The draughtsman's contract

Profile: Michael Jeffries; The architect who leads Britain's biggest firm of consulting engineers has a date with the stock market. Richard Phillips reports

He was trained as an architect, but Mike Jeffries, Geordie chief executive of WS Atkins, Britain's biggest firm of consulting engineers, comes across as a businessman first and foremost. As one close associate says: "He eats, sleeps and breathes Atkins: he's a great ambassador for the company."

He will need those ambassadorial qualities to the full over the next two months. Jeffries finds himself stuck on the City treadmill, ahead of a stock market flotation later this summer in plans announced last week.

His next task, on thoroughly unfamiliar territory, is to introduce the near-60-year-old firm and his colleagues to potential investors.

It should be third time lucky. A first flotation attempt, in 1990, was grounded after 35 of Atkins' employees, working as road engineers, were stranded in Kuwait, following Saddam Hussein's invasion.

"It was," says Jeffries, "pointless to even consider a flotation, when the lives of our employees were at stake."

Another, in 1994, came to nought, after market conditions proved unsuitable.

Despite his enjoyment of the job in hand, he admits to some mixed feelings. The notion of repeating the same message dozens of times does not thrill him. The usual caravan that accompanies such an exercise, however - merchant bank Schroders, alongside Cazenove as the broker, and City analysts, institutions and journalists - should find little to worry them.

Over the past five years since Saddam threw a spanner in Atkins' works profits have more than doubled, to pounds 19m from pounds 8.8m in 1991; fees last year came in at pounds 196m, up from pounds 154m the previous year.

Jeffries took over as chief executive last year, after his predecessor Colin Haylock left, following a boardroom split over the flotation and future strategy.

City investors will also be intrigued by one other unusual feature: employees own the bulk of the shares, with a third of the staff accounting for almost 60 per cent of the shares. The sellers are the original family owners, with their remaining 20 per cent stake, and the company's pension fund, which controls the other 20 per cent. Employee ownership has proved a powerful factor in the group's success, says Jeffries.

It is a long way from his birthplace of Jarrow. An unmistakable trace of Geordie in his voice - which gains full force whenever he returns to his native Tyneside - belies a cosmopolitan upbringing. At the age of nine, he was whisked off to Trinidad, in the Caribbean, where his father was chairman of a group of paint companies.

After school, and A-levels in maths and physics, he returned to London and the then Northern Polytechnic, where he enrolled on the arduous course to qualify as an architect. "My father, and his father before him, were engineers," he says. But he opted for architecture, as a bridge between the practical bent of his family, and his own strong interest in the arts. It took him nine years, including one day off a week, after he joined John Laing in the early 1960s for his first job.

He paints watercolours, which he sells through local galleries and fairs near his home in Kingswood, Surrey, an easy drive from the firm's headquarters in Epsom - and also plays the piano. His other interest is clocks, which he repairs himself.

Even so, there is little of the architect-aesthete about him. And he picked up from his father a strong engineering ethic, which has stood him in good stead at WS Atkins. He says of his own numeracy: "It's the only reason I think I have survived at WS Atkins." An imposing presence may also help, and a love of the variety management brings.

Founded in 1938 by Sir William Atkins - whose presence still casts a shadow over the company - it was his entrepreneurial style that set the tone for the company.

Jeffries' own instincts in this vein, however, were not satisfied in the early 1970s, when other jobs included a brief spell at London Transport. "I got in and out of there very quickly," he recalls.

Now 51, Jeffries joined Atkins' architectural firm in 1975, and by 1978 was head of the practice, with 150 staff beneath him. But it was as a business-getter that he made his name at the firm.

In the late 1980s he was transferred full time to business development - which involved lots of travel with the firm's worldwide spread - and in 1992, he was appointed to the board as marketing and business development director. Within just three years he was appointed chief executive - a meteoric rise, albeit interspersed with boardroom ructions.

As a business-getter, Jeffries was in the right place at the right time when Haylock departed, and graciously lays much of Atkins' recent success at the door of his predecessor.

Much of that growth has been organic, but Jeffries is keen to build by acquisition. In January, Atkins bought Faithful & Gould, a leading quantity surveyor, for pounds 21m and the flotation will make further such expansion easier.

Unlike many professions, much of Atkins' success derives from financial discipline, evident from its ability to ride out the recessions of the late 1980s, and early 1990s. For example, the company takes a vigorous line on accounting for project income. No profits are taken until a project is at least 50 per cent completed - a temptation which architectural firms especially have been susceptible to.

A comfortable cash cushion of pounds 85m suggests the discipline has paid off. It also gives Atkins the muscle to invest in projects itself, including the Government's Private Finance Initiative. Jeffries believes the bad press the PFI has had is unjustified. "We've applied our brains to it, we believe we can make money from it, and we are the preferred bidder on several projects." The firm has won its first contract - to build a new prison at Bridgend, in Wales, with Securicor and Costain.

The Thatcher years were good for WS Atkins. The disposal of Britain's major state assets proved an unexpected boon. Many companies that relied on public sector work for their bread and butter were squeezed. WS Atkins has flourished, however. Its network of government contacts, from Whitehall through to the big nationalised industries: rail, steel, electricity and nuclear, to the Ministry of Defence, and the Property Service Agency, have paid off in the new era.

Further afield, Jeffries is especially proud of the Chicago Beach project in Dubai, a man-made island which is the focal point of a $700m (pounds 455m) luxury tourist resort - although its design would be enough to make any self-respecting post-modernist shudder. Never mind: with WS Atkins enrolled as architect, engineering consultant and construction manager, it should prove a profitable venture.

Jeffries says the public sector still accounts for over half of revenues - but the emphasis is increasingly on private sector business, especially in the area of support services. Many are high-profile and politically sensitive. Nuclear waste disposal - the company manages the Dounreay nuclear site - the Channel Tunnel, and the Saudi Arabian Al Yamamah defence project suggest the company needs skills other than just engineering expertise.

Jeffries shows a diplomatic reticence answering questions on such topics. Of the difference between doing business in the private sector and with government, he says: "One has to understand the differing types of accountability within government, which is quite different from the private sector. And, as ever, you have to understand your clients' business. You must also understand how decisions are made, but I don't think it is possible to influence those decisions."

A tactful reference, perhaps, to former transport minister Archie Hamilton, a paid consultant to the firm, and whose activities were highlighted in the wake of the Nolan Report into MPs' private interests. But nor should that deter the City.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Sport
The RBS Six Nations trophy at the Aviva Stadium ahead of Ireland vs England
rugby
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
music
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: HR Benefits Manager

£40000 - £50000 per annum + pro rata: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager / Financial Services

£30000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established in 1999, a highly r...

Jemma Gent: Year End Accountant

£250-£300 Day Rate: Jemma Gent: Are you a qualified accountant with strong exp...

Jemma Gent: Management Accountant

£230 - £260 Day Rate: Jemma Gent: Do you want to stamp your footprint in histo...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?