Arup’s Philip Dilley is bringing bold ideas from the sketchpad to reality
If you listen carefully enough, you might just be able to hear the High Speed Two train whizzing through Fitzrovia. Not that it is due to be operational for another 14 years but Arup, the engineer, is used to thinking ahead.
Its office houses an acoustic laboratory that can demonstrate what noise will be generated by the trains on the proposed new fast link between London and Birmingham.
“It takes trains that don’t exist yet and works out the acoustics if you put in barriers, cuttings or embankments,” says Philip Dilley, Arup’s chairman.
It might never be quiet enough for the campaigners of Great Missenden who live close to the planned route through the Chiltern Hills but that is not the point. Arup is once again demonstrating its skill at problem solving or more accurately, helping to take architects’ bold ideas from the sketchpad and into reality. But can the 66 year old, staff owned firm continue to thrive after a downturn that saw it cut jobs and a consolidation spree that has created larger rivals?
Dilley thinks so, but it might help if Arup could work on its low profile. Ten minutes into our chat, he has pulled out a newspaper clipping. An Evening Standard write up mentions numerous successful Arup projects without name checking the firm once.
Those in the know are well aware of what Dilley’s firm does. Once a structural engineer, now Arup gets involved in any design work associated with the environment, planning and project management.
In London, recent tasks include working on the Crossrail tunnels and stations at Tottenham Court Road and Canary Wharf, as well as the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the observation tower at the Olympic Park, and new City landmark the Heron Tower.
It makes the firm sound busy but in fact it suffered a 9% decline in British revenues last year because the commercial property market was slower. Group operating profits of 24.6 million fell from 91.3 million a year before, when Arup benefited from an 81 million pension credit.
“It is not all gloom but we have shrunk back a bit here,” Dilley, 57, fake ids admits. “Big developers are now building believing that in three or four years, when their projects are completed, there will be a market for them. They are going to be right, plus or minus a year or so.”
In the meantime, the real action is in Australia, America, and particularly China, where Arup has 700 employees in seven offices plus 1500 in Hong Kong. Dilley freely admits that going on David Cameron’s trade missions to Russia and China has helped to open fellow British bosses’ eyes to Arup’s overseas strengths, as much as win new business abroad.
Dilley is used to acting as mediator. With an eye on the environment, much of what Arup (motto: we shape a better world) does is to find a happy medium. “The best way to avoid heat loss is to have a sealed building with no windows,” he says. “The best way to avoid electric lighting is to have a lot of windows, so it is a balance.”
Arup still takes a lead from the legacy of Sir Ove Arup, the Danish architect who founded it. Today’s leaders talk about the key speech he gave in 1970 when he put the partnership into trust for its staff, making it the John Lewis of the engineering world.
“He didn’t use the word sustainability because it didn’t really exist but if you read it, the thing that is incredible is it was written in 1970,” enthuses Dilley. Arup’s 10,000 staff also split a 21.5million pot last year. However, it can hand out cash but not easily raise it. Arup’s ability to do deals is severely limited.
That becomes an issue as consolidation takes hold of the sector. Rival consultancy Halcrow kissed goodbye to 143 years of independence last autumn with a 230 million sale to American peer CH2M Hill. “If our profession follows the accountants, I don’t think we could be one of the Big Four companies because we haven’t got the financial might, Scannable Fake IDs ” Dilley confesses. “Actually, I’m not sure we would want to be it’s not about size, it’s about quality.”
Since December, he has also been the chairman of London First, the lobby group which aims to make the capital the best city in the world to do business. “We may have lots of people in China, but London has a very special place in the world.
I can’t see in the rest of my professional lifetime London not being the global hub of Arup.”
Dilley becomes most vexed on the subject of transport, where London’s future airport plans or lack of them have forced their way onto the agenda for the mayoral election.
“I would argue there isn’t really a joined up transport strategy for London,” he says, advocating more national investment in rail, now Arup’s biggest division.
“I heard someone describe it in a way I thought was rather nice the other day. Imagine if Britain hadn’t built the motorways. You’d be getting on the A4 to go down to Bristol.
“That’s what you do on the railways we’ve never built the motorways of the rail system.”
Dilley joined Arup 36 years ago as a graduate straight from Imperial College London. “It is a place that gives you an awful lot of freedom with a bit of a safety net, as well as access to a fabulous knowledge base.”
He makes it sound like design utopia where engineers can follow pet projects and bonuses are balanced across the firm regardless of whether you are working in underperforming Athens or booming Beijing.
But sometimes they are guilty of not being commercial enough.
For example, you get the feeling Dilley would rather have held onto a system which charges electric cars by driving them onto a pad on the road, instead of plugging them in just like an electric toothbrush.
Arup plucked the idea from a New Zealand university, developed it, and then sold it on to chipmaker Qualcomm last November.
“There is a little bit of sentiment that it would be good to carry on a bit,” he says. “Normally we are terribly bad, we are so in love with the technology, we hold onto it until it fails.”