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Face to face: Greg Kane, WSP | PB Middle East

WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff ’s newly promoted Middle East managing director, Greg Kane, outlines his firm’s plan to adapt to new market conditions without compromising its historic strengths

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Montreal-headquartered WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff has never been afraid of adaption or expansion. Indeed, the consultancy has only existed in its current form since Q4 2014, when WSP and Parsons Brinckerhoff came together to achieve a twofold increase in the size of its workforce – from 17,000 to 32,000 employees worldwide.

In addition to mergers and acquisitions, which punctuate WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s corporate history, the firm has witnessed a number of internal changes of late. On the global stage, Pierre Shoiry stepped down from his role as president and chief executive officer in March 2016; he was replaced by former chief financial officer, Alexandre L’Heureux. At a regional level, Greg Kane became Middle East managing director at the end of May 2016, following the departure of Tom Bower.

Just months into his tenure as the head of WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Middle East operations, one could forgive Kane for being vague about his team’s plans for the future. However, when the newly promoted regional MD paid a visit to Construction Week’s head office, his strategic vision was impressively clear. But as Kane explains, his latest appointment did not come as a complete surprise.

“I joined the company in November 2013 as operations director for the Middle East,” he begins. “Previously, I spent six-and-a-half years as the regional business unit director at [Arcadis legacy outfit] Hyder Consulting.

“After I arrived at WSP Middle East, I became part of a succession planning exercise, but succession planning doesn’t always go as [originally envisaged]. For some people, Tom Bower left the business at relatively short notice; I think there was a slightly longer-term plan [in place].

“And although I was part of the succession planning process, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s global business still took time to review its programme for the Middle East. The company looked at [potential replacements for Bower], and I was one of them. It quickly made a decision on who the new managing director would be, and selected me.”

Kane may have been a relative newcomer to WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, but the reasoning behind his promotion was sound. In addition to the aforementioned succession plan and his extensive experience at Hyder Consulting, Kane had witnessed the merging of WSP and Parsons Brinckerhoff first hand.

“When I joined, we had 450 employees in the Middle East,” he recalls. “Through the remainder of 2013 and into 2014, the business grew to approximately 750 people. Then, in late-2014, WSP acquired Parsons Brinckerhoff, and in early 2015, we began the integration process.”

Perhaps owing to the rapidly evolving nature of the region’s construction sector, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s distaste for the status quo has served it well in the Middle East. The company is supporting a dizzying array of projects across the Gulf, from The Dubai Mall expansion in the UAE to the Al Mutlaa City housing project in Kuwait. However, while an openness to change has certainly been beneficial, Kane says that regional success has also been facilitated by the firm’s global structure.

“WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s global strategy is built on four pillars: people, clients, expertise, and operational excellence,” he says. “In my previous role as operations director, I was very focused on operational excellence. As Middle East MD, I see a big part of my role as concentrating on our people and our clients.

“Our philosophy is that if you can get the people side of your business working well, and if you’re working for the good of your clients and they’re happy, you’ll produce a high-quality product.”

That GCC construction firms are under pressure is no secret. Almost two years of oil price stagnation has left the industry in a state of uncertainty. However, Kane is not only optimistic about the future; he also believes that confidence is returning to the market.

“We have great opportunities coming our way, including Expo 2020 in the UAE and the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar,” he says. “Governments are also unveiling new strategic visions, such as Dubai Industrial Strategy 2030 and Saudi Vision 2030.
“This means change; it means doing things differently. But it also means challenges. We must ensure that our business has the people, skills, and services to support our clients.

“Sentiment seems to have improved a little in the last six months,” he adds.

Nevertheless, Kane is not getting carried away. At its current level of $45, the price of crude oil is a far cry from its Q2 2014 peak of $112 per barrel. But WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Middle East MD contends that confidence is being buoyed by the resilience that the market has shown.

“The oil price has remained low for more than 18 months and, while that has had an impact, it hasn’t resulted in construction activities grinding to a halt. As this situation has persisted, I think that our industry has come to realise that it can continue to function well, in spite of lower oil prices.

“My next point may sound contradictory, but I think that it actually supports [my argument]. We have seen a slight improvement in the oil price of late. Will this continue? Who knows? It’s certainly not my job to predict the price of oil. However, we have seen an improvement, and the general sentiment is that this will continue. In my opinion, confidence is a self-fulfilling prophecy; it engenders more confidence.”

Naturally, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff is not solely focused on the future. It is currently supporting projects across the GCC. Kane explains: “Our business is split into four key groups: property and buildings; transportation and infrastructure; power and water; and environment and sustainability. We also have a fifth group, which we call major projects.

“Across these fields, we’re involved in some fantastic projects. In terms of property and buildings in the UAE, for example, we’re currently working on the expansion of The Dubai Mall, and we were part of the project team that delivered the extension of Mall of the Emirates.”

In addition, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff is supporting a selection of Meraas projects in the UAE, including the Ain Dubai Ferris wheel (formerly Dubai Eye) and the retail component of Bluewaters Island. It also acted as lead consultant for the City Walk project, which opened in February 2016.

Outside of the Emirates, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff is working on projects like Doha Metro and the New Orbital Highway & Truck Route in Qatar; the Makkah Public Transport Program (MTMP) in Saudi Arabia; and the improvement of roadways in South Surra, Kuwait.

WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s current project portfolio offers plenty of cause for optimism, but Kane warns that there is no room for complacency. With this in mind, he says that he and his colleagues are constantly assessing the market to ensure that their service offering is relevant, and to identify potential channels for growth.

“When WSP and Parsons Brinckerhoff joined forces, we came up with a new strategy for the Middle East,” he explains. “This has served us well, but 18 months in is not a bad place to stop and [re-evaluate]. Is our strategy still robust, and will it remain relevant for the next 18 months? Or do we need to make some tweaks and changes?

“This is one of my priorities for 2016: to look at the business now, the areas we’ve been focused on recently, and to ask what we can do to stay ahead of the game.”

This proactive approach to consultancy forms a key part of Kane’s master plan for success within the Middle East’s fast-moving construction market.

“Our region goes through cycles quicker than most,” he notes. “This presents a challenge for consultants, contractors, and clients alike. We have to be nimble and agile, and we must make sure that we are able to adapt to change as quickly as possible.

“So when we consider new geographies and service lines, we must do so within the context of where the market is heading. WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff has been in this region for a long time, and we want to stay here for a long time. We’re not looking for short-term gains or exponential growth. We want a business that’s sustainable over a longer period; a business that retains the ability and agility necessary to respond to [fluctuating conditions].”

Even so, Kane is adamant that this will be a process of evolution, not revolution. He continues: “I want to reassure our clients that WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff is not interested in [enacting] massive change. We’re looking to make incremental improvements. What’s more, any changes we do make will be in keeping with our [corporate philosophy].

“We don’t want our clients to think that, because there’s a change in the Middle East MD, the things that we do well – the things they’re happy with – are going to alter. WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff exists to serve its clients; to provide a quality service and to help them achieve their ambitions. That’s our reason for existing, and it will remain our focus,” Kane concludes.

Maturing with the market

One example of WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s strategy to adapt to the GCC’s changing market is its recent work within the fields of expansion and refurbishment.

“In the UAE, we’re currently working on the expansion of The Dubai Mall, which is an ambitious brownfield extension,” notes Kane. “We also acted as the consultant for building services and fire and life safety on the Mall of the Emirates extension.
“This was an amazing project. To think, we built another level on top of a mall with close to zero disruption to the trading taking place beneath. And then one day, we just opened it up and, to everyone’s surprise, the mall had another level.”

Kane is confident that such skills will serve WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff well as the GCC market matures.

“Five or 10 years ago, it was important to be able to design and support new projects on greenfield sites – and this is still important,” he continues. “However, as markets mature, the ability to conduct expansions and refurbishments becomes increasingly relevant.

“As the Middle East develops, and as regional assets grow older, there will be an uptick in demand for expansion and refurbishment. Owners will explore ways to keep their assets relevant, and to extend their lifecycles. So from a property and buildings perspective, we anticipate that these skills will become more and more relevant.”

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