with Martin Grant, Managing Director, Martin Grant
Atkins is a large engineering and design consultancy around the world; what is the importance of the Aberdeen operations?
The Aberdeen operations of Atkins reside within the Energy division. We have been present in Aberdeen since the mid-1980s. This has been the place from where we’ve kicked out to develop other parts of the oil and gas business over the years. Atkins has been in these offices since the mid-1990s and numbers over 100 people, who are focused on oil and gas.
Atkins has been involved in some significant projects in the UKCS including the BP Buchan platform. Are there any particular you’d like to highlight for our readers?
There are so many, it’s hard to know what to choose. You mention Buchan Alpha, which is a great example of what Atkins does. Buchan was originally an installation developed by BP, and we were involved in the project’s construction phase going back to the early 1980s. Atkins has worked with BP on Buchan for many years, and at a certain point in the 1990s, BP divested Buchan to Talisman. For Atkins, it has been gratifying that as new entrants arrive, we’ve managed to work with them as well. As the North Sea has evolved, we’ve been successful at transferring business from the larger to smaller players.
Smaller firms are often wary of getting swallowed up as a small part of a larger organization. How do you make them feel comfortable, and how has Atkins managed in this regard?
That’s a good point, and the smaller oil companies think they would be right at the back of a queue dealing with a company like Atkins, and maybe we would just focus on the bigger oil companies. In reality, a large proportion of Atkins’ business is with smaller oil companies. What we have to do is go out, speak to the new entrants, and quite quickly get across to them that whilst Atkins is one of the world’s biggest engineering firms, they’ll be dealing with people who will be close to them and have been in this city for many years. When they can put a face to the service, the fear of a big company disappears. The other aspect is that our people have such wonderful in-depth expertise of the facilities that it’s not a difficult sell when we talk to a new entrant, when they see how capable our people are. They’re very pleased to work with us.
You mention the strength of your people. What is it about Atkins’ human capital that makes them stand out?
Atkins is very clear about what the company does and the product we offer. We describe ourselves as high-end engineering consultants, and tend to focus on advanced analysis and difficult technical problems. Because we’re clear about that mission, Atkins attracts people into the organization who share those values, really care about their technical skills, and work at the forefront of engineering analysis. Atkins provides an environment where very able people have a chance to exercise their skills. Another element is that Atkins has been around since 1938, founded by Sir William Atkins, and a certain culture has developed over the years around trust, respect, the art of engineering and the practice of engineering skills – and that completely underpins everything we do. Our CEO uses a phrase: identity plus excellence equals growth. What he means is that if you’re clear about what you do and your identity, then you can spend time being excellent and know what you’re focusing on. And if you do those two things, then business growth will follow. Therefore, Atkins offers an environment where people can be excellent, which is what engineers want to be. We attract a certain sort of person who really enjoys working in this sort of environment, which is a great story because this is an industry where talent is in great demand, and everybody is looking for the people Atkins is looking for.
Many smaller companies boast that what sets them apart is the close relationships with clients, and they can therefore really give their people a real hands-on experience with client contact. What is it about Atkins that remains attractive for new recruits when they have so many options to choose from?
I challenge the small company vs. big company distinction. Atkins is a company of 19,000 individuals, and each person has a career. We don’t treat people like a number. Atkins manages each individual and gives them opportunities, and the fact that it happens to be a big company doesn’t detract – what it does is create more opportunity. Atkins does all the things a small company can do in terms of closeness to the workface, but because we’re a large company there’s another dimension as well – which is that if an individual comes to us and says he or she would like to try a different branch of engineering, we can offer that. If they’d like to travel, that’s another option. Atkins has put a lot of people in Houston for example, to the extent that it seems there are more Aberdonians in Houston than in Aberdeen. It’s a great opportunity, and with people all over the world we are able to offer a great career. People might say to us that oil and gas is quite interesting, but they would like to try renewables or the nuclear sector, which is another possibility. Atkins has just won a large contract to develop infrastructure for the Olympics, representing a very exciting opportunity for any engineer.
Other than a wide range of work, Atkins can also offer to ambitious individuals the opportunity to participate in the management of a FTSE 200 company – perhaps rising to CEO without ever leaving Atkins. Clearly only very few people will make it to the top, but there’s an opportunity to manage large chunks of business if that’s your motivation. I feel that the prospects for people coming into Atkins are so broad and far-reaching that it’s quite a good sell.
What have been the impact on business prospects in light of recent oil prices and global economic turmoil?
The results Atkins just announced for the half year are the best ever, and the company is in a stronger position than it has ever been.
Yes, but those results reflect a period ending September 30th.
That’s true, although Atkins’ workload in oil & gas looks reasonably secure for the next 12 months. However, we are entering uncharted territory. We know the oil price has dropped, and if the financial crisis worsens, what will that do to oil prices? If oil decreases to the $30s for instance and stays there for a long time that would give the industry a real problem. Atkins doesn’t know what the next year will look like, but what we can say is that we head to the future in an incredibly strong position. As a company, Atkins is debt free, with a good order book, well-motivated workforce, and good client relations.
Through this uncertainty, many people hope the future holds some kind of renewable energy, especially in Scotland. What is the interplay between the opportunities in Atkins in Aberdeen?
Atkins sees the opportunity as one of energy. The world needs energy, and with a minimal carbon impact. That mix will use oil and gas, renewables, nuclear, and conventional, but the technical skills are pretty similar across those, as we see it in Atkins. Renewables, particularly in the marine environment, will use the exact same skills as oil and gas. Atkins is working with a number of renewables developers with technologies, in wind, wave, current, and biomass, where the skills our business has already can be put to good use. However, it’s not a full-fledged industry yet. I can promise a young engineer coming in that they will have a career in oil and gas; the world will need oil and gas over the next 30 or 40 years. Whether there will be similar opportunities available in renewables remains unknown at this stage.
Are there any projects to highlight that meld the more traditional industry skills with renewables?
There’s a number. The common theme to the opportunity is that Scotland is surrounded by sea with extreme waves, strong winds, and high currents, so the marine environment creates a lot of energy. If we can put a structure or some kind of machine in this marine environment to extract the energy, that would be fantastic. However, the challenge is that the marine environment is highly corrosive and the forces generated by wind and waves are extreme. It’s actually quite difficult to make a machine to withstand that; the good news is that that’s what we’ve been doing in Aberdeen with oil and gas for the last 30 years or so.
The renewables project Atkins is most proud of is the Pelamis concept, which was developed by Ocean Power Delivery in Edinburgh. Pelamis is a Greek word for sea snake, and consists of a series of tubes in the water that convert wave energy to electricity via hydraulic power. Commercial units have been installed off the coast of Portugal. Transfer of oil & gas skills was an important part of our involvement in this project.
You mentioned the identity equation; what is Atkins’ identity and how would you like to see it evolve?
Atkins’ identity is as a technical consultant, and that’s quite important. The company will never be an engineering contractor. In essence we hire out our brains. That will be our identity now and in the future. What I anticipate happening over the next 10-20 years is that the company will become increasingly more global. What we won’t do is become multinational; we’re not seeking to be every place in the world, but there will be certain places in the world we choose to go to, and we will concentrate on making an impact there. From an oil and gas perspective, Houston will continue to be a main focus in terms of growth. Houston is massively important for us, and has been a great success story to date, and we will focus more and more on Houston as time goes on. The challenge we will have to address is in finding a way of supporting clients wherever they are around the globe. That doesn’t mean setting up offices in lots of places – we will have different trading models for different locations.
We use a phrase in Atkins called the long corridor. Increasingly, Atkins believes that global working is not solely about physically being in a given part of the world. Sometimes, the work we do can be done at a distance. If you’re very good at working at a distance, it feels just like working in a long corridor; it just so happens the corridor is 10,000 miles long. That’s the mindset to adopt. Today, and this is just as an example, Atkins has visitors from Australia, from clients who had a particularly difficult structural engineering problem. They could’ve placed the work with companies in Australia or Asia, but chose to come all the way here to place the work with Atkins. Distance need not be a barrier. Some work must be done on-site, but the future for Atkins is more and more international expansion, but being smart about how we work around the globe.
What is your final message to OGFJ readers?
I grew up working in the oil industry. It has been hugely exciting for me and I’ve been privileged to work in the North Sea. However there was never any doubt in my mind that the oil industry was run from Houston. Atkins’ future as an oil and gas business is not to walk away from the UK, but to really develop our presence more in Houston. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of, that this company has set up a great operation there. In 10 years’ time, I hope it will be unrecognizable compared to what we have now, because there’s so much scope in Houston to grow the business.