Leaked emails reveal turmoil at top of architects behind Europe’s tallest tower

Managing director quits amid investigation into alleged failure to pay staff and creditors

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The Independent Culture

One of Britain’s leading architects – the firm behind the Scottish Parliament, Abu Dhabi’s striking Capital Gate and Europe’s tallest building, the proposed Gazprom Tower in St Petersburg – suffered a damaging blow when its managing director quit shortly after embarrassing emails criticising him were leaked.

The Edinburgh-based firm RMJM is also to be investigated by the Royal Institute of British Architects. The inquiry is understood to relate to allegations that RMJM has failed to pay staff and creditors. RIBA President Angela Brady was quoted as saying that RMJM staff should contact her officials.

The resignation of Jonathan French after only three months in the job follows the leaking of an internal email critical of him. The memo, from chief executive Peter Morrison, opposed French’s appointment to lead a merger of the troubled firm’s European and Middle East units, adding: “There is just no possible way we can have Jonathan leading anything. There is no way that we can give a big job to a guy that doesn’t know the difference between cash and revenue.”

After the leak Mr French said he was “deeply saddened” to find himself at the centre of a “bizarre situation” but insisted he saw no reason to instruct lawyers.

Today he announced he was quitting RMJM and joining a rival firm, Woods Bagot. A spokesman for Woods Bagot said Mr French was unable to comment on his departure.

His resignation is the latest of a series of reversals to hit the company, which, at its height, boasted of being one of the top-three biggest architectural firms in the world with offices in London, Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore and New York. His appointment was hailed as a “turning point” for RMJM, which has been plagued by controversy and bad publicity.

At a Scottish employment tribunal last year, it was revealed that the firm had cut over 800 staff in a three-year period. Many departed staff across the world have since launched multiple legal actions in which they alleged that they have not been paid. The architect’s accounts last year admitted the firm had suffered “liquidity issues” and announced pre-tax losses of more than £10m.

In October 2012, hours after bailiffs seized equipment at its London offices, three of its subsidiary companies went into receivership owing creditors £6.5m. Despite its financial difficulties RMJM controversially employed disgraced former RBS boss Fred Goodwin as an “adviser”. Last night Mr Morrison said the firm had  not been contacted by RIBA, had  not sought to hide from the salary problems and had always tried to  preserve jobs in the UK. He said  RMJM had suffered from delayed  client payments.

“Instead of beating up on a company that is principally focused on preserving jobs, it might be more appropriate for the Architectural Community to join us in leading the sector out of  recession in the UK,” he said.

“Our workforce fully understand our approach to preserving their jobs, know that their salaries will be paid but from time to time might be late and can, of course, leave at any time if they are unable to cope with late salaries. I would suggest it is better to be paid late than never.”

A spokeswoman for RIBA declined to comment on the specifics of the RMJM inquiry. “RIBA deplores any practice failing to meet their responsibilities as an employer,” she said.

The leaked email: A ‘bizarre situation’

Discussing who would head up  a proposed merger between its Europe and Middle East  business, RMJM’s group  chief executive Peter Morrison  sent an email to the group’s commercial director, Declan Thompson,.

This correspondence read: “There is just no possible way we can have Jonathan [French] leading anything. There is no way that we can give a big job to a guy that doesn’t know the difference between cash and revenue.”

The leaked email also includes claims about French’s supposed “refusal to travel economy [and]  that he is paying himself before others in Europe [which] is bound  to get out”.