International Intelligence: collaborate to compete in overseas markets, UK firms told

Understanding cultural differences, early risk management and expert legal and taxation advice are also critical for firms entering new markets last week’s ACE International Conference delegates heard 

EY's Malcolm Bairstow makes a point to the ACE International Conference

Today’s consulting industry is a global one, and it is growing increasingly competitive.  UK firms with their decades of experience on some of the world’s biggest schemes, are facing market consolidation, a growing stable of high quality international firms from emerging markets and in some countries, a bid process that is increasingly politically driven. Maintaining and growing market share overseas is therefore more difficult than ever.

“We have an enviable reputation and we have to continue to build on that,” said ACE International Conference chair Gavin English, managing director at consultant IMC Worldwide.  He commended the UK’s engineering industry for delivering quality and value to some of the world’s most high profile projects from the Burj Khalifa in Dubai to Hong Kong International Airport, and he urged firms to collaborate with other UK companies to continue to take the lead on major global schemes.

Collaboration is all the more important in a market where successful UK firms are being acquired by larger entities. “In terms of mergers and acquisitions there is definitely a trend for large US firms buying UK firms particularly on the consulting side,” said Malcom Bairstow, partner at EY. “There is also a feeling that the larger industry change over the next few years will be the flow of Asian capital with large Asian firms coming in and driving a different dynamic in terms of buying assets and buying companies.”

“I think culture is undervalued, under investigated and under researched. We focus on revenue, we focus on profits we focus on risk but culture is playing an increasingly important role.”

As market dynamics change it is even more important that firms working overseas truly appreciate the cultures within which they operate and those of the firms that they seek to work with. Professor Roger Flanagan of the School of Construction Management and Engineering at Reading University told delegates that this has become increasingly important and is often neglected by some companies. “I think culture is undervalued, under investigated and under researched. We focus on revenue, we focus on profits we focus on risk but culture is playing an increasingly important role.”

Equally important to success overseas, particularly in Africa, is the need to engage with local communities and businesses said Baroness Lynda Chalker of Wallasey, chairman and founder of advisory group Africa Matters. She urged firms to engage early with planning authorities and involve local SMEs in projects. “It really does matter that you involve local people, not just in the project but as a community but that can’t happen unless there are local firms that can perform. I am convinced that you can make good partnerships but you do need to work out how to finance that.”

Consultants also pointed to some challenging trends in international markets with Mathew Riley, EC Harris global head of infrastructure industry and utilities, explaining that bidding had become more politically led. “We are competing with countries where politicians will lead bids on behalf of that supply chain, they don’t just open the doors, so it is becoming harder and harder to compete for work when you don’t necessarily have political parity.”

Speakers also advised firms seeking overseas work to get good quality legal and taxation advice from experts with extensive experience of the market before undertaking work. “You need experts in the field,” said John Horgan, URS group managing director for Europe, Middle East and India. “When you start doing the work, generally speaking it is not that different but the processes you have to go through in order to get your work approved can be hugely time consuming and very complex and it isn’t obvious from the contract that that is the case.”


·       ACE International Conference 2014 was entitled “New Markets: New Challenges

·       The event was sponsored by management consultant EY and legal firm Pinsent Masons

·       Chairman was Gavin English, managing director at consultant IMC Worldwide

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