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AJ100 interview: Keith Clarke, Atkins

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‘We’re not trying to be all things to all people anymore’

Keith Clarke, chief executive of Atkins, has already steered Britain’s biggest architectural firm through tough times.

When he joined the company, in October 2003, it was in a mess. Atkins had made expensive acquisitions in the US in areas such as facilities management, in a bid to turn itself into a multi-faceted ‘solutions provider’. On top of that, Atkins’ new billing system had malfunctioned, and its share price had gone into freefall.

Clarke, an architect by training, was parachuted in and brought Atkins back from the brink with his simple plan. ‘We went back to being an engineering, environmental and architecture company,’ says Clarke. ‘We’re not trying to be all things to all people anymore.’

It is testament to Clarke’s steady hand on the wheel that five years later, during a second, more global crisis, Atkins has overtaken BDP to become the number one practice in the AJ100, ending BDP’s eight years at the top.

Clarke’s plan for tackling the recession is similarly single-minded: invest heavily in sustainable design and engineering. ‘It is reasonably likely that the carbon reduction issue will kickstart the global economy,’ says Clarke.

Atkins has already established its green credentials. Its famous Bahrain World Trade Centre has become known for its three huge wind turbines incorporated into the tower’s structure. And its 66-storey tower in the Dubai International Finance Centre, nicknamed ‘the Lighthouse’, was recently awarded a Platinum LEED certificate.

Right now, Atkins is investing in developing its own carbon codes because ‘calculating carbon reduction is still a very immature science,’ says Clarke. The programme is already one year in, and Clarke predicts that within two years, 25 per cent of the company will be designing for carbon reduction ‘as a matter of course’.

Clarke is coping with a significant reduction of design work in the Middle East – one of the contributing factors that led to Atkins’ cutting 1,000 jobs internationally in the past six months. Some of Atkins’ Middle East-based architects are working on projects in China, on masterplanning, urban design and economic development work. ‘We’ve reversed recent growth in the Middle East but, when liquidity returns, it will go at a major pace again,’ says Clarke.

As for the UK office, Clarke says Atkins was not ‘over-exposed’ to the suffering commercial market, and that it has enough education work to keep it going. The firm has also done well from the London 2012 Olympics project, having secured contracts with the Olympic Delivery Authority to design some of the temporary venues.

As the recession bites, Clarke admits the firm is under pressure to design more efficiently and, in some cases, more cheaply. But to those competing firms prepared to loss-lead in order to pay salaries, he issues this warning: ‘If you can’t trade properly now, you won’t be trading much better later on.’ Damian Arnold

Atkins was number 1 in the 2009 AJ100

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