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Sir Fred Goodwin steps back from role at architects

SHAMED former banker Sir Fred Goodwin has stepped back from his role at troubled architecture firm RMJM, The Scotsman has learned.

• Sir Fred Goodwin: Stepping back

The former Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive is understood to have relinquished his duties at RMJM, where sources previously claimed he had been taking on an increasingly high level of control since his appointment less than a year ago.

Staff at the company's Edinburgh headquarters have described Sir Fred's desk as lying empty for "several weeks".

Sir Fred, who was brought in as an adviser to RMJM on a reported six-figure salary, was hired to tighten the purse strings at the company, which had been hit hard by the recession. He had also been asked to use his business contacts to open doors to potential projects across the globe.

For company owners Sir Fraser and Peter Morrison, Sir Fred's departure is the latest public blow for a company that has suffered a difficult few months.

RMJM, which has recently lost a string of high-profile staff - including former St Andrews University principal Dr Brian Lang - insists that Sir Fred is still employed by the firm on a consultancy basis.

A spokesman said the company would continue to call on the banker's services "as required", but admitted that at present its needs were "less demanding".

Like fellow adviser Dr Lang, who quit the firm late last year admitting that there was "not that much business around", Sir Fred may still be brought in on an ad hoc basis to advise the company in future.

But an insider claimed that after being widely vilified for his role in RBS's downfall, the former banker did not want to add the woes of an architectural firm - named in 2010 as the fifth largest practice in the world - to his CV, and took the decision to distance himself from RMJM.

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• Timeline: Ups and downs of RMJM

In November, the firm, which was behind buildings including the Scottish Parliament and the Falkirk Wheel, was forced to admit that cash flow problems had resulted in wages being paid late to staff.

It suffered an exodus of 80 employees from offices in Hong Kong, among them reportedly Barry Shapiro, RMJM director for Asia.

Five senior staff - Gordon Affleck, Scott Findley, Ted Givens, Adrian Boot and Kishor Lad - later left to set up a rival international outfit, targeting work in the lucrative Asian market which, unlike Europe, remains buoyant despite the worldwide recession.

Meanwhile, the company's planned Gazprom Tower in St Petersburg, Russia, hit the buffers after falling foul of new height restrictions.

The controversial Okhta Centre, designed by RMJM, a sleek, glass-clad structure, was to be 403 metres high, the tallest building in Europe - and more than ten times the new maximum height of 40 metres.

Such a sequence of events has led to increasing speculation about the future of RMJM - and of Sir Fred's role at the firm.

One industry insider said: "The vibrations around RMJM, for several months now, is that RMJM is in trouble. There were uncontested reports of employees not getting paid, there were clearly issues behind that, and it is part of an industry that has been suffering terribly in the recession in the western world.

"When you put those two things together, it gives an indication that things are not right."

Sir Fred was hired at RMJM following a long friendship with the company's chairman, Sir Fraser Morrison, whose family bought the firm in 2003.

However, it is Sir Fraser's son Peter who is now chief executive of the firm.

The insider added: "Peter Morrison is a very, very creative and ambitious person, and good luck to him. But it may be that for all his ambition and creativity, and all the good things he has done, he has not known when to step back and entrench. He might not have done that quick enough.

"As far as Sir Fred is concerned, I would suspect that he feels he has been in enough trouble, and his reputation has been damaged enough, so the last thing he will want is for that to be compounded by being seen as part of another business's difficulties.

"Maybe that is why he has decided to get out ahead of RMJM getting into even worse difficulty."

It is felt that RMJM needs to get back to basics if it is to save itself from further turbulence.

A former employee said: "They appear to have lost sight of what their core business is - architecture and design first and foremost, not war-mongering to become the largest company in the world.

"People have been laid off, not because they did anything wrong, but because they didn't fit with this international global model that RMJM seems to have fashioned for itself."

Meanwhile, some of those brought in have failed to deliver the goods.

Stirling Prize winner Will Alsop, who joined RMJM in October 2009, was supposed to take the company into "signature architect" territory, following in the footsteps of the likes of Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid.

However, it recently emerged that more than a year after joining he had failed to deliver a single project for "Will Alsop at RMJM", the London office that was to bear his name.

Whether such difficulties will prove fatal depends on the company's books, experts have claimed. The fact it bought its Edinburgh headquarters in Bells Brae when the property market was at its peak will have been an added financial burden for the company. "It depends on how much leverage it has," the former employee said."From what I've heard it does not sound rosy."

Experts say Sir Fred's move raises questions about the decision to bring him into RMJM in the first place, which attracted a lot of negative publicity.

Will Hurst, news editor at Building Design Magazine, said: "His appointment was defended robustly by RMJM but if he leaves after just a year you have to wonder if it was worth the initial aggro. What exactly has his appointment been for?

"RMJM has become one of the country's most famous architects simply because of who they hire, rather than what they build.

"Sir Fred has business skills and connections and RMJM were looking to go overseas. Whether he has brought them any big contracts, I don't know."

A spokesman for RMJM admitted work was slow for the firm at present, insisting that this was the reason for any lessening in the role of Sir Fred. He refused to comment on whether Sir Fred's salary had been reduced.

 
 
 

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