The Big Interview: Mark Naysmith, UK chief of WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff

'˜I suppose I've been in a fortunate position in my career,' says Mark Naysmith, UK chief executive of WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff. 'Every time I even hesitate to think about my next move, something exciting happens in the organisation.'
Mark Naysmith says Wednesdays rebranding of the company  which has about 36,000 staff globally  brings us all together and all with the same direction. Photograph: Ian GeorgesonMark Naysmith says Wednesdays rebranding of the company  which has about 36,000 staff globally  brings us all together and all with the same direction. Photograph: Ian Georgeson
Mark Naysmith says Wednesdays rebranding of the company  which has about 36,000 staff globally  brings us all together and all with the same direction. Photograph: Ian Georgeson

He has spent three decades with the professional services and engineering consultancy and is speaking as it prepares to officially rebrand, simply as WSP, on Wednesday with a launch in Montreal where it is headquartered.

Naysmith says the company is a “rapidly growing organisation with numerous acquisitions over the last ten years. This rebranding brings us all together and all with the same direction and focus.”

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The firm, which has about 36,000 staff globally, can trace its roots back to 1885 when Parsons Brinckerhoff was founded in New York City, and its lengthy acquisition history includes being acquired by Balfour Beatty in 2009 and then bought by WSP in 2014.

The new name encompasses more than 85 firms that have previously been combined, including Mouchel Consulting, which was acquired in October last year with more than 180 staff in Scotland.

Naysmith started with the firm as a full-time technician on finishing his HND, and was then sponsored to return to Edinburgh Napier University to get his degree in civil and transportation engineering. He was attracted to the field “because I’d like to think I’ve got a practical mind – as a kid I always enjoyed building things”.

His initial interest had been in aviation in particular, prompted by a trip to Edinburgh Airport, “and realising what a fantastic industry it would be to build airports across the world for people to travel”.

And while he has been with his employer for many years, “I certainly feel as if I’ve worked for a number of companies, given the size of WSP just now”.

Based at its Edinburgh Park office, he heads the UK operations with more than 7,000 staff, including 430 in Scotland. The job entails regular travel to London as well as to other offices in the UK, giving what he sees as crucial different perspectives for running a national business.

Its high-profile projects include the Shard, Crossrail and the HS2 rail link, the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, Edinburgh Waverley Station and Glasgow 2014 Athletes’ Village. Recent wins north of the Border include Scotland’s first film and TV studio, the £250 million Pentland Studios which is expected to create more than 1,600 jobs, inland surfing lagoon Wavegarden Scotland in Edinburgh and the regeneration of Princes Street Gardens.

Against a backdrop of such varied sectors, he highlights the focus on diversification, with the business’s split in the UK currently 60 per cent public sector and 40 per cent private.

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“Fortunately, we don’t have all our eggs in the one basket,” he adds, and says that with the public sector continuing to grow in its markets, citing highways, rail, hospitals and schools, “there’s still a lot of investment there in Scotland and the wider UK… we’re seeing significant growth”.

Turning to the private sector, this has slowed in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, he continues, attributing this to low levels of confidence among private-sector developers to invest, with the pound weak and an uncertain outlook. “But we are seeing that stabilising,” he adds. And he sees the “flipside” of the drop in the value of sterling being a large inflow of money into the UK from China.

“Despite the fact that their GDPs dropped, they’re still looking for safe havens, which the UK is, to invest in private-sector development. I’ve not heard of any in Scotland yet, but I think at the end of the day [overall it’s] good for the economy, because although it’s Chinese investment it means that they’ll use UK and local resources to deliver these projects.”

Looking at London specifically, he sees confidence returning, and views the UK capital as a good barometer for the rest of the UK. “I say that as a Scot,” he laughs.

The recent UK general election announcement was seen by many as a likely stepping stone to stability, a view echoed by Naysmith. Furthermore, in a WSP statement at the time of the snap election news, he mirrored the concerns of many when calling for action to create more workers with much-needed construction and STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) know-how.

There is also the issue of gender balance, a subject of much debate in the engineering sector. However, last year WSP said women comprise more than a fifth of its engineering workforce, painting a cheerier picture than statistics from the Women’s Engineering Society, which found that only 9 per cent of the sector’s workforce in the UK is female, the lowest level in Europe.

In terms of staffing, the future of European workers in the UK is another issue, something Naysmith admits is a concern, with WSP last year in the UK recruiting 250 graduates, with about 40 per cent from Spain, Greece and France.

However, the organisation is “not overly reliant on European funding for our projects – and the fact that we’re a global business as well – we’re a bit more resilient than some of our competition who are relying on that European element”.

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On a personal level, and given that his career with WSP spans 30 years, he is well-accustomed to sailing through choppy economic waters. His work bringing the business through the recession was in fact recognised when he was named European CEO of the year 2014 by the Association for Consultancy and Engineering.

He cites the award as a career highlight, explaining that it was “all linked to bringing WSP through the recession and growing rapidly on the back of the projects and the clients that we work with in the UK”.

This, he believes, was in contrast to much of its competition, who “turned their heads to overseas work during the recession. We stuck very closely to our UK clients, which paid dividends”.

As for WSP’s progress in Scotland, Naysmith stresses that the Central Belt is very much the focus, but the business follows its clients when required. “For instance, we’re working on the A9 dualling and that means moving and having teams on the ground… in Inverness or in Perth”. It is also active in Aberdeen in both the public and private sectors, he adds.

Headcount north of the Border is expected to grow, with potential for market-share gain in the public sector as well as “any private-sector development that starts up again on the back of the political unrest at the moment – so very much in growth mode”.

As for infrastructure, when commenting on the general election announcement, Naysmith said that although infrastructure delivery “is supported by all main political parties in some form, 80 per cent of the construction industry believes that the public doesn’t understand the role it plays in enabling growth. We’ll therefore be looking for parties to explain at a national and regional level why pro-infrastructure policies are good for UK plc, for productivity and for local housing, services and jobs.”

A report recently revealed that infrastructure projects worth almost £6.4 billion will be under construction throughout Scotland this year, with major projects such as the Queensferry Crossing and improvements to the M8, M73 and M74 motorways to become operational. Projects worth almost £800m were completed last year.

Naysmith says: “I see, from a Scottish economy point of view, a lot of infrastructure spend at the moment and I see that continuing.” As well as WSP’s work on the A9 dualling, it is tendering for the same kind of work on the A96, for example. “When you put that in context for infrastructure spend across the UK, Scotland is doing a lot in that space.”

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Looking further afield, Naysmith is a member of WSP’s global leadership team, and has suitably far-reaching ambitions. He says: “There’s a lot of support that we can provide from the UK into Europe, into the Middle East, into South Africa and working very closely with our Scandinavian cousins as well where there’s a lot of market opportunity.”

WSP is a “growing organisation with international reach”, while he views the rebrand, which follows the group’s involvement in some troubled projects in the US, as a “new beginning for the company”. The strategy doesn’t change “but it’s a nice fresh start”.