Cundall celebrated 10 years in the Middle East recently and Jason Saundalkar talks to Richard Stratton about his firm’s journey, getting away from being stereotyped and the importance of staff and innovation
Cundall is a privately-owned, international multidisciplinary consultancy that has bases of operation around the globe. The firm currently has a little over 800 staff across its various offices and first came to Middle Eastern shores 10 years ago, when Richard Stratton set-up Cundall’s Dubai office early in 2007.
Stratton is a mechanical engineer by trade and first joined the firm in 1994, bringing with him a consultancy background with experience working on projects such as Canary Wharf Tower and the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital. Since joining the firm, Stratton has become a key figure and is now a partner, a member of the group management board and the managing director of the firm’s Middle East’s operations.
As the man responsible for Cundall’s business in the region since it was first established, Stratton has seen the market and his business change significantly since those early days. “It has been an interesting journey, in our 10 years we saw the height of the boom, the global recession and its regional impact and then a gradual improvement in the market. When we first set up here, it was quite staggering for us as an international company,” Stratton says.
Setting up in Dubai was what Stratton refers to as a ‘cold start’ for the company. “Dubai was one of our first offices outside of the UK, following on from Australia which we had set up a few years earlier. This market was a cold start for us though, we knew and had previously worked with companies that were operating here but we came to Dubai without any projects in hand.”
Cundall grew relatively quickly however, although the firm planned to have 12 people after its first year in Dubai, the consultancy had a staff count of 50. “We were doing some exciting projects and back then, you had all the famous celebrities involved with projects. Brad Pitt was involved in one of the projects we were doing and although we didn’t meet him or any of the other celebrities, these were the kind of projects that the market had in those days. The way I describe it, for an engineer or designer, it was your child in a sweet shop moment. We may never see those kinds of projects again because the market here is now at a completely different stage to anywhere else in the world.”
When the global financial crisis hit, Cundall, like many other firms felt the effects but unlike some of its competitors, the company was still new to the market at the time. “We had 18 months of operation before the market crashed, so we hadn’t really penetrated the region very well. We were very busy and so we hadn’t even looked at markets outside of Dubai – we weren’t even doing anything in Abu Dhabi or any other emirate. So, when the market dipped, that was a very challenging time for us.”
Stratton notes that discussions about exiting Dubai were had, however the company decided to persevere. “We contemplated closing the business because of how challenging it got but we persisted. We are a privately-owned company and I’m one of the owners and we don’t like to give up. When we’ve made a commitment to a location, we try our best to make it work and so what we had to do was reassess the work we were doing.”
Post Crisis Rebuilding
Since Cundall hadn’t penetrated markets outside of Dubai when the market dipped, the firm decided to move ahead within Dubai by focusing on property consultancy. “We were looking at buildings and analysing them for clients, whether they wanted to buy or lease them. We also gave technical advice on what they should do and that strategy proved to be the saviour of the company. We rebuilt the team around that strategy,” notes the father of two.
While the strategy helped the firm regain its footing, it caused the company to be stereotyped in the market thereafter. It’s a challenge that Cundall is still dealing with today, according to Stratton. “We’ve become a bit stereotyped because of our previous focus on property consultancy and it’s a barrier that we have to work towards overcoming. We have to get past it because from an engineering point of view, we’re probably the strongest company in the corporate interiors market. We’ve worked for the biggest and most prestigious international clients, as well as a lot of local clients and we’re doing very big corporate interiors and other such fit-out projects, and some residential work as well.”
Having established a stable base in Dubai, Cundall was keen on expanding its business to reduce its risk and dependence on just one market. “We knew we had to diversify, so back in 2010 we began the process of establishing an office in Qatar. We also signed a partnership agreement with a firm in Oman, so now our main areas of focus are Oman, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Our internal structure differs across our Middle East offices. Historically, we have been disciplined focussed, very much on the MEP engineering side of things although that has changed now. In Qatar, we are full multidiscipline, we do everything from structural to civil and have all the specialisms and architecture as well.”
Cautious Expansion and Challenges
Today, Cundall has a healthy pool of talent across its offices in the region. In Dubai, the firm employs 30, while its Qatar and Oman operations stand at 60 and 15 respectively. In Oman, the company is currently engaged with a large mixed-use development, while in Qatar, the firm is involved in a large rail project and is eyeing a larger infrastructure project. Stratton notes that his firm is very loyal to clients and uses its agility to deliver quality work on programme. In Dubai, the firm is now gearing up for expansion.
“We grew in the last couple of years and we are planning to move into our new office in Dubai soon, however we now want to expand cautiously because of how the market is looking moving forward. Business is business but our philosophy is to grow a business that can sustain staff numbers – we don’t seek out opportunities and grow the staff around that and then get rid of people once that project is complete. That’s not our style and never has been. You can see that with our staff, we have people who have been with the company for more than 25 years and even within the region, very few have left since we began operations 10 years ago.”
Stratton emphasizes that staff are Cundall’s most valued assets and, as a result, the firm puts a lot of effort into staff happiness and wellbeing. “Staff wellbeing is very important to us, which is why we are moving from here. We want to try and create a better office and working environment that is conducive to health and happiness. A happy person is better with clients and they are more efficient. In our new London office, we invested around 60,000GBP extra into the office to achieve WELL accreditation and it paid for itself in three months. We didn’t look at productivity for that calculation but we saw that staff were happier and there was reduced absenteeism. If we go back and look at productivity, I’m sure we’d recover our investment even faster.”
With regards to challenges that Cundall is dealing with in the construction market today, Stratton notes that his key priority is to get his firm away from its current stereotype and raise its profile. “We have to raise our profile to a higher level than it has been, which is why we’ve recruited a new business development and marketing manager in 2017. As a business, we worry about the bottom-line and striking a balance between growth versus looking after staff and I think we’ve been a little bit conservative. That should change going forward, we needed someone to keep us on our toes and focus on raising our profile and thinking about what’s next, while the engineers focus on projects and delivery.”
He adds, “Another challenge is the market itself is very competitive. I remember the first project we secured after the market crashed, it was a fit-out project for an international company and the fees we secured on that project, we haven’t been able to secure again, even though the market has – in theory – improved. I think clients today are more demanding and I think that’s fair.”
Market unpredictability is also an issue that Cundall and other consultants are currently dealing with. Stratton notes, “When I talk to colleagues and competitors in the industry, they’re all saying the same thing. We’ve all been bidding for huge amounts of work but the decisions seem to be taking longer. In 2017, we probably bid on about 30% more projects than we did in 2016, which is quite significant but our success rate is lower because we don’t have decisions on many projects. I think that shows that there’s caution in the market and we have to manage this by not resourcing up to big teams.”
To get around these challenges, Stratton explains that his firm is looking at delivering projects more efficiently and cost effectively. “We need to offer something that our competitors don’t. I think we need to focus on understanding clients better as well, sometimes it’s not just about offering a better service than everyone else. We have to find out what’s really important to them, understand their business and approach them accordingly.”
Differentiating Through Technology
Cundall is also keen on creating differentiation for itself through innovation and new technology. Its WELL accredited office in London is just one part of its plans in this respect. The company has also developed a Virtual Acoustic Reality system in-house, which can be used to place designers and clients in a 4D virtual space during the design phase on projects.
Using an Oculus Rift headset and set of headphones, a person can be fully immersed in a virtual visual and acoustic world, which enables them to get an accurate feel of what the space will be like when it is completed. The system is part of the firm’s acoustic lab set up in its London office.
The company has also developed the ability to optimise building parameters through parametric modelling technology. Using analytical tools such as Rapier and Grasshopper, building designs can be optimised in terms of lifecycle energy and cost without compromising comfort early in the design process.
“There’s an appetite for technology and innovation in Dubai because it is so young as a city and because they want the very best the world has to offer. We are committed to the city and to the region and we plan to be here for the next 10 years and the 10 years after that. As long as the region will have us, we’ll be here,” concludes Stratton with a smile.