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Face to face: Simon Moon, Atkins

Simon Moon, chief executive officer of Atkins’ Middle East operations, says that it takes dedication and concentration to thrive in a challenging construction environment

Simon Moon, CEO – Middle East, Atkins.
Simon Moon, CEO – Middle East, Atkins.

Atkins’ Simon Moon was in a buoyant mood when he sat down to speak with Construction Week. As chief executive officer of the consultancy’s Middle East operations, he concedes that this is a challenging market, but points out that there are still plenty of contracts to be won and work to be done.

“It’s tough,” he begins. “Lots of projects have been shelved, spending is being reviewed, and everyone’s suffered from that. Clients have become more demanding, and getting paid is a bit more difficult [than it was previously]. All the usual stuff.

“So it’s fair to say that it’s challenging. But also, I think the fundamental drivers are still there, and will remain. Urbanisation will continue, and the population – and people’s aspirations – will grow. Residents of the Middle East want to live in world-class cities, and regional governments must make sure that we’re all safe and enjoying living here.

“I think those drivers are always going to present, and that’s what gives me confidence. Because there is still a lot of work out there. There are still things that need to be done.”

Fortunately for Moon, there appears to be no shortage of demand for Atkins’ services in the Middle East – a fact evidenced by his team’s recent financial performance. Atkins achieved an operating profit of $42.4m (GBP29.5m) in the Middle East during its 2016 financial year, a 31.1% year-on-year rise compared to the $32.3m (GBP22.5m) figure achieved in 2015. Moreover, the consultancy’s Middle East revenue grew to $356.5m (GBP248.3m) in 2016, a 14.6% increase over the $311.2m (GBP216.7m) recorded during its previous financial year.

Understandably, Moon is pleased with these results, but he is also careful not to get carried away. As he explains, the Middle East is different from most other international markets.

“In this part of the world, it’s high risk, but potentially high gain,” he says. “Atkins understands that [my colleagues and I] look at the Middle East over a five-year period rather than every year, because the risks are significantly higher than in other parts of the world, because of uncertainty and volatility, and because of the demanding nature of clients [in this region].

“You can make good money some years and not so much in others, certainly on a cash basis. It can be challenging. Our revenue increased by [14.6% in our 2016 financial year], so you’re going to get natural growth in your profit as a result of that,” Moon adds.

The UK-headquartered consultancy also performed well within an international context. At a global level, Atkins’ operating profit for 2016 grew to $205.9m (GBP143.4m), 21% higher than the $170.2m (GBP118.5m) achieved during its previous financial year. The firm’s global revenue, meanwhile, saw year-on-year growth of 6%, rising from $2.52bn (GBP1.76bn) in 2015 to $2.67bn (GBP1.86bn) in 2016.

Impressive though these figures are, it is important not to downplay the fact that Moon’s Middle East team outperformed its international colleagues, and in what is universally acknowledged to be an especially challenging business environment. So, what’s the secret to his team’s success?

“We’re always looking at how we can become more efficient in the way that we run our business,” Moon replies. “And that’s not as simple as just cutting costs because that’s short term. It’s about actually looking at the way in which you’re structured to deliver projects. To this end, we are able to use Atkins’ global capabilities. We don’t grow [the size of our Middle East workforce] as much as we grow our revenue, because we are always looking at how we can package work and move it around the world.

“This approach also leads to a higher quality of delivery. You make fewer mistakes and you get it right first time because of these centres of expertise.”

In addition to the prioritisation of efficiency, Moon points out that sustained business growth necessitates a high degree of focus.

“I’ve been in this region for about five years now, and the mantra since I arrived has always been about focus. This is an exciting place to operate, with massive opportunities. Even during the difficult periods, there is still a huge amount of [work to be won]. It’s important to stay focussed on the things you’re really good at because, in this part of the world, you can’t afford to make promises that you can’t keep. You’ve got to play to your strengths and concentrate on the clients that you believe will value what you do, and that have long-term aspirations to work with companies like Atkins.

“Then, it’s about working out – both in terms of geography and sector – where the most money is going to be spent, and the areas in which we can make a difference. Historically in the GCC, we’ve focussed on the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Although we’re also active across the rest of the region, this focus remains the same.”

Atkins is currently working on a selection of large-scale projects in these countries, primarily within the infrastructure and transportation, and property segments. In Saudi Arabia, the firm is supporting activities connected to the implementation of the Project Management Office (PMO), and providing consultancy services for Riyadh Metro. In Qatar, it is working on Doha Metro, and was instrumental in the establishment of the country’s Central Planning Office (CPO). In the UAE, Moon’s team has worked on a range of transport projects, including Etihad Rail, Dubai Tram, and Dubai Metro. As part of its long-standing relationship with Emaar, Atkins also provided full design and construction supervision services for Dubai Opera, which opened in October 2016.

“On the transportation side, our most prominent [ongoing] projects are Riyadh Metro and Doha Metro,” says Moon. “We have previous experience working on Dubai Metro, and we’re still looking into how we can become more involved [with its extension]. In addition, we’re working with Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) on smart initiatives in intelligent transportation. So the transportation segment is key for Atkins. We bid on Mecca Metro, we’ll be bidding on Jeddah Metro, and [we intend to bid] on the metros that come after those.

“We’re seeing significant growth in the property segment as well, particularly in Dubai. We’re doing a lot of work in retail with customers like Majid Al Futtaim. There are a number of retail projects that we’ve secured but that haven’t yet been announced. Those are really exciting, big retail and mixed-use developments.

“We’ll also continue to work with Meraas on Bluewaters and a number of its other projects. Marsa Al Seef, for example, is a huge development that goes right the way along [Dubai Creek]. It’s one of our biggest projects in the emirate at present.”

In terms of Moon’s future priorities, he reveals that Atkins will be ramping up its activities in East and North Africa.

“Probably the most exciting move that we’ve made recently was into Africa,” he recalls. “[In Q1 2016,] we bought Howard Humphreys: a local consultancy with which we’ve worked for a good 10 years or so. We acquired the firm [at the beginning of the year], and we’ve been in a process with the competition authorities to get the final approvals.

“Atkins has operated in Africa for many years, mostly in the energy sector, but this is our first permanent move into [the continent]. It’s really exciting. With this acquisition, [we’ll be able to serve markets like] Tanzania and Kenya. We see East Africa as a major growth area. We’re looking at Egypt as well; there are a number of projects we’re about to secure there. Egypt is still a market that we will have to watch carefully, but the potential for growth is significant.

“And then, over the very long term, Atkins intends to establish a presence in Iran. In order of priority, our geographic expansion will involve East Africa, Egypt, and Iran.”

Wherever Atkins expands in the future, Moon says that it will continue to operate in a way that is beneficial to the wider community in the long term.

“Atkins employs 2,500 people [in the Middle East] and many of those people have families here,” he says. “We’ve been in this region for more than 40 years. So yes, Atkins is an international firm, but it has roots here. Therefore, we should be contributing.”

Moon concludes: “It’s beneficial to us, as a group of people [residing] here, to make the Middle East a better place to live.”

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