The Big Interview: Alastair Wallace of construction and property consultancy Thomas & Adamson

Alastair Wallace is adamant that the company must not rest on its laurels.
Alastair Wallace is adamant that the company must not rest on its laurels.
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Many people visiting Edinburgh during the festive season will have enjoyed the Christmas lights adorning the city centre. The safe installation of the illuminations, and the tree on the Mound, was just one of a host of high-profile projects in Scotland overseen by construction and property consultancy Thomas & Adamson (T&A).

The firm was founded in 1935 and, straddling both the public and private sectors, its expertise has been lent to everything from mixed-use development Quartermile in Edinburgh, the new Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre project and Silverburn shopping centre in Glasgow.

The Edinburgh-based business has been signed up to help deliver the first Virgin Hotel outside the US, in Edinburgh’s Old Town, and fit out cashmere retailer Johnstons of Elgin’s flagship store on Multrees Walk. Other clients across the UK include Jaguar Land Rover, Tesco, British Land, Ediston Real Estate and Chris Stewart Group.

It also helped bring about pilot training facilities and a first class lounge for Etihad Airways – marking something of a return to the early ambitions of senior partner Alastair Wallace, who had at one point been keen to take to the skies as a pilot.

Having grown up in Pitlochry, Wallace was unsure what to study and which career path to pursue, but signed up to what later became Abertay University after “stumbling across” a course in quantity surveying.

Although his piloting aims extended to flight tests at RAF Biggin Hill and officer selection at HMS Sultan, the allure of quantity surveying proved too powerful, and he stayed on this track, doing his basic training with a small practice with offices in Dundee and Inverness, before moving to the property group now known as Lendlease.

T&A would call him every six months with a view to persuading him to join. “In 2000, I foolishly said ‘Yes, let’s do it,’ and I’ve been here every day since then.”

Starting as a project manager, he “very quickly” got promoted, by the age of 30 becoming an equity partner in the business and just before turning 40 made senior partner both in the UK and overseas – although he jokes that he was maybe bumped up the ranks as he wasn’t good at his day job, “and they had to get me out of it as soon as possible”.

The firm has seen turnover reach about £14 million, but Wallace is adamant that it must not rest on its laurels.

A seven-figure funding package from HSBC UK was announced last year, to support a modernisation project allowing for continued growth. The overhaul encompasses new IT systems, including hardware, software, and an online document management system, along with a new telephony system and property improvements.

Wallace said when the funding deal was revealed that the firm, which assists with most aspects of construction, from cost and project management to building surveying and health and safety, needed to continuously look to improve its business to maintain its reputation in the marketplace. “That constant treadmill of business modernisation is huge to us,” he says.

T&A has offices in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and while Scotland remains the “powerhouse” of the business, it also has sites in London, as well as Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Kiev and Portland, Oregon, in the US. Staff number 100 in UK and just over 50 overseas.

“We live in difficult times. You cannot afford to be sitting purely as a Scottish business,” he says, noting that £6 million of its turnover – less than half of the total – is generated in Scotland.

A diverse geographic spread provides some protection against varying economic and political conditions, with property “all about the financial markets,” in Wallace’s view.

Brexit worries continue to hamper UK construction, which grew at the slowest pace for three months in December, according to the latest Markit/Cips purchasing managers’ index for the sector. Blane Perrotton, managing director of national property consultancy and surveyors Naismiths, commented on the report: “The construction industry ended 2018 much as it began the year; licking its wounds, scratching its head and trying vainly to work out where next for the economy’s most volatile sector… With the chances of a smooth Brexit reducing almost daily, the industry is doubling down and bracing itself for further disruption in 2019.”

Wallace says the uncertainty brought about by the Brexit vote in 2016 derailed its plans to continue the year-on-year growth of about 10 per cent it had experienced for four years in a row.

That year, “we never quite got the growth we were after and then in 2017 we were back at just over 10 per cent and this year we’re on track for doing the same again”.

Its next financial year, which starts next month, looks “very promising” so far. “We never want to go through peaks and troughs. We want to see growth and we want to see significant growth, but you want to do it in a controlled and sustainable manner.”

Looking at its international spread of business, he says: “We’re quite stable on the locations we’re in – it’s now about maximising the opportunity in those locations. We think there’s still good opportunity to grow in Scotland.”

Now in its ninth decade, the firm has overcome turbulence from a variety of sources, generating what was then its highest turnover the year after the financial crisis.

T&A was already committed on projects, and it wasn’t until these were delivered “and you didn’t have the pipeline to replace it that you actually felt the pinch”. Trying to manage costs and keep staff motivated made for “very difficult times”.

Wallace notes that with the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum, he could spend the best part of a decade, in a key phase of his career, trying to lead a business through constant uncertainty.

And he says that regardless of political views, “this is just me as a business leader saying all I want is a period of stability in order that we can go and do business”.

He also notes that with the firm wholly owned and controlled by eight partners, succession planning “has always been key – and is always key”.

And he jokes that with the importance of bringing in or nurturing talent, he sees several strong potential candidates for his own role. “It’ll be me fighting to stay in it rather than finding the right people to take over.” Nonetheless, “I can’t imagine I’ll ever be anywhere other than T&A.”

He also stresses his direct involvement in all of T&A’s key projects at a strategic level, to make sure they are being delivered correctly. That sits against what he sees as the firm’s status as a big name in Scotland. “I would really like it to be up there as the leading name in the Scottish market and I genuinely don’t think we’re that far away from that. We want to be considered as the market leader in what we do.”

In five years he would like to see it double the size of its business in London, supporting the rest of the business. He adds: “I think we’ve got an opportunity to double the size of what we do in the Middle East”, having been in the region for nearly a decade. “It just really excites me to think ‘What could that look like in another nine years?’”

He says his time at T&A has flown by, praising the variety of areas he covers, people he meets and the network he has developed. “It’s all much more than I could ever have imagined.”

That said, he laughs as he says there is one disadvantage regarding its geographical spread – wearing a suit, shirt and tie in the intense August heat of the Middle East. “That’s when you would happily come back to Edinburgh – and the cold and the rain.”