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AJ100 Top 20 analysis: How BDP came out on top

BDP has regained its place as the largest practice in the AJ100 list.

While being top of the tree is always cause for celebration, this year a little of the lustre has been lost by the fact that BDP has not grown in terms of architects employed in the UK, but simply shrunk less fast than some of its competitors.

There is certainly a downward trend. Look at how the number of architects employed in the UK by the largest 20 practices has changed (see attached pdf). But when one looks at fees, the picture is much brighter. Examination of the largest 20 practices shows that the average UK fees earned per architect have scarcely fallen - although the total has fallen quite dramatically, it is less fast than the number of architects. This may be little comfort to those who have lost their jobs, but it does at least indicate that there are practices that, so far at least, are running their businesses effectively.

Nevertheless, problems are expected. Rob Firth, who recently rejoined Austin-Smith:Lord after running Capita Architecture for five years, expects a shake-out at the top of the profession. ‘I think 10 more practices this year will probably go to the wall,’ he says. ‘Architects have made it even harder for themselves by, for example, accepting very small fees for five-year framework agreements.’ Coming out of recession is often the hardest time for businesses, and the point at which the greatest numbers fail.

There is certainly great variation in levels of earnings per architect. NPS tops the tree with UK earnings of £213,750 per architect. Aedas follows closely with £204,830. The lowest figure belongs to Atkins, at £51,440.

It is hard in this climate to see what the secret is to doing well. The market has changed rapidly over the last few years, with swings from public to private sector and back again. Now the fear is of a mismatch, with the public sector shrinking as the government attempts to claw back some debt before the private sector can take over. Practices need to be able to move with the market, and have expertise in a number of fields. BDP for instance, which has topped this list longer than any other practice, consciously diversified both in terms of sector and geography.

This is one of the advantages of having a relatively large practice. Smaller practices may pride themselves on being nimble, but they may not have individuals with expertise in every field. In a larger practice, it is relatively easy to have at least one person with experience in each key area. If the practice spots an opportunity, that person can at least front the bids, while others build up their skills behind the scenes. Many architects will argue that they can easily work in new areas; the problem is, clients won’t allow them to do so.

Many practices say they are concerned solely with the quality of work they put out

Just how big does a practice need to be to prosper? Many will say that they have little ambition to grow and are concerned solely with the quality of work. Others have growth very firmly in their sights. RMJM, for instance, set out to build itself into a global practice. It has succeeded, but the ambition does not stop there (see page 35).

Chris Littlemore, CEO of Archial Group, wants to expand overseas as well as domestically. ‘We want to grow both by merger and by acquisition,’ he says. Like Morrison, he believes that you have to be big to prosper. And although he says he ‘can’t get excited’ about the UK market at present, in general he is seeing signs of an upturn. The practice measures work that ‘is in the pipeline’, and says it rose from £46 million at the end of last year to £53 million at the start of this year. ‘It is an early indicator that there is something there for the future,’ he says.

In the meantime practices have to manage the current situation. Architecture plb, winner of employer of the year (see page 70) has not avoided redundancies altogether. Instead it has managed the process openly, keeping staff happy despite the difficult times. Staff represent the greatest strength that practices have, and they need to be kept motivated.

Caroline Cole, who runs architectural business consultancy Colander, believes it is also important for firms to continue to market themselves in difficult periods. ‘The practices that are still in the minds of the clients will be first off the blocks when we come out of recession,’ she says. ‘Investment in marketing is as important as investment in IT.’

We asked those responding to the survey to tell us what constituted good practice. Perhaps unsurprisingly, client satisfaction secured the greatest weight, followed by creativity. High staff morale was third, followed by profit margin, with professional (peer) recognition at the bottom. Perhaps counter-intuitively, partnerships tend to give greater weight to profit margin and staff morale, whilst public limited companies place more value on client satisfaction and the ability to win new business.

All the practices on these pages, even those that have shrunk, represent the successful face of architecture in the UK. By next year some are likely to have dropped out of the table, and others risen up the ranks. There may be the failures that Firth predicts, the mergers Littlemore is hoping for; in difficult times the strengths and weakness of practices are likely to be exposed. For now, we can celebrate the success that the 100 represent

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