URS buys Scott Wilson. So what?

The UK’s twelfth largest consultancy by turnover, Scott Wilson, has been bought by the US design firm URS for £218 million. URS is second in the ‘Engineering News Record’ list of top 500 design firms. Metric Views speculates that Scott Wilson’s metric know-how is crucial for URS in this acquisition.

Controversy accompanied the recent purchase of Cadbury by US giant Kraft. It was said that the short term interests of Cadbury’s directors and shareholders were being given priority over the long term interests of the company, its employees and the country. Like Cadbury, Scott Wilson was a company of national importance. It had been involved in such projects as the Mulberry Harbours, The Royal Festival Hall and more recently the reconstruction of the East London Overground Line. Why should its purchase by a US company be different from the takeover of Cadbury by Kraft?

During the metric changeover of the UK construction industry in the early 1970’s, the Construction Industry Training Board ran a campaign with the slogan “Think metric”. Before its acquisition of Scott Wilson, URS employed 41 000, few of whom “think metric”. URS does only 9% of its work outside the US. It focuses at home on infrastructure, power, industrial, commercial and federal projects. After 20 years of rapid growth in the US – from $100 million turnover to $9 billion today – URS decided the time was right to expand globally. To do so, it required designers who “think metric”. Where would it find them?

The period since the metric changeover has been a golden age for Scott Wilson and many other UK construction professionals. Examples include Norman Foster with his design for the refurbishment of the Reichstag in Berlin and his contribution to the Millau Bridge in France, the involvement of Arup and Bureau Happold in structures for the Beijing Olympic Games, and of course the huge UK presence in the Middle East. Could this be due to a winning combination: the English language (the first or second language for a high proportion of the world’s population) and familiarity with metric measures (now the primary system of measurement in 98% of the countries in the world)? URS was clearly at a disadvantage.

Post merger, URS is reorganising into a US operation (the “US Customary measures” division perhaps) and a UK based international operation of 7200 staff (the “metric division”?). Existing non-US based URS staff in the UK, Ireland, Western Europe and the Middle East, totalling 1700, will report to the UK based, former Chief Executive of Scott Wilson, now a senior VP of URS.

The Chairman of URS comments: “The acquisition of Scott Wilson opens the door to numerous opportunities for URS in major international infrastructure markets”. Only time will tell if this succeeds, both for URS, for its employees and for the UK.

(This article includes information published in ‘New Civil Engineer’ on 16 September 2010.)

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3 Responses to URS buys Scott Wilson. So what?

  1. John Steele says:

    I don't know anything about URS, but I would point out that requirements for Federal facilities projects to be metric were passed in 1988 as part of the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act (Codified as section 205l), which amended the Metric Conversion Act of 1975.

    It took the Feds time to get up to speed, but new Federal facility construction has been "mostly metric" since about 1993. If URS works on Federal projects, they must have some people who can work in metric. Admittedly, ONLY Federal construction is metric. Anything "shared" with the State generally is not (anything with matching funds)

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  2. derekp says:

    A recent comment by one of our regular contributors, John Frewen-Lord, indicates a reason why US firms are buying up established UK civil and structural engineering consultants:

    “Although many projects are designed by nominally US companies, most work is done by a local office using local people familiar with SI. In my experience as a quantity surveyor working internationally, the US offices of these companies are woefully unfamiliar with SI. I remember when I was once in Chicago, in SOM's (Skidmore Owings Merrill) offices, looking over a project to be built in the Middle East. It had obviously been conceptually designed in SOM's Chicago offices in USC, which they then 'converted' into SI - to about 10 decimal places! Ridiculous - not only dimensioning everything to an accuracy of micrometres, but the fact that the resulting sizes and dimensions were wrong for metric products (everything from blocks to light fixtures). SOM's local office in Riyadh had to re-dimension the building.”

    Relevant to the topic of the original MV article is the announcement in September 2011 that CH2M Hill has acquired Halcrow.

    Halcrow is a UK-based civil engineering consultant, specialising in transport, environmental and other infrastructure. Founded in 1868, the firm has over 6000 employees and is known for its design work on projects such as HS1 in the UK, the Chongzun Expressway in China and Yas Island in the UAE, all of which are metric. It turned over £465 million in 2010.

    CH2M Hill is an American programme management company employing 23000 and earning $6.3 billion in 2010.

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  3. James XIONG says:

    Over decade ago in 2000, US Tier 2 Consultancy Company then AECOM bought UK Maunsell. Now AECOM is the No 1 Design Firm in terms of revenue in the world. However, they only have one management centre which is in US even 60% revenue comes outside US.

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