Moving Forward with the Times

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-By John Boley

According to Paul Moffet, General Manager of Northrop Engineers, there is nothing particularly complicated in what a consulting engineer does. “It is not brain surgery. It’s about good people servicing good clients. It is kind of a universal principle, I would have thought, and it is quite engrained in us. I don’t think there is much more to it. We have been doing it for about 30 years.”

But then Northrop takes a rather unorthodox view of the business and Paul is not an orthodox consulting engineer. For a start, he has a finance degree and a background in money. Some 18 years ago, at a point when the company was undergoing a development from first to second generation, the directors and the shareholders made a “conscious decision” that it would be a good idea to find a non-engineer to lead the business. There were attributes that a non-engineer could bring, a business perspective and a slightly different look at the world. “Engineering, certainly consulting engineering, is a very focused profession,” acknowledges Paul. “Our people need to be very focused on the client and the project. Northrop saw an opportunity to have someone who looks beyond that and can look at it globally in terms of the whole business.” Paul has been General Manager now for the last 15 years and remarks that, “in some ways we have been able to free up the senior people who have the strong client relationships to do what they do best, which is to service the clients, and I do what I do best, which is to service them.”

Inevitably, perhaps, there was a certain amount of scepticism from the more highly technical of his colleagues. Having said that, “I think there was a general spirit of goodwill and of embracing it as an idea that, if it works, is quite powerful. There is always a credibility question, but I think the owners desired someone in my role to be quite transparent in what you know and don’t know.” Northrop’s senior engineers have always been inherently business oriented anyway, says Paul, which is how it was set up from day one. ”We have always seen our client in terms of running a business and therefore our role is to assist them in their business, whatever that may be. If that is building a building, it is still inherently a business. It is providing infrastructure to business.” He says this approach has made his role easier because “our senior people have always thought that way anyway. In some ways I have always thought that our engineers are essentially business operators who chose engineering.”

The Northrop setup involves a series of close-knit and highly specialised business groups servicing individual sectors – providing structural, civil and building services engineering to areas including education, health or urban development and infrastructure – in a semi-autonomous manner but with a ‘horizontal’ band joining them all which represents the company’s own infrastructure, with Paul and all the other services to support the individual technical groups. Across head office in Canberra, four offices in NSW and one more in Brisbane, the company has a core of some 150 highly qualified staff. “We do use specialist contractors where we need to, but essentially our business has been based upon a permanent core of very good engineers and associated draftspersons.” With resulting small groups of specialists, the company is “very nimble in our ability to win work,” and also avoids being regarded as some kind of ‘jack-of-all-trades’.

While Northrop likes the idea of operating in quite small groups, the company also values the ability to put those groups together on large and complex projects. “I suggest this has been one of the holy grails in consulting engineering – to predominately act in very small groups and put those groups together when the client needs it or the project requires it.”

If a client wants a solution involving all disciplines, a ‘whole of project’ solution, Northrop can offer it. But generally the client’s own focus is narrower. “When a client wants one of the best engineers to build a school, that is exactly what we will focus on and we will not necessarily attempt to portray ourselves as anything else to that client.” Paul says there is probably no ‘typical’ client, any more than there is a ‘typical’ project so everything is judged on a case by case basis. “We get close to the client, start to understand what they require, and try to deliver it.” No point in giving them something they don’t want.

The business has long been based upon recruiting “the best people we can find, usually quite young. We intensively train them, then we try and retain them by providing opportunities to all of our staff. We are entirely employee owned; there are 22 shareholders who own the company. We are quite organic in our growth and develop our own.”

Paul makes no secret of the fact that the industry is going through a tough time at present. Industry wide, he believes, there is probably a recession at present and in Sydney this has persisted for a couple of years already. Things are patchy. “It’s volatile, unpredictable – but then it really always has been.” He says the timeframes are getting shorter – in this industry as everywhere else. Formerly, a company such as Northrop could know six months to a year in advance what projects it would have on hand. “That is no longer the case. I think that is a permanent change.”

Construction timeframes are equally under pressure and shrinking. “I think the profession – including Northrop – has had to adapt and embrace these shorter time frames. I think that is what the clients want… they are driven by the shorter time frames themselves.” And this is not about to reverse any time soon, he adds. Companies that cannot embrace it are going to be weeded out. Companies that can adapt are the ones that will survive. “The last 20 years has seen a significant change in our profession. I think we have seen people that have not been able to adapt. Certainly when you get into economic situations like the one the industry is currently in, those that come through it emerge stronger and I think the relationships with clients are also stronger.”

Consulting engineering faces a major and already well documented skills shortage. “The ability to get good consulting engineers is becoming harder, therefore there are two principles. When times get tough firms like ours cannot get rid of good people, it is not in our interests. We don’t want to do it anyway, but it is not in our interest to get rid of good people. Additionally, we see it as a time when we can recruit good people.” That way, says Paul, Northrop is able to move faster when the taps are turned back on.

There is of course a cost implication of retaining and augmenting one’s staff while business is (relatively) slack. “But the cost implication of either losing good people or not getting them far outweighs the cost implications of recruiting when the economics are volatile.

“We have been through tough economic times before, so we know how to deal with it. Keep the core intact, get your good people reaffirming their relationships with the clients, recruit some more good people, do it again. “Even in tough times there are very good clients out there that are running very stable, very disciplined businesses. They want to continue to invest and undertake the work that they need to undertake, whether that is building or designing buildings. There are lots of opportunities for good consulting engineers.”

Sustainability, Paul says, is “built into everything we do.” The idea that the built environment can somehow be regarded as separate from the sustainability argument is “ridiculous, they are quite entwined. Our profession has to totally embrace sustainability in everything that we do.” Along with that philosophy come some very specific services in regards to sustainability; these are again client driven, such as the requirement to achieve certain rating outcomes for buildings.

But Paul contends that “engineering solutions must embrace sustainability,” in a holistic, overarching way. It is not a bolt-on optional extra. “That is not where the built environment is moving, or where the client is moving. Our profession has had to adapt to that. But I think it is fair [to say] that our profession has not led that change, it is coming from other drivers.”

Paul points out how important it is to recognise the uniqueness of each project. “I think the relationship with the client is the key to that. The ability to recognise that projects and clients are unique is predicated on having a strong relationship with the client. The majority of our staff deal with clients and develop relationships – we do not have large groups of people sitting in back rooms. This delivers the client a much better service and we have based our history on that; it is very much part of our culture.” Even in tough times for the industry, he adds, there are enough clients out there who are sufficiently discerning and can recognise the advantages of this way of thinking.

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

July 16, 2020, 9:50 AM AEST