Milner meets challenge of change and moves Amey forward

Amey appointed Andy Milner as its new chief executive in February last year. Andy Walker visited him at the firm’s London office recently to talk about his first 18 months at the helm and find out about the challenges he’s faced.

Amey chief executive, Andy Milner.

When Andy Milner took over as chief executive of Amey a year and a half ago, it was widely seen as a big move for the plain-speaking Yorkshireman. Civil engineer Milner joined Amey in 2006 and since being appointed managing director of consulting in 2008, he grew the business to be one of the leading engineering and technical consultancies in the UK, as well as expanding Amey internationally.

I asked him if his first 18 months in the top job had been what he expected. “In terms of the challenges that we face externally, yes, it is absolutely what I expected,” he says. “We are going through almost unprecedented uncertainty in all of our markets as a result of austerity and then to compound that Brexit and this has caused a huge amount of public and client uncertainty and that has an impact on spending profile,” says Milner.

A lot of work to do and more than I anticipated

On taking over as chief executive, Milner said he knew that the environment facing Amey was going to be difficult, challenging and to some extent volatile, but “what I realised relatively quickly was that we had some work to do internally to be able to respond to that and perhaps a little bit more than I’d anticipated, if I’m being honest,” Milner admits. 

That work included a period of significant change at Amey last year, a complete restructure and big changes to the way the business was set up. “We went from three big divisions to five much smaller more agile divisions which were much more client focused, so taking out a layer of management and bureaucracy and making the business much more fit for purpose,” Milner explains. “The previous structure was fine when there is lots of capital and investment in infrastructure around but the new structure is much more appropriate for the agility required by our customers and also the transparency that I needed into the performance of those units and individual contracts,” he says.

"The new structureis much more appropriate for the agility required by our customers and also the transparency that I needed into the performance of our business units and their individual contracts"

As a result of the changes made, Milner can see more clearly how well a particular business unit or contact is performing and that means a better service for the customer he says. “We can also identify opportunities to bring more value,” he says. “We have a big focus on our engineering and asset management capability which comes out of the consulting part of our business. Understanding where the opportunity to use that asset management capability or that engineering knowledge to reduce the cost of the operation for a customer or to improve the efficiency or the outcome of an asset’s performance is really important for us,” says Milner. “It differentiates us but it also helps our customers manage themselves through difficult times. Our new structure helps us to see these opportunities,” he says.

While the external challenges facing Milner were expected, what was less predictable, he says, was the size of the task internally to reorganise and refocus the business. “I think the scale of the internal restructure and some of the difficulties we found with some of the contracts were at a greater level than I anticipated it to be,” Milner explains. “It’s only when you really start digging into the detail of some of the operations that we realised that significant action had to be taken. I knew there would be some of that but there was a lot more of it than I thought there would be,” he says.

Much more optimistic about the future

“That resulted in a difficult year for us last year, financially and in terms of change for the organisation. But what we were able to do was reduce our cost base by £50m on a recurrent basis, reorganise and implement a new regime for the organisation and one which has got greater transparency and greater visibility but also greater empowerment and which involves our employees to a much greater extent,” says Milner.

As a result of all the changes, Milner says that the company is now starting to feel much more optimistic in 2017 that it has the right management team and operating structure in place. “We are working hard on engaging with our people and we are looking at ways in which we can embed efficiency and improve the services to our customer. So, the journey over the last 18 months has had some surprises in there, but is in keeping with the climate we are operating in today,” he says.

Like many companies working in the infrastructure sector, Amey has to operate in a challenging and uncertain environment made even more difficult by the UK’s decision to leave the EU. So how does Milner view the effects of Brexit and can he see any upside? “Brexit is going to create some enormous challenges due to the uncertainty around how it’s all going to pan out,” he says. “That uncertainty and the whole Brexit process is preoccupying government and as most of our revenues are government-led revenues, we need to have a strategy in our business to respond to that level of uncertainty,” says Milner.

Looking at the positives

While Brexit brings uncertainty that the industry needs to navigate, Milner can see some positives. “What is good is the clear recognition by government that infrastructure is a catalyst for economic stability and growth and that is really positive,” he says. “At a macro level, the exporting of infrastructure, skills and products is also a real catalyst for the repositioning of the UK in the global market, independent of Europe,” Milner says.

"What is good is the clear recognition by government that infrastructure is a catalyst for economic stability and growth and that is a really positive thing. The exporting of infrastructure skills and products can also help the repositioning of the UK in the global market."

Challenge and uncertainty also mean that firms have to work harder with their clients on developing solutions that add real value. “We have to work with our customers to make sure that they are getting a value service from us. The extensive use of data to do our jobs better is crucial in that,” Milner says. 

Combining capabilities to provide an even better service is also important. “Can we improve on the asset value in a utility environment and then can we overlay that onto engineering contracts? Yes we can,” says Milner, who is also keen to work with his customers on ways of financing future infrastructure. “There is still a gap on the funding of infrastructure. How can we bridge the gap, with government, with local authorities, utility organisations, the rail sector and private finance? We need to discuss that collaboratively,” Milner says.

That spirit of collaboration also extends to Amey’s people who Milner sees as absolutely central to the company’s future success. The restructure of the company has been underpinned by new values for the organisation which put people first and Amey is investing in the skills and capability of its staff and also in ensuring that the company is more diverse. All this will help Amey deliver great service to clients, says Milner, and enable the business to “find ways to be constantly improving and create better solutions”.

Technology will shape the industry’s future

As one of the industry’s key leaders, Milner’s thoughts on the prospects for the infrastructure market are worth hearing. While he says the commitment to large scale mega projects like HS2, Hinkley and Heathrow are to be welcomed, he believes that the bigger picture issues are going to be shaped by technology and how the industry deals with those challenges. “There is clearly a demand for improvements in existing infrastructure and that will continue, but the way in which things can be done smartly is going to be very important,” says Milner. “I believe we are on the cusp of a different place for the market. It’s now much more technology led. Smart motorways, the digital railway - these technological developments are going to fundamentally shift the infrastructure market in the UK over the next few years and probably much quicker than that,” he says.

Organisations need to start to innovate and embrace new technology says Milner otherwise they will be left behind. Amey is putting a big effort into technology investment in order to add value. “The infrastructure sector has traditionally lagged behind on technology but we are in a completely different situation now with the ready availability of data,” he says. “Use of data from the location services on mobile phones and applying that to improve infrastructure - that’s where the future lies as well as in ongoing traditional engineering activity,” says Milner. “The infrastructure sector needs to tap into that and use that data to provide solutions to improve people’s lives and help create better places to live, work and travel. Focus on the future.”

"The infrastructure sector has traditionally lagged behind on technology but we are in a completely different situation now with the ready availability of data. The sector needs to tap into that data to provide better solutions."

As well as seeing technology as a key industry driver, Milner also believes that there needs to be more focus on improving health and safety across the industry and in material innovation. “The use of recycled materials and developing low carbon solutions will become increasingly important long term,” says Milner. 

Our people are crucial to all we do

Despite all the challenges the industry faces, it’s clear that Milner sees people as the solution to just about all of them. “Amey is nearly 100 years old and we have overcome many many challenges because of the capability of the people in our business,” he says. “We need to completely expand the age range of people in the organisation and do more to attract people into the industry and invest in our people’s skills. Apprenticeships are key in that as is promoting greater diversity and being open to all genders and ethnicity,” he says.

Milner says that the application of new technology is helping Amey to attract new recruits into the business and he sees that continuing. “We have put a lot of effort into building our asset management analytics capability and have attracted some really bright people who are attracted to the way we are developing software and tech. This can be really important for the future, not just of Amey but the whole industry,” says Milner.

Looking further afield, Milner sees opportunities for UK firms in the North American market, as clients there look to better look after the nation’s infrastructure. “In a more constrained financial environment there is now pressure on clients in the US to handle their assets differently. There is clearly an opportunity there to bring our UK experience to bear but this is in the context of a very protectionist government and we need to work through that,” he says.

It’s another example of using infrastructure and UK expertise to get ahead of the Brexit curve to blaze a trail internationally says Milner. “We can support the government in building the profile and the knowledge of UK expertise so it can be exported. We have been maintaining assets here since the industrial revolution and we are experts at it, so if we can capitalise on that and demonstrate that capability to other countries then we are creating something really valuable,” Milner says.

Doing a great job, 24/7

After 18 months as chief executive, Milner says that the best part of his job is seeing the effect that Amey and its people have on a daily basis. “I’m immensely proud of the capability that we have in Amey,” he says. “I am really proud travelling around the country and seeing the impact of what we do on the roads, the railways, in buildings, prisons and in the huge range of different facilities that we operate and deliver. I’m really pleased to see that. I think the bit I enjoy the most is making that delivery easier for people, inside the organisation and for our customers,” he says. 

“We are there every day, 24 hours a day, making a difference to people’s lives. What’s important to us is that we are enabling success for our customers but what’s also important to me is to enable success for our people. We are looking at long-term partnerships with our customers and the most important thing is us knowing that we’ve done a great job, our customers knowing we’ve done a great job and our people knowing that we’ve done a great job.”

If you would like to contact Andy Walker about this, or any other story, please email awalker@infrastructure-intelligence.com.