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.)