Robin Southwell: Ken's biggest fan is going underground

The chief of WS Atkins pledges support for London's Mayor but he's on the privatised Tube map
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Don't tell anyone. But Robin Southwell, the chief executive of WS Atkins, is a strong supporter of London Mayor Ken Livingstone. It's rather like Sir Alex Ferguson revealing he has an Arsenal crest tattooed on his arm. After all, Southwell's company is a key member of the Metronet consortium, one of the teams involved in the part-privatisation of London's Underground system.

The 30-year contract that Southwell is on the verge of clinching is to manage, refurbish and upgrade the overcrowded system. But Ken, together with Bob Kiley, London's Transport Commissioner, has loudly and aggressively attacked the plan. He has said "Londoners will die" and that it is more expensive than other options, and he has unsuccessfully tried to stop the privatisation through the courts.

But Southwell has no hard feelings. "I would have voted for Ken Livingstone," he says, though he lives just outside Greater London, in Surrey. "The commitment he has shown to developing London has been remarkable. I think his political courage and personal qualities have been exemplary."

Admittedly, Southwell moved to WS Atkins only at the start of 2001. During the election in May 2000, he was a senior manager at defence manufacturer BAE Systems. Yet he still expresses support for "Red Ken". "When you have committed, intelligent, competent interrogators, [you have to do everything necessary] to satisfy their requirements," he says. "I think the Mayor and Kiley have done a service to this process, of making sure we are up to the mark."

WS Atkins has gained a higher profile since its involvement in the Tube. But the company has a myriad of jobs, mainly in consultancy and engineering. Its largest division is transport, which provides a quarter of its revenues. WS At- kins acts as a consultant, project manager and engineer for road and rail agencies and companies.

However, the company also has a burgeoning government services division, which specialises in PFI and public-private partnerships. Last year it branched out into education, with a contract to run the Southwark education authority in south London. It is managing an office move at GCHQ, the government snooping agency, and advises the nuclear industry on decomissioning.

Other projects include managing the property of 5,000 Shell petrol stations and maintaining the cable network of Cable & Wireless. In total, WS Atkins works in 15 different industries, from property to water, telecoms to aviation.

"Intellectually it's got to be one of the most challenging jobs I've ever done," says Southwell. "There's no such thing as an easy meeting. You go into a room, with all these very clever people there expecting you to be on top form. That's what I need, that challenge, and I'm enjoying it immensely."

Southwell spent 20 years at BAE Systems, starting in the commercial aircraft division, persuading airlines to buy planes like the BAE 146. He then branched out into marketing, "where I had to work on my natural shyness".

After a stint running the Australian operations, and then the BAE customer support division, he decided he wanted to "give it a go" and run a company. He was headhunted for WS Atkins when then chief executive Michael Jeffries became chairman, and was tempted by its wide range of activities. "You only need to start looking at what they do, and within five minutes you think crikey, this is really interesting."

The company has come a long way since it was set up by Sir William Atkins in 1938, specialising in civil engineering. After the Second World War it expanded into project management, before floating in 1996 with a valuation of around £200m.

At the time it was considered mainly a consultant engineer. But thanks to the increase in PFI projects and expansion into other commercial services, it has doubled its turnover. It now has a market value of £550m and enjoyed a small spurt in its share price after the "commercial close" of the Tube deal.

Despite this, the shares have been depressed since Railtrack went into administration, an event that alerted investors to the fact that companies running public services are not always risk-free.

Southwell says he has no concerns about a slowdown in government work, but he intends to keep WS Atkins as a multi-disciplinary operation. "I want a balanced approach between public and private and UK and overseas. One of the strengths of the company is the portfolio of activities. Although there's a lot of privatisation activity, over time we've got to show we're not so heavily dependent on one market."

However, because many of the potential investors in the Tube were also investors in Railtrack, they must be persuaded that the Tube deal is not going to collapse. As Metronet is now scouting round for support for a £1.5bn bond issue, the City's confidence is being tested. Details won't be released for some time, but South- well is upbeat: "We are encouraged by how people are respon- ding ... It's going quicker than a lot of people expected." In fact he's upbeat on the future of the whole industry, even talking of a "golden age" in rail.

Whether or not there's a golden light at the end of the tunnel, it's vital for WS Atkins that the Tube deal runs smoothly. Despite its involvement in 15 different industries, any association with a crisis on London's Underground will bracket its brand with that of Railtrack. It's a scarier thought than dealing with Red Ken.