Don’t wait to be disrupted, make change now

Industry big-hitter Mathew Riley took over as Ramboll’s UK managing director in the summer. Infrastructure Intelligence editor Andy Walker went to see him at the firm’s London offices.

Mathew Riley strikes me as someone who sees the positives in any given situation. That’s not to say that he is oblivious to the challenges that the industry faces, on the contrary, he’s keen to tackle those head on and he’s not afraid to speak his mind. He’s also an enthusiast. When I meet him he tells me about his helter-skelter round of Ramboll office visits, meeting more than 700 people in his first four and a half weeks to get to know his new company. 

He proudly shows me the photos he’s taken on his phone on his visits which include the Queensferry Crossing, the stunning twin sails bridge in Poole and the keel laying ceremony for the Sir David Attenborough boat for the British Antarctic Survey. “When you show your kids this stuff and explain it, you realise that there’s a story behind every one of these projects - and not just a technical one but a social impact story too. We need to tell those stories more,” Riley tells me.

Talking up the social benefits of projects is definitely something that the industry needs to do more of to make engineering more attractive as a career. Riley thinks the industry is more attractive than it was but still faces challenges. “The pay and conditions are a lot better than they were a decade or so ago, but the industry still has an image problem when it comes to inspiring young people. The end product is fantastic, but the process of getting there is far from inspiring at times,” he says.

Riley is keen to talk about the challenges facing the industry and what needs to be done to address them. “I see three key challenges currently. Firstly, speaking with one voice. There’s a separate issue around productivity and quality and then there is also the impact of digitalisation,” Riley says. 

"There are three key challenges facing the industry currently. Firstly, speaking with one voice, then there's a separate issue around productivity and quality and there is also the impact of digitalisation."

- Mathew Riley, managing director, Ramboll

He expresses frustration about the about the industry’s ability to offer more certainty to government and other clients. “We are historically a fragmented industry and if you think about government policy stimulating activity, where do they look to for answers?” he asks. “How do they know that money is going to be well spent when they can’t speak to any one organisation in the industry to get the answer? The engineering and construction industry is not good at demonstrating value or where we can genuinely improve the quality of the product or the solution that we deliver,” says Riley. “Yes it can be iconic, yes it can be inspiring, yes it can be complex, but as an industry we haven’t moved forward in the way that other industries have moved forward.”

Riley says this is down to the way in which the industry is set up. “We are an industry that is set up to transfer risk, which by definition leads you into a confrontational environment. We have some very clever people who can solve some of the biggest and most complex engineering problems but we have a commercial model that is designed to transfer the risk to the lowest common denominator most of the time,” he says.

According to Riley, it’s a process that means that at every link of the chain, somebody has to protect a margin and self-interest rules. “Rather than focusing all your energy on creating technical solutions you end up focusing it on protecting a commercial position. That is an industry-wide problem and we have a legacy of historic behaviours and an industry that hasn’t changed in terms of how it contracts. Fundamentally this hasn’t led to any major innovation or improvement in quality. Speaking with one voice in this area is an issue because we want government to listen to us,” Riley says.

If the industry fails to change it will have change thrust upon it, Riley says. “The next five to ten years will be really interesting, because if we don’t change, if we don’t collaborate in its broadest sense, something will disrupt our industry to make that change,” he says. “Almost certainly this will be an outside disruptive influence probably by something or someone that doesn’t exist in its current form coming into our industry because they will either use disruptive technology or some other mechanism to take what we historically do and do it more efficiently,” says Riley.

Riley cites housing as a possible area where change could come from outside the industry. “We have a huge shortage of housing in the UK and we need 200,000 units a year to meet demand. This will need huge investment but at some point the size of the prize will mean that we are going to get a new market entrant; somebody will speculate and come in and disrupt things because they will find a solution or a way to deliver, probably initially a building or a residential project. We should be able to deliver the 200,000 units that are needed yet most industry observers say that we haven’t got the capacity to deliver it. That’s because we are trying to solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s solutions,” Riley argues.  

"We should be able to deliver the 200,000 houses that the nation needs but most industry observer say that we haven't got the capacity to deliver it. We are trying to solve tomorrow's problems with yesterday's solutions."

- Mathew Riley

He also thinks that the profile of new entrants into the industry will change. “We are now getting graduates coming out of university with programming skills, not just engineering skills, so I can see a world where quite quickly we will be taking on as many people with computer science degrees as we do with engineering degrees,” he says. “With standardised design something that has historically taken weeks has gone down to man days and then through the use of algorithms those man days have gone down to minutes and hours for the same activity,” he says. 

As someone who has worked for both contractors and consultancy firms during his career, Riley is well placed to take on the challenge of change. “The client, contractor, consultant perspective does give you an insight into all sorts of things,” Riley tells me. “It gives you an insight into what’s important to a client from a business perspective or an owner/operator dynamic and what drives value for a client organisation. I learned a lot from the contactor model and what drives those businesses which is extremely useful,” he says.

He remains frustrated though at the lack of real change in the industry. “Having cut my teeth on T5 nearly 15 years ago, which at its time was quite pioneering from a collaborative environment perspective on that scale, as an industry from a wider collaboration point of view we haven’t fundamentally moved. It’s disappointing to be having the same conversations 15 years on, if I’m being blunt,” Riley says.

“As an industry, we could be doing a lot more, a lot quicker and a lot better quality,” he says. “The Treasury is unsure about the impact of their investment in infrastructure but the industry should be informing that debate and effectively presenting a menu of options to government that says if you do this, this and this, then you can expect these returns,” he says. “We are not that agile, we are not that well informed. If you go to other industries like manufacturing and environment, they will know exactly what they are going to get from particular investment.”

“We need to reform and become a lot more predictable as an industry and one of the ways is to work better together. We have a peer group across the industry that is capable of doing that, we just need to make it happen,” says Riley. 

Riley is very optimistic about Ramboll’s future, praising the firm’s highly engaged staff - 95% of whom responded to a recent staff survey - for their energy and enthusiasm. “We’re foundation owned so we can take a long-term view. Our role is to create a sustainable business for the next generation and we reinvest our profits in the business and our staff can see the benefits of that. Accelerating our technical development will be a priority next year. We are not going to wait to be disrupted; we want to take a lead in developing more efficient technical solutions,” he says.

Riley says the most exciting part of his job is explaining what Ramboll does to potential as well as existing clients. “We have a capability that is much larger than the sectors in which we work. That’s a huge and exciting opportunity and is one of the reasons I’m here I guess,” he says.

No stranger to thinking differently and sometimes thinking the unthinkable, you sense that Mathew Riley will be taking advantage of those opportunities and making things happen for Ramboll and the industry in 2017 and beyond.

If you would like to contact Andy Walker about this, or any other story, please email