, Parsons unveiled ‘FORWARD’, an internal initiative designed to help the company become more agile, more efficient, closer to its customer base, and ultimately, more conducive to organic growth,” Bodie explains. “Everybody knows that the Middle East’s construction market is facing headwinds; these are turbulent times. Only the companies equipped to make quick, nimble, and agile decisions – those that can push responsibility and authority down to the lowest possible level – will thrive in this environment.”
Two main strands comprise Parsons’ FORWARD initiative. Firstly, the consultancy has restructured its organisation, creating five focused business units that are aligned with core market areas and key accounts. Secondly, it has reconfigured its matrix of authority, tailoring the policies and procedures that govern its activities with the aim of shifting authority and accountability to business development and programme managers.
The upshot? Parsons now boasts a fully-fledged MEA business unit, as opposed to the ‘support organisation’ that existed previously. Two components comprise this business unit: an Infrastructure division focused on land development and buildings, and a Roads/Structures division that caters to large-scale transportation customers.
Bodie elaborates: “Before, we had global business units in North America that were supported by our organisation out here. Today, we have an MEA business unit with responsibility for its own profit and loss, and budget. We are directly accountable to the chairman and the chief executive officer.
“For those of us who’ve been living and working the Middle East for some time, it’s very exciting to think that we’re now responsible for our own destiny – which is to support our regional customer base through challenging times,” he adds.
Local empowerment is clearly desirable, but for a company the size of Parsons, which employs approximately 15,000 people globally, does front-line autonomy come at the cost of consistency? In Bodie’s opinion, a balance between these two elements can be achieved, so long as an appropriate framework is put in place. To this end, Parsons is guided by a ‘trinity of imperatives’: people, processes, and technology.
“When it comes to people, we place great emphasis on the identification, training, and career development of our workforce,” Bodie tells Construction Week. “Whether you meet a Parsons person in Dubai, Damascus, or Dubuque, you’re going to encounter the same high level of professional discipline and personal competency.
“In terms of processes, Parsons really has built its reputation on the quality of its policies and procedures. We have construction management manuals, information systems manuals, and programme management guidelines that have been developed over decades. Our processes are amongst the most robust in the industry.
“Thirdly, we are constantly pushing the boundaries of engineering technology. This goes all the way back to the 1950s when Parsons was working on intercontinental ballistic missile programmes for the US Armed Forces, or process technologies within the oil and gas industry. More recently, we’ve developed information technology (IT) systems, geographic information systems (GIS), and intelligent traffic systems (ITS) that have been incorporated into all our offerings.”
Consequently, Bodie says clients can expect to receive region-specific service and support backed up by Parsons’ global pool of expertise. “Put simply, our MEA workforce can act decisively,” he asserts. “Employees don’t have to refer back to a corporate office 10 time zones away, and have four-hour meetings before they can return to clients with decisions.”
In addition to bringing the decision-making process closer to the front line of construction, the FORWARD initiative forms an important component of Parsons’ expansion plans for the Middle East.
“We’re looking to grow our presence in geographies such as Kuwait and Egypt; we have a number of interesting prospects in these territories,” Bodie reveals.
“We’re also working with UAE-headquartered land development companies that have projects elsewhere in the world, such as Morocco, Serbia, and Georgia. Parsons is conducting some design work for these customers, but for projects outside of the Middle East.”
Encouragingly for Parsons, its MEA growth strategy will take place against the backdrop of a healthy project backlog. In the UAE, for example, it enjoys long-standing relationships with Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA), Abu Dhabi Municipality (ADM), and the Department of Transport (DoT). It is also working as integrated programme manager for Abu Dhabi International Airport’s Midfield Terminal, on behalf of Abu Dhabi Airports Company (ADAC).
Furthermore, the consultancy is involved in many of the GCC’s major rail projects, primarily in the form of joint ventures. Parsons has worked on Dubai Metro and Stage 1 of Etihad Rail in the UAE. It is supporting the construction of Doha Metro in Qatar, and hopes to be an “active player” in the long-term development of the GCC Railway Network, according to Bodie.
Despite this raft of activities, the consultancy is also eyeing further growth within the region’s aviation sector.
“Parsons is looking to become programme manager and construction supervisor for the modernisation of Kuwait International Airport,” Bodie tells Construction Week. “We have submitted our bid for the project; it’s currently under consideration.”
Aside from their traditional infrastructure-related activities, Bodie and his colleagues are looking to enter business segments that – on a regional level, at least – are relatively uncharted for the firm. He explains: “Over the past few years, we’ve expanded our MEA business lines. We’ve returned to the oil and gas sector, we’re working to build our regional defence and security offerings, and we’ve entered into the segments of vertical construction management and design.
“Previously, we focused primarily on horizontal infrastructure in the Middle East. This is still our bread and butter, but we have new offerings coming online.”
These expansionary efforts are in keeping with Parsons’ prioritisation of key accounts.
“We may not have dozens of customers, but we certainly have dozens of projects,” Bodie emphasises. “As part of our FORWARD initiative, we’re looking to identify key accounts; that is, particular customer sets that have unusually healthy growth potential given the right service offerings.
“Key accounts may also include clients with projects that offer opportunities for cross-Parsons synergies. This is as much a part of the FORWARD initiative as restructuring. It’s about creating long-term partnerships with key customers.”
Bodie says that master developers, such as Dubai’s Emaar, represent ideal key accounts for Parsons because they have the potential to make use of the consultancy’s full range of capabilities.
“The aim is to bundle certain services; to take our vertical and horizontal competencies and package them together,” Bodie explains. “From here, we can initiate discussions about alternative methods of project delivery, perhaps in the form of more predictable financing options for large-scale multipurpose developments, for instance. All of these elements can be brought together to form a value proposition.”
Nevertheless, Bodie is eager to point out that Parsons has no interest in pursuing expansion for expansion’s sake. On the contrary, the consultancy’s preference for key accounts forms part of its strategy to maintain its profit margins.
“We want to identify smart, strategic customers,” he continues. “We will not go after everybody and everything in every place. We will look instead for customers and projects that are going to enhance our reputation.
“The Middle East’s construction sector is witnessing a race to the bottom in many respects. That’s one trend that Parsons is not going to ape. We are constantly working to improve the competitiveness of our cost structure, and we know how to win on price. However, Parsons is never going to ‘buy’ a job.
“We have been in this region for a long time, and we’ve built up considerable brand equity. That equity is based on performance; it isn’t something that we’re willing to sacrifice.”
By focusing on large-scale key accounts, Bodie and his colleagues hope to create a buffer against ever-tightening margins within the regional construction market. “So far, we’ve managed to stay out of this fight,” he continues. “Parsons is rarely if ever the outlier, either in terms of being the highest or the lowest [on price].
“We want to be the outlier when it comes to the ability to combine a comprehensive price with surety of delivery. And of course, in terms of standing behind our projects. That’s very important in this part of the world. We’ve seen other companies come and go, and when they exit the market, they usually leave their customers in precarious situations.
“Parsons has maintained its Middle East presence because it stands behind its work. If we have a problem, we address it. This can sometimes lead to interesting conversations with clients, but at the end of the day, we tend to enjoy deeper relationships as a result.”
Bodie ends by discussing Parsons’ regional project goals. In 2016, he explains, the firm will continue to pursue opportunities within Saudi Arabia’s oil and gas sector, citing industrial cities such as Yanbu and Jazan.
“In the UAE,” he continues, “there’s Expo 2020. We’re conducting infrastructure design and construction supervision services for the event. There are all sorts of adjacent projects, including roads, the metro extension, and even communities around the exhibition site. Similarly, Al Maktoum International isn’t just an airport. There are lots of packages in and around [Dubai South]. It’s safe to say that Parsons will be involved in all of that.”
Bodie turns his attention to the 2022 FIFA World Cup, but again, he is quick to point out less-obvious opportunities. “People often focus on the football stadia and the event itself, but in order to prepare for an international competition of this kind, many other things need to be in place – from housing and residential developments to transport infrastructure,” he notes.
“If you take Parsons’ MEA portfolio as a whole, you can see we have a lot on our plate. This is in spite of the delays, restructuring, and down-scoping that the market is currently facing,” Bodie adds with a modest smile.
But in truth, Bodie has a lot to smile about. His team is succeeding in a region plagued by oil-price stagnation and tightening national budgets. Just imagine what Parsons could achieve in the Middle East given a culture of front-line decision making and a favourable economic climate.