AECOM: “The most exciting adventure in the industry” says Morriss

Size won’t be a problem says EMEA chief executive Steve Morriss as consultant seals $6bn purchase of URS and creates a global mega-consultant with 95,000 staff and revenues of £$19bn.

Steve Morriss EMEA chief executive AECOM

AECOM shareholders sealed the deal to buy consultant URS Corporation last week to form a new global mega-consultant. Steve Morriss will lead the multidisciplinary design and consultancy division with 18,000 staff across Europe, Middle East and Africa. 

As he talks over the reins of this new global force in consultancy, Infrastructure Intelligence asks Steve Morriss about the challenge and opportunities presented by the merger, the dos and don’ts of bringing teams together and how the scale of this new business will impact staff, clients and partners.

The AECOM/URS deal was a well-guarded secret – Did it surprise you?

Teaming up with URS is a hugely important move for both firms. As for this being a surprise… when Mike Burke became AECOM’s CEO this March, I knew he’d have bold plans, so this was a very pleasant surprise. The combined offer of these two great companies means that we can use our vast range of skills and talents to solve many of the world most pressing challenges in terms of improving people's quality of life, making the best possible use of resources and looking after our natural environment.

"Clients are very positive. A couple have asked whether we’ll still think they’re important, and of course the answer is yes. We are already big and you’re happy with how we work, so the focus and attention to detail remains the same."

Combining the AECOM and URS Design and Consultancy businesses gives you great critical mass – what will your biggest challenge be in the coming 12 months?

I don’t see the primary benefit of this deal as being related to critical mass. What it really means is that we have an unbeatable group of people with a fantastic range of skills. In many ways, size means nothing, unless you can make it a benefit, which we do. The main thing is that we continue to offer a great place to work and amazing benefits to our clients. The challenges will be to ensure that we remain properly focussed on our staff and our clients and we have designed the integration process to that end, as a staged process that will run over the coming few years. The really enjoyable part of all this is going to be getting to know everyone and making sure we all play to our strengths. It’s a lot of work, but extremely invigorating.

What is the most exciting aspect to the deal?

For me, it’s the fact that we will have drawn together two of the world’s greatest pools of talent. Already, we can see it’s a great fit, and everyone gets on really well. Staff and clients can see that it makes sense to join forces, and the levels of enthusiasm and support are brilliant. It means we can tackle just about any client need in the full knowledge that we’ll come up with fresh and brilliant solutions. For clients, it will mean they’ll get a service that’s fully integrated, which means they’ll get their projects off the ground faster. It’s also worth mentioning that we’ve worked on a number of the same projects, including the World Trade Center in New York, the Forth Replacement Crossing in Scotland, and London projects include Crossrail, the Thames Tunnel and London Gateway.

AECOM has great experience of integrating new businesses – what are the golden rules to getting it right?

It’s certainly true that we’ve had a lot of experience now, and while we made mistakes sometimes in earlier mergers, we’ve learned lots of lessons too. It’s always a big piece of work to bring other companies on board, and we treat the task with the respect it deserves, while always keeping focussed on staff and customers. In every case, success is all about people. Everyone needs to understand the benefits of making a bigger team — and we are very clear about that — as the world's challenges become bigger, more complex and more interconnected, we need companies like AECOM that can tackle things at that big scale. So I'd say that success in integration is about great vision and communications, respect for everyone's talents and then doing everything we can to facilitate new friendships.

What do you plan to do to convince staff that a business of this scale is the best place to drive their careers?

Once again scale is a positive for our people – there are more career opportunities in a place like AECOM than in smaller outfits. Also, whether you are based in Baku or Birmingham, it’s the quality of the local leadership that counts. Where staff have great managers and are part of fantastic teams it doesn’t matter what size your company is. Our recent staff survey showed continuing positive trends with people really enjoying being part of the business. There really is a buzz. You get to work on some of the world's most important and prestigious projects locally and globally and can draw on a network of talent, knowledge and resources from all round the world.

How do you set about convincing clients that working with a business of this scale is in their best interests?

The reality is that most of our clients don’t need a lot of convincing. They’re almost universally delighted about what the combined AECOM and URS business can offer them. The only concern we’ve heard is in areas for example where AECOM and URS are on existing frameworks and clients want to be reassured that we’ll still be competitive. In these cases we will be talking to clients to demonstrate how we’ll be offering the best value for money. We can see all around us that the pace of change is accelerating and that the world’s challenges are increasingly complex, in response to this we see that cities, companies and communities want smarter answers. We always believe that the evidence is in every project. Of course we work on very large-scale schemes, but at the front end of all that are individuals who really care about what they are doing and genuinely want the best for the client.

What has been the reaction from your clients so far to the deal?

As above, clients are very positive. A couple have asked whether we’ll still think they’re important, and of course the answer is yes. We are already big and you’re happy with how we work, so the focus and attention to detail remains the same.

We have seen many mergers recently in the market – do you see more consolidation?

AECOM has always been a trendsetter, and already since the announcement of the merger with URS we have seen others following suit. There’s been the Arcadis and Hyder deal, and WSP and Parsons Brinckerhoff. The reasons for these deals are that clients want a broad range of skills, especially the large multinationals, but also the domestic markets with large programmes to deliver.

Do you think there could ever be a size of engineering business that is too big?

Actually we don't think of ourselves as just an engineering business, we are much broader than that, a complete environments business – that means we can design, build, finance and operate projects in a completely integrated way. Yes, we are big, now with nearly 100,000 people, and our size means that we are able to tackle challenges that are hugely complex. Size is not a problem in itself so long as leaders and teams can focus on looking after every client and every one of our people.

Now that the deal is complete, what happens now in terms of restructuring the combined business?

The journey of integration begins now.  We have already agreed a high level structure globally and are well advanced in a joint approach to selecting the strongest possible leadership team in EMEA.

Why is AECOM the place for infrastructure professional to build a career?

Promoting the company to new staff is easy. You’ll have better opportunities here than anywhere else. AECOM is a fast-moving, dynamic business and a fantastic place to develop skills in many areas, work in amazing teams alongside some of the most talented people in the industry, and work in new ways. You get to contribute to some of the world's most important and prestigious projects and can draw on a network of talent, knowledge and resources from all round the globe. Without a doubt AECOM is the most exciting adventure in the industry.

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