People and relationships key to growth says Systra UK's new chief executive.

Tim O’Neill took over as the new chief executive of Systra UK last month having spent the last 10 years running Atkins’ rail communications division.

Tim O'Neill Systra UK

Interview by Antony Oliver.

What challenges do you face at Systra UK?

The real challenge is to develop the business. It is currently a transport planning consultancy business predominantly but it has also got a growing engineering business element to it. The business plan is to grow both parts of that. The challenge for Systra is identifying our USP and selling it to clients. The future is about developing the right relationship and my role is finding the right people who can grow those relationships.

You want to grow – how big and by when?

We now have just over 150 staff plus consultants and we want to grow that number. Realistically I would say that we can get to 200 or thereabouts by 2019. But it is also about how we can partner with people. My immediate short term focus is about visibility and stability. People have to understand what my game plan is.

How do you drive that growth?

We have got a presence in the UK but Systra is not actually that well known. We are big in Europe and in the Middle East and have a good reputation on high speed rail particularly in France. In the UK we are working on HS2 and Crossrail and Edinburgh-Glasgow Improvement Programme (EGIP) but visibility wise we are still under the radar. Part of my role is to improve that and to grow th business in the UK.

How optimistic are you about the market at the moment?

We are in a lucky place in terms of funding. If you look at, say, electrification in the UK there is a huge opportunity and that is a starting point for us but not the only thing that we want to do from an engineering point of view. It is about making sure that we have the right partnerships to suit our capability and we are in discussion with various people.

What is your plan for growth?

We are looking at both organic growth and acquisition. We are looking seriously at acquisition both in the engineering and consultancy business. Plans are a little bit more well developed on the engineering side. Acquisitions are difficult because you have to make sure that you have a good match and that is the tricky bit.

Do you expect there to be significant game changers in the next five years?

Of course if we go for acquisitions then there could be some significant game changers, yes – but I can’t tell you yet! But combined with organic growth will also be a number of smaller acquisitions that won’t mean a step change in year two or three but over time will result in a much bigger organisation with a greater capability – today it is about identifying what that capability is.

How do you see the business developing in the future?

The future is about harnessing the best bits of what we do to grow them and to actually make sure that we are in the right areas for where the margin growth is. Deciding where these areas are is the process that I am going through now – it is only week three. 

To what extent is the availability of skills the limiting factor in your plans?

I think that is more of a challenge in the rail engineering side of the business – there is a huge demand there and a huge skills gap. From the consultancy side we draw in people from a range of experiences such as geographers and economists but on the rail engineering side there is a problem because there are a lot of people after the same resources.

How will you resolve those resourcing issues?

We can draw on the resources of Systra as a whole – I have guys in Poland and India and we are looking at how we can use those teams to deliver some of our work in the UK. It is not really unique but it is a solution.

How does the UK division interact with the global group?

It depends on the opportunity. The UK is seen as a target market because it has growth potential and if the right opportunity comes along I’ll get lots of attention from group.

You have worked on major projects such as the Jubilee Line Extension and the West Coast Mainline – what have you learned about controlling cost? 

On Jubilee Line a lot of the cost was in the way the job was broken up and procured and we face exactly the same challenge on HS2. The way that they are currently thinking about procuring isn’t based on systems engineering thinking. Splitting up the project into lots of packages introduces risks around integration management and coordination. That is where you can potentially strip out cost – by simplifying that process and reducing the number of interfaces. 

Can the industry influence this issue on HS2?

The industry has to influence HS2. They have brought in Simon Kirby and Jim Crawford and these guys both understand these issues so maybe it will change . But it will take everyone in the industry to bring their influence to bear.

Looking forward are your competitors likely to change?

You are always going to have competitors but you will also be partnering with some of them while going up against them. We all want to work for the same clients so there may be some consolidation and some new players but I don’t think that the market will be very different. But who knows – the Chinese might come into the market via HS2 and change everything.

Who will your key clients be?

Contractors will increasingly be the new clients. We already work for them and it is the usual collection of big name. But there will also be new smaller clients available in the UK such as new metros and bus companies that will provide opportunity. But the big opportunity will still be around the big clients and big projects.

Are there likely to be new market opportunities for you?

There are opportunities around development planning and what I am interested in is the link between development and transport. Transport orientated development is fine in the green field sites but more difficult around our Victorian infrastructure. I think that there is a strong connection between development and transport – TfL has for example got a lot of property and there is an opportunity there - they really are sitting on a gold mine.

The MVA business and name has now been completely absorbed on to Systra – are there any legacy issues to resolve?

MVA Consultancy has a rich heritage and while we still have the same skills and people it is now a new package under the Systra name. Any company that goes through change struggles with elements of it. It is about giving people confidence that there is growth ahead of us and showing that they will have a part in it.

Clients are increasingly sophisticated and knowledgeable around collaboration. Are you ready?

The whole supply chain needs to raise its game and bring some private sector thinking to public sector bodies. That said we also need to work closely with people like David Waboso at London Underground where there is a real willingness to engage with new ideas and an increasing engagement with SMEs. That is an interesting dynamic –cutting out some of the bigger players gives an opportunity for smaller firms like Systra. 

What does success look like?

Success is growing a sustainable business in engineering and transportation consultancy that is delivering good margins. It is about getting the mix of the business right to cope with peaks and troughs – being bigger but being better and more efficient. Get the basics right and growth will come.

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