It’s time to be bold and challenge conventional thinking, says Riley

ACE’s new chair, Mathew Riley, highlights improving industry productivity, collaboration and demonstrating evidence of positive change, as the key priorities for his year in office. He spoke to Andy Walker about his plans.

Ramboll’s UK managing director Mathew Riley is an interesting choice as the new chair of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE). With an unusual combination of having worked for client, contractor and consulting organisations for nearly 30 years, including a memorable stint as commercial director on Heathrow’s groundbreaking Terminal 5 project, he is potentially the ideal candidate to chair the organisation, especially at a time when the industry is being urged to work more closely to implement the government’s new construction sector deal.

So, Riley should be well placed to help address the thorny issue of productivity that has so bedeviled the industry for many years and which the government wants to see improved. Unsurprisingly, he cites improving industry productivity as one of his three key priorities for his year in office. The other two are seeing progress on genuine collaboration and demonstrating real evidence of what can help improve the industry.

“The industry has talked for years about efficiency and productivity and the government has probably got very frustrated with the sector,” Riley says. “It’s now got to a point where there are real solutions out there and we need to do a lot more as an industry to promote what we are capable of achieving, rather than looking to the government to bail us out with public spending. When that happens, the industry doesn’t reform itself or look to do anything different,” says Riley.

“The advances we have in technology and the way we can work means that the capability to transform the way we design, engineer and construct are quite different from even five or ten years ago,” Riley says. He cites the investments that have been made by various companies over the past decade in offsite construction and predicts that the momentum will increase dramatically. “We’re seeing digital design techniques coming to the fore more and more and if you start to combine that with other aspects of digital design and offsite construction then you have a real opportunity to transform productivity,” he says.

“For me, the first priority is to promote how we can address the productivity issue and find the evidence to show that we can do it. Organisations like mine and others are investing in this capability. Clients’ ability to go further faster has also never been better and our challenge is to pull all that together and keep up,” Riley says.

"We need to do a lot more as an industry to promote what we are capable of achieving, rather than looking to the government to bail us out with public spending. When this happens, the industry doesn't reform itself or look to do anything different."

Mathew Riley, ACE chairman and Ramboll UK managing director 

So, what has held the process of industry improvement back for so long? Riley is clear about the reason. “We are very fragmented as an industry,” he tells me. If you look at the business models, procurement, the way we compete for work - all those things make it hard for people to collaborate,” Riley says.

However, he believes that the government’s construction sector deal and its promise of matched funding to promote innovation presents an opportunity. “Because we are all investing money ourselves, we should be able to pool that investment and match fund it alongside the government money,” he says. “I’m happy to take my bit of my investment and put it alongside somebody else’s if we can then holistically say that there are some projects out there that we want to create as demonstrator projects. The industry has an opportunity to come together on this and I’m looking forward to talking to government about how we can use their money in the best way to help improve productivity,” he explains.

Riley believes that industry bodies will need to work together with the government. “It may be easier to match fund as a collective rather than sectors acting alone and I will be looking to see how ACE can play its role in ensuring that the industry speaks with one voice. We need a pan-industry approach because that’s the way to achieve change,” he says.

“We also need solid evidence of reform and new skills coming into the industry. If we improve productivity, embrace new skills and become a more dynamic industry then that allows us to compete more effectively, making the industry more attractive,” Riley says.

He also thinks the industry should sell itself better. “Look at the regeneration that all our major cities need. The issues are hugely complex and our industry has the potential to do all those things – we are just not promoting that capability well enough,” says Riley.

“We need to create critical mass. Take housing. The factories that can build 2,000 houses a year are a drop in the ocean in terms of what the country needs,” says Riley. “We need to make it cheaper for upfront investment through a ‘kit of parts’ approach and identifying the industries that others can then go and invest in. Other countries do it. Look at Denmark, where 95% of what they do is all offsite and has been for 50 years, because in the 60s they had a skills shortage so it transformed the way they designed and engineered. These things are absolutely possible if the will is there,” he says.

Riley is keen that ACE is seen to demonstrate real solutions with government and shows what the industry can do and how it can deliver more efficiently. “We need that solid evidence,” he says. “Something that is sustainable that changes how we deliver projects and transforms the way we work. One-off gains that are not repeatable is not what we need. Critical mass is crucial,” says Riley.

Riley relishes the opportunity of taking the lead for ACE in this area. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for us. I’m a glass half full person and I think we need to be bold,” he says. “We need different thinking and to challenge conventional thinking. My approach will be to look at what ought to be achievable. There is no excuse not to make the changes we need. Otherwise others will come in and take our space, so it’s up to us. We can’t just sit around waiting for others to act,” says Riley.

Riley is likely to adopt a no nonsense approach. “I won’t be confrontational for the sake of being confrontational but I am quite happy to speak my mind. We need to provoke a reaction quite frankly, in the nicest possible way, and I’m quite prepared to provoke that reaction,” he says.

He recalls his days working on the Terminal 5 project. “That was 15 years ago and all the stuff that people thought was innovative and pioneering then, we are still talking about now. It has yet to become mainstream. All that learning even on that project has been lost. The industry needs to move on and we don’t want to be having the same conversations in another ten years,” he says.

He has a glint in his eye when he talks about the challenges and opportunities for the year ahead. I fully expect him to make a mark in the industry with the clear way in which he articulates his views and in ensuring that the voice of ACE’s members is heard at the very top of the industry and with government.

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