Never running from risk - Tony Gee and Partners on 40 years in business

Tony Gee and Partners is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Interview with the boss Graham Nicholson and take a look at the company's history in pictures.

Graham Nicholson, Tony Gee and Partners

Tony Gee & Partners has a reputation throughout the civil engineering industry as the company to go to when you have a difficult issue to solve particularly in terms of the practicalities of construction. 

The firm is top of the list for problem solving for major clients and all of the UK’s leading contractors; the sort of jobs that some firms might shy away from because of the associated risk profile.

“We are tempted by high tech, complex engineering work and where there is a particular construction challenge,” says its executive managing director Graham Nicholson who leads the 400 strong business. “We do a lot of work helping contractors with multiple challenges and love difficult buildings, underground stations and helping solve the conundrums of constructing them.”

From Hong Kong and Shanghai Banks to the Dawlish flood recovery, here are highlights in pictures of Tony Gee and Partner's 40 years in business.

Recent projects have included helping with the urgent repairs following the collapse of the Dawlish sea wall and cliffs in last winter’s storms, establishing designs and construction techniques for reusing existing Victorian piers in the reconstruction of Blackfriars bridge in London and detailed design for segmental viaducts in Kuwait. 

“We don’t run away from risk,” Nicholson says. “It is something to be managed, not avoided. And we are recognised for being able to take it on and push the engineering boundaries.”

These abilities are things that set Tony Gee & Partners apart, along with its deep understanding and fascination with the hands on business of actual construction.

The firm understands the need to find cost effective, quicker, cheaper, cleverer ways of delivering projects. “You can never be complacent,” Nicholson says. “You have got to work safely and we build that into all we do even if we are pushing the boundaries of engineering – the very thing that creates innovation that all our clients are asking for. We do have the benefit of having understanding clients who realise that risks are being managed by us on their behalf to deliver the innovation that they require.”

For the engineers working for the company this means that the workload is usually varied, stretching and exciting in terms of the technical challenges. As the business has grown, from 100 in 2003 to its current size, the staff that started out with it have in large part stayed.

The company runs a sponsored student programme, with 40 on the books at any one time and “they have formed the core of our technical expertise,” Nicholson says. “We lose a few but generally they stay and our retention rate is 88%. By bringing them in early we can train them in our way of doing things and of designing. But we need new ideas coming in to the business too so we recruit at graduate level and mid career to bring in different thinking.” The firm is also hiring and training apprentices with the intention that that scheme will be on the same scale as the student programme.

Why do people stay? “It’s definitely the quality of the work we choose to take on and the fact that all the directors are involved in technical work on a daily basis. So people are working side by side in open plan offices with senior engineers with good expertise and they know they can learn a lot.

Tony Gee and Partners

Turnover: £20.8M

Employees: 400

Growth expected: 600 employees in 5 years

Sectors: Rail (56%), Highways (24%), Power (8%), Marine (4%)

Repeat orders: 85%

Key clients: Network Rail, London Underground, major contractors

Client/contractor split: 30%/70%

Current number of partners: 24

“The feedback we get is that we are a very supportive, approachable organisation with a very flat structure.  A student can be working with a director on a job for instance or in a bigger team.”

Nicholson himself is one of the employees who stayed. He started at the consultancy in 1982 when there was just 14 staff. He’d been a sponsored graduate too, though with the Redpath Dorman Long part of British Steel and at 24, two years after graduation was looking for a job offering something technically demanding and closer to construction. Tony Gee was an obvious home. Founder Tony Gee who left the business in 1987 to pursue his interests in the US was ex Redpath as was another partner Steve Harridge.

“I’d been here six months and was asked if I wanted to go to Hong Kong,” he says. “The cost of the flight at the time was a quarter of my annual salary so the opportunity to go overseas was incredibly exciting. Steve was in Hong Kong too and was the recognised steel expert; I’d done a little bit of concrete bridge design and we ended up winning a big alternative design in concrete so I had to do it.

“They were really informative years which motivated me to be self taught and certainly developed my confidence. It wasn’t so easy to be in touch with head office to get advice – there was just the telex. When fax arrived we thought it was marvellous because we could actually see sketches.

“It’s tougher for graduates now, there are so many rules and regulations it is difficult to be creative and we are more constrained in the UK than overseas. So I always try and give people the opportunity of an overseas posting; take it every time I’d say.”

Nicholson became a partner in the business in 1992, its sixth, and just over a decade later, at 44, found himself in charge. That sudden elevation though is a sad story in the company’s annals. Its chairman, one of the founding partners and hugely respected engineer Frank Rowley died suddenly in 2003 at the age of just 61.

“It was a horrible shock and he will always be missed,” Nicholson says. “But we had to work out how to manage the business. I had always thought of myself as a reasonable number two guy but the other partners knew I could run projects and had seen me develop the quality system for the firm so decided I could manage it all. They said, ‘obviously, it’s you’.”

The firm was about 100 strong then and “Frank had told me a week before he died that he thought we could get the business to 200. I needed to get some training.”

Nicholson went on a strategic leadership course with Business Link,. “It was all about strategic planning. Sometimes businesses spend too much time doing that and not enough actual doing. But we were the opposite case.”

The upshot was the realisation that the business had to restructure, and bring people on and give them a share of the partnership to help manage and develop the company. 

“We are an employee owned and managed firm in a world where consolidation is happening at a frightening pace. Getting the strategy right so we can maintain the independence we value so highly has been most important.”

From Hong Kong and Shanghai Banks to the Dawlish flood recovery, here are highlights in pictures of Tony Gee and Partner's 40 years in business.

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