Kane, a structural engineer by profession, has been in the region for a decade
For an international organisation in the 21st century, staying relevant and bringing new ideas to the table is important for survival. For this to happen, having the right leadership in charge to keep the firm driven, especially during turbulent economic conditions, is vital.
This is especially true in the Middle East, given the idiosyncrasies of the market. Bearing this in mind, multi-disciplinary firm WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff decided to appoint Greg Kane as its new regional managing director following the departure of predecessor Tom Bower.
Kane, a structural engineer by profession, has been in the region for a decade. During his first six years in the Middle East, he worked at Hyder Consulting, now part of the Arcadis Group, in its Property and Buildings division, and joined the WSP business in 2013 as its operations director.
A year later, the firm merged with Parsons Brinckerhoff in one of the biggest deals in the construction industry to form WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff. Kane played an instrumental role in structuring the newly formed combined entity, and a year post-merger his efforts saw him chosen to lead the organisation when Bower stepped down.
So what is Kane’s first order of business as managing director?
To begin with, he says he’d like to do a sense check on the strategy put in place during the integration process, to ensure that it is working.
“18 months ago, we developed an operating model for the combined WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff business and its structure. Specific people were placed in certain roles, and we came up with a strategy for 2015 through until 2018.
“We’re one year down that road, and whilst you want your strategy to have some longevity, it is essential to stop and evaluate whether or not it is having the desired positive effect at certain intervals. That’s one of the things that I am doing in my new capacity.
“In terms of direction, the big focus for us will continue to be the four pillars of our global strategy, i.e., our clients, people, expertise and our operational excellence. However, my focus is very much on the first two of those, and my feeling is that if we concentrate strongly on our people and clients, we’ll continue to be on a successful path.”
Given Kane’s expertise and professional background, what kind of operational changes can be expected, and is the company likely to see some internal shuffling?
Most likely, says Kane, but stresses that these will be minor tweaks as the focus will be on evolution rather than revolution.
“We’re going through a bit of a review process at the moment, so it’s inevitable that there will be some changes. As I said, I was very much involved in shaping the business 18 months ago, so to come in and make wholesale changes would be inconsistent with that. Certainly we will look at where we are, but I predict us staying relatively true to the goals, ambitions, structure and the people that we have with us.”
Additionally, a few new areas of focus will be considered for business opportunities, namely Saudi Arabia’s 2030 vision, Dubai’s recently announced strategy around industry and fluctuating oil prices.
Evaluating the ongoing oil crisis first, Kane starts by explaining the positives and negatives. While the property and buildings division has been largely unaffected, areas of business like air transportation and infrastructure and PMO and PMC have been affected. This is because most clients in these areas are government bodies who are understandably cautious.
However, these situational constraints have also made governments look at new ways of procuring the infrastructure they require; this is noticeable in countries like Saudi Arabia which have put strategies like Vision 2030 in place.
Kane points out that unlike many of WSP | PB’s peers, the Kingdom isn’t a very large market for it at the moment. However, considering the fresh prospects in the infrastructure sector, it will be looking to do more business there.
“I think if Saudi Arabia is to go down the PPP route or private finance in terms of its infrastructure requirements, that is going to present a lot of opportunity. Additionally, if the government changes how it does things in terms of reorganisations and restructures, there’ll be many prospects for us there.
“In fact, we’ve appointed a new lead director in Saudi Arabia in January, keeping these growth opportunities in mind. He’s been in the role for about seven months now and he’s largely been in exploratory mode, and hopefully he can continue to present opportunities for us. I think if WSP | PB is to see itself grow in the region, Saudi Arabia may be the only way we can do that.”
Some other business prospects that these new methods of procurement will bring about are things like strategic advisory services, financial advisory and design & build, which WSP | PB will explore over the coming months.
When asked about his thoughts on new markets like Iran, Kane says that as a global business, there have been internal discussions about it; however, the reality is that it is not a feasible country at the moment – not only because many sanctions are still in place, but also because Iran has been isolated for nearly 30 years, which means it needs to be studied carefully first.
“I think we need to look at Iran quite pragmatically and say, ‘What is it that this country would really need from us?’ For WSP | PB, it’s not a massive area of focus, it’s more of an opportunistic wait to see what happens.
“In terms of other places, there are no key geographies that we are specifically targeting. But that being said, we will approach other markets on a case by case basis so long as we have the right client and the right project.”
Considering 2015 was a challenging year for the industry and the company, Kane says that 2016 is about maintaining a steady position. Additionally, more realistic targets have been set, and unlike previous years where they were very growth oriented, they will focus on maintaining their current critical mass of 1,500 people in the region.
“We want to be less focused on trying to grow and more focused on keeping our best people. This also means integrating some new people into our business as well, and of course making sure that we’re delivering great projects for our clients. This is our number one focus and in the first six months of the year, we’ve largely achieved that.
“We’ve reached the targets that we have set for ourselves this year, and I’m optimistic that we will deliver the rest for the remaining six months as well. We will then look at 2017 when the time comes to look at our budget, but I don’t see us targeting exponential growth next year either. I think for any company, both 2016 and 2017 will possibly be a time to hold your own in a marketplace that is still challenging.”
Talking about the issues that he has faced in his first month as managing director, Kane says that given that the two big areas of focus for him are the company’s people and clients, allocating time to spend with them has been challenging.
“Building and maintaining relationships with our people and clients involves a lot of travelling, meeting people in our offices in remote locations, and meeting our clients and listening to what they say. While this may not sound like a challenge, it actually is a massive one, because finding quality time to spend with all of them and making sure that we are doing exactly what they want us to do for them isn’t easy.”
On a more regional level, Kane says one problem consultants face is getting the best talent. While some skills are available in the region, others need to be brought in; since clients generally expect things to be done quickly, finding the right expertise in a practical sense becomes a task.
Delivering a high-quality project on a demanding time frame is another issue. “Everything we do in our industry is complex and challenging by itself. Designing a 100-storey building, a large shopping mall, a large highway or a power plant requires time due to its complexity, and so delivering a quality product in the time scales that this region expects is certainly not easy.”
Despite the difficulties, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff is engaged in a number of impressive projects. Some of them have really begun to take shape for the public, including Dubai Eye, now renamed Ain Dubai, on the emirate’s coastline.
“We just saw the spindle get lifted into place a couple of weeks ago for the Ain Dubai project, which was a very large milestone for the development. In the coming months we will see further parts of the wheel get erected, and I think it will be a very public demonstration of the region’s ambitions and capabilities.
“We’re also working on some large infrastructure projects, like the Qatar Expressways project, which is a big contribution to the upgrade of the country’s infrastructure. In Saudi Arabia, we’re working on some very large power generation projects with Saudi Electric Company that we are very proud of.”
Concluding with his outlook for the construction industry in the Middle East in 2016, Kane says, “My sense is that things feel a bit better today than they did 12 months ago. I’ve already said that 2015 was a challenging year and most of our peer group would say the same, but I feel more positive about the remainder of 2016 than I did a year ago.”
“Even though the region is facing some challenges in terms of oil, I’ve been here for 10 years and I will stand by the fact that the Middle East presents great opportunities as well. Overall, I would say that I’m cautiously optimistic about the rest of 2016, 2017 and beyond.”