Face to Face: Ronan Clifford, Atkins

In a country as small as Qatar, with numerous construction consultancies in-county, differentiators become vital if a firm is to retain its foothold in the highly competitive market, more so during a construction lull

Ronan Clifford says that the digital aspect of engineering is becoming increasingly  important and by digitising the process work can be undertaken on-the-fly.
Ronan Clifford says that the digital aspect of engineering is becoming increasingly important and by digitising the process work can be undertaken on-the-fly.

In a country as small as Qatar, with numerous construction consultancies in-county, differentiators become vital if a firm is to retain its foothold in the highly competitive market, more so during a construction lull. Kim Kemp reports on how Atkins is maintaining the status-quo.

When construction comes to mind, visions of hard, tangible structures are the first images to manifest. Buildings of brick, stone, glass and cement – something whose surface you can run your hand over, feel the warmth generated by radiated heat or see your reflection in the polished glass.

But construction has invisible, less evident or obvious sides to it, taking place behind the scenes, as companies jostle to outshine the competition, to secure that elusive contract and remain ahead in the business race.

Ronan Clifford, operations manager, Transport & Infrastructure, Atkins, has witnessed Qatar’s meteoric climb onto the world stage in the short five years of his sojourn in the country. Originally commissioned for a three week stop-over to assess the award of a contract, Clifford is now a full-fledged resident of Qatar, displaying a level of enthusiasm and confidence in the country that borders on remarkable.

“I arrived in the country about five years ago at the start of a boom, and it is interesting to compare today – where economic conditions are arguably more challenging – with the significant progress that has been made both within the construction industry, and within our company,” he observes.

While the awarding of the 2022 World Cup tournament ignited a flurry of construction activity, the landscape has changed markedly over the past 12 months.

“At the moment if you asked 100 industry professionals, they would say the country is in a position where we are seeing a decline in budget and expenditure.

“There is no doubt that the drop in oil price has had an impact on the programmes that are being delivered but, at the same time, when you look at the skyline, you wouldn’t be able to count the number of cranes out there!” he says incredulously.

Clifford continues, “Through this period, our business has seen a lot of success, but as some programmes of work reach completion, and others are suspended owing to the economic conditions, we are focusing on how we can adapt and evolve to the market conditions in a way that makes us less vulnerable to changes.”

Despite many in the construction sector now bemoaning the lull, Clifford believes however that it came at a fortunate time and he explains: “To put things in perspective; the slowing down of this economy has to some extent been necessary as we were about to overheat,” he comments. “Logistically what is happening at the moment is the best thing that could be happening as we are flattening the curve and becoming more realistic with deliverables,” he says. Clifford recognises that with this however, comes the need to differentiate if a company is to stay ahead of the game.

He comments, “The theme is evolution, but evolution that is driven by anticipating and focusing on our clients’ future needs. It’s always about our clients.”

He continues, “We started looking at ways of innovating with technology to offer clients more efficient and economic solutions – and differentiating ourselves from others in doing so. A couple of years back, in our global design centre in Bangalore, we established a huge BIM team. We knew this was coming; we knew we had to upskill and lead rather than follow.

“Today, a lot of the government organisations are mandating the use of BIM. What that’s achieving is that it is driving the industry to say that you are either on-board with this, or your opportunities are going to be reduced.

“However, while many of our competitors are now also using BIM, we are looking at additional service offerings such as increasing the use of technology in site supervision. Basically, we’re working hard to differentiate ourselves through technology by exploring different opportunities,” he stresses.

“The digital aspect of engineering is becoming more important and we need to ensure that we are ahead of the curve. Site supervision is increasingly important as we are right in the middle of a pretty serious construction programme, so we are looking at how we can make things more efficient.” He points out that site engineers have to be out on site looking at inspections, filing reports etc and comments: “There is an inefficiency there in terms of travel time if you are working on a site a distance away or, if you want to file reports later that night. By digitising the process via tablets and reliable 4G card connections etc, you can work on-the-fly. It is instantaneous and therefore far more efficient.”

Still, in an environment that is known for its cautiousness around new technologies and untried or untested methodologies, this forward thinking needs to be implemented with discretion and discernment – yet timing is also vital. Change must come and it must come quickly.

Clifford acknowledges that the task ahead is not simple: “The challenge is about how we can make it happen quicker and to create an environment where we’re comfortable with constantly advancing, because technology doesn’t stop. It’s something that requires a different way of thinking and collaborating, and taking clients along with us on that journey.

“There’s a huge amount of energy and excitement across the business which is taking us towards this but what I think is really important is, keeping focused on ensuring any investment clearly adds value to clients and to their end users. The reason Qatar is important to this is because of the scale and complexity of projects – it means that incremental improvements can make a big difference.”

Qatar’s construction industry is still one of the biggest in the world and it continues to employ a massive number of people, evident in the population growth, as an influx of labourers arrive in-country to service the major programmes of work.

“While you might see a tail-off in some aspects such as the Expressways – as they are coming to the end of a huge amount of work and different projects that have been under construction – we are seeing more activity in other areas such as the property sector, with projects starting to be awarded and announcements from major industry players,” he says. To ready itself for future prospects, Atkins is stream-lining its design processes. Clifford elaborates: “For instance, if we can automate more of our design, we will be able to quickly get past traditional repetitive design tasks in order to accelerate the process. By the same token, we’re looking at digital asset management for infrastructure. Digital Asset Management now enables the digital design, monitoring and predictive maintenance of infrastructure assets, which is a huge opportunity here if you can bring it in at the early stages of infrastructure development,” he comments.

In a sea of consultancies in-country, all vying for the same projects, differentiators equip companies with an advantage over the competition and here, to Clifford’s mind, Atkins is ahead of the curve.

“A really exciting opportunity is intelligent mobility and we have an international team which is really pushing the boundaries. This is about harnessing emerging technologies to improve the movement of people, goods and services. That could offer some fantastic solutions for Doha when it hosts the World Cup because we’re going to have tens of thousands of people descending on the city with no idea of how to get from A to B, never mind from B to C and so on.

“That can be a really daunting experience, so imagine the opportunities available to make it easier for people. For instance, it could be possible to help people plan their journeys in advance so they know exactly what they will be doing as soon as they arrive and, it will help the transport authorities plan for the services they have available. These are exactly the types of conversations we’re looking to have with clients.”

An international staff complement brings its worldwide experience to the company, affording agility of assimilation and dissemination of knowledge and information: “The benefit of being a company such as Atkins is that we are regional, local and global, which gives us a lot of agility,” he assures, with obvious satisfaction.

And so too in its Health and Safety focus, Atkins continues to lead and differentiate itself through the implementation of ‘Atkins Minimum Requirements on Health and Safety’. This ensures that staff is empowered to prioritise Health and Safety above all “and have our support in doing so,” Clifford assures and adds: “The ‘Atkins Minimum Requirements on Health and Safety’ is a way for us to give as much assistance to the industry as possible. It’s about looking and advising clients about what the minimum level should be for contractor focus on health and safety. It involves looking at our own people and making sure that everyone takes responsibility.

“Where traditionally companies have a specific resource for health and safety, Atkins embraces the principle that if anyone sees or observes unsafe conduct or is in a situation that could be deemed unsafe, it is their responsibility to stop whatever is causing the unsafe circumstances, or draw attention to someone who is able to intervene and stop it. Atkins’ staff are empowered to do something about it.”

A more recent development that sets Atkins apart is its launch of a new business, Atkins Acuity, which Clifford describes briefly: “We have invested in a new business, Atkins Acuity that will combine the company’s extensive engineering and master planning capability with new structuring, financing and project preparation expertise – an end-to-end advisory/consulting offering.”

Clifford maintains that the company has invested heavily in this new enterprise with senior hires from a number of prominent organisations including McKinsey, KPMG, Arthur D Little, World Economic Forum, Standard Chartered Bank and the former executive director of the Philippines PPP Unit, adding structuring and financing skills to the deep technical engineering knowledge across the Atkins Group.

“This shows that we continue to push the boundaries, we are looking for constant improvement in the client interface, and how we can give them more of what they need. We’ll always try and push the boundaries in terms of technical and digital, but at the end of the day serving the client is of utmost importance and Atkins Acuity is the way forward in this regard.

“In effect, the fact that the markets is changing is an opportunity to focus even more on our clients and evolve to align with their needs going forward instead of remaining static in what we offer.”

While Clifford is optimistic about what is coming down the line, there are two changes he’d like to see implemented, the first being that of diversity: “We’ve established a Women’s Business Network and the energy around this network is absolutely amazing and has been a huge success. Unfortunately, this is still a very male-dominated industry, which is potentially restricting the talent available, so any way of trying to address this can only be a good thing. I’m also really pleased that Atkins has taken the unprecedented step in the regional construction industry of officially changing our maternity policy entitling female employees an extended period of up to 14 weeks paid maternity leave – another step towards making the industry more accommodating to people’s real lives so that we both retain and attract key talent,” he adds.

“The other change, or at least an area which needs constant focus in the industry, would be to ensure timely payments throughout the supply chain. Despite the fact that the industry is less buoyant than 12 months ago, the World Cup is a significant milestone on the way to the 2030 National Vision for Qatar and will continue to ensure significant construction activity.

“We are looking at a construction programme that is still vibrant and comparatively robust to other areas and with the likelihood that there will be an increase in construction activity in the approach to 2022, the supply chain must retain confidence that they will have a reliable cash flow to continue to operate. Any loss of confidence in this could have a significant impact at a critical stage in the country’s construction programme.”

So while some are concerned about the slowdown, other companies are out there ensuring that they are equipped to give clients the best service to ensure a continued share of the market – and Atkins appears to be one of those ahead of the pack.

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