Putting people first and doing what is right

As leading global infrastructure company Stantec announced the integration of MWH in the UK into its business, Andy Walker spoke to Stantec UK’s managing director, Cath Schefer, about the company’s plans. 

Following its full integration with MWH at the turn of the year, Stantec became an established key player in the UK infrastructure market. The two organisations originally merged in March 2016, ushering in the creation of a combined business with 22,000 employees globally, across 400 locations, spanning six continents.

The union of the two companies presents the UK business with an opportunity to build on its reputation as a leader in the water sector and expand its expertise further into other sectors such as infrastructure, energy and resources, environmental services and buildings. Managing director of Stantec UK, Europe and India, Cath Schefer, says that the coming together has been well thought out and that MWH wanted to work with and be part of an organisation that would enable it to reach beyond its existing water sector focus.

“We felt that being water only was no longer an advantage. Being niche in water had been brilliant for us in the past but now we wanted more out-of-sector thinking,” she said. “When we were initially thinking about how to solve our ownership issues we were looking at strategic partnerships, acquisitions and mergers with companies that had multi-sector experience. That was a key thought process for us and we also wanted to look for companies that had the same values as MWH and we went through a process of interviewing a lot of companies,” said Schefer.

Canada-headquartered Stantec first approached MWH around eight or nine years ago to talk about acquisition. “We weren’t interested at that time but we knew there was real synergies between the two companies,” said Schefer. Rather than go for an immediate merger, the two firms worked together as one for more than a year before the final integration. 

“We decided to work alongside each other and rebranded as ‘MWH now part of Stantec’ and we left it open ended in terms of when we would change to be formally Stantec,” said Schefer. “It was always going to happen but Stantec were very open in letting us dictate the timescales. Now, as we approach the change from AMP6 to AMP7 in the water industry it seemed like the right time to rebrand and reposition ourselves in the market as something different,” she said.

So, how has the 18-month transition period worked and what benefits has it brought to the company and its staff? “Waiting a while enabled us to understand what Stantec brings and enabled us to communicate that to our employees so they can promote it to clients as a very positive thing,” said Schefer. “We were able to get to know Stantec, understand the key people and what they had to offer and bring them into the UK. Also, working together meant that our leadership could communicate the new approach to our employees and we could make sure that our clients knew that there wasn’t going to be a sudden change,” she said. 

Schefer says that not changing the name of the company straight away was important as this enabled a dialogue with staff about the values and culture of the new owners. “We brought Stantec over very early on to assure our employees that things weren’t going to change drastically,” said Schefer. “Over time we also introduced a number of key Stantec employees onto projects and this helped with the integration too,” she said.

Schefer says that Stantec’s values were important in bringing the two organisations together and believes that they will help position the new company well, especially in a growing UK market for infrastructure. “We have four key values - we put people first, we do what is right, we’re driven to achieve and we are better together,” said Schefer. “These are very complimentary to MWH’s values and the strapline ‘we design with community in mind’ really puts community and customer at the heart of everything that Stantec does. We are very keen to apply that,” she said.

This focus on community is clearly an attractive one to Schefer and her team and she sees it as a real plus in winning work in an expanding UK infrastructure market. “Stantec is very involved in the built environment sector - town centres, urban regeneration - that’s probably half their business and that’s where the focus on community has come from as they need to take people with them to get things done,” she said. Shefer is keen to push this multi-stakeholder approach. “How you engage various stakeholders in solving a problem is key and this experience of working with communities will be increasingly important for us in the future,” she said.

Schefer says that the main thing people will notice with the new name is that the firm will have a much greater breadth of expertise, outside of the UK experience and also multi-sector experience. “The name is one thing and that is important, but relationships and people are key,” said Schefer. “The move to Stantec is an important and exciting step forward for our business that has a 150-year history and a rich heritage. Throughout the integration process, it has been clear to all of us that Stantec and MWH values are very well aligned. Staff are comfortable with what we have done and we haven’t lost anyone during this process,” she said.

“My experience so far has been really positive. I sit on the executive team of Stantec and that team is committed to the UK part of the business,” she said. “Buildings and social infrastructure important in the future - and a very good place to be for Stantec with infrastructure high on the political agenda,” said Schefer.

Bringing together the company’s existing expertise in water and applying this to other areas of work will be important in building the business in the future says Schefer. “Stantec are very strong in multiple sectors and have a very strong architecture presence in the UK. We would like to take our water infrastructure presence and combine that with what Stantec has to offer in environmental services and we will really move into buildings, urban infrastructure and solving flooding problems in a community focussed way. That’s what we are going to be doing going forward - applying that urban design experience,” she said.

Finally, I asked Schefer, as an industry leader, what she thought were the three key challenges currently facing the industry. “A complete focus on customer. If you think about all the utilities and the fact that social media is completely changing the way that customers interact with utilities - customer expectations and interaction is massive and that’s a key challenege,” she said.

“Resilience and the need to ensure that assets are future proofed is also vital as is technology and the rate of change. No one can keep up with the pace of change and with that technology comes vast amounts of data. The need to be able to take that data and put it into something that is meaningful, interpret it and use it widely, will be key going forward,” she said.

Schefer strongly believes that the industry’s use of tech will start to change the profile of people who work in the industry. “We are already thinking differently about the type of people we recruit. We are looking at graduates with data analytics and data backgrounds to work with our engineers, who we still need let’s not forget. I think you will also see a lot more partnering arrangements in the future too,” she said.

Schefer is very optimistic about the future and the prospects of the newly integrated company. “Stantec now has a construction capability that it didn’t have before and that in itself in the UK and also in the US will change the dynamic of the company. It will open up new opportunities, especially in the US because we can provide a complete end to end service across the piece for the first time,” she said.

Schefer says that bringing the two companies’ diverse technical excellence to bear will help Stantec tackle the biggest challenges facing the utilities, infrastructure and built environment sectors. Stantec’s progress will be interesting to watch over the years ahead.

If you would like to contact Andy Walker about this, or any other story, please email awalker@infrastructure-intelligence.com.