WS Atkins Plc - Company Profile, Information, Business Description, History, Background Information on WS Atkins Plc

Woodcote Grove
Ashley Road
Epsom, Surrey KT18 5BW
United Kingdom

Company Perspectives:

WS Atkins' vision is to be the world's first choice supplier of technical services and integrated solutions.

History of WS Atkins Plc

WS Atkins Plc is one of the world's leading suppliers of consultancy and related support services with an emphasis on the engineering and other technology-related sectors. The company's operations focus on four primary segments: Property, Transport, Management and Industry, and International. Based in Epsom, England, WS Atkins has diversified beyond its traditional engineering consultancy practice to include facilities management services and power generation. WS Atkins operates 125 offices in the United Kingdom and another 50 offices worldwide, including nearly 20 in the United States. Altogether, WS Atkins provides services to more than 50 countries in Europe, the Middle East, the Americas, and Asia. The United Kingdom, where the company is market leader, accounts for the largest part of the company's revenues, nearly 80 percent of the company's £674 million in sales. Since going public in 1996, WS Atkins has expanded rapidly through a series of acquisitions, including Faithful & Gould in 1996; Lambert Smith Hampton, acquired in 1999; The Benham Companies, subsequently renamed Atkins Benham, in 2000, which greatly expanded the company's American presence; and, in 2001, the Danish National Railway Agency's transportation and engineering consulting unit, ScanRail. The company also operates through subsidiaries Atmos Ltd, which provides engineering and consulting services to the construction industry and WS Atkins Rail Ltd, which focuses on the U.K. railway industry.

Engineering Consultants in the 1930s

William Atkins founded the civil and structural engineering firm William Atkins & Partners in 1938. Based in Westminster, the company grew to become one of the region's most important specialists in civil and engineering design, before branching out into a number of related areas, including planning and project management services. The company also developed a large architectural component, and by the late 1970s WS Atkins's architecture office numbered more than 150 employees.

WS Atkins himself remained at the head of the firm he had founded until the mid-1980s. By then the company had been riding high on the wave of privatization and outsourcing moves made by the conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher. The company developed a strong network of ties with a number of government agencies that were to enable it to achieve strong growth in the coming years. As the British government began turning over a number of government-run services and sectors to private industry--such as construction and operation of prisons and construction and management of toll roads--WS Atkins received a growing number of contracts.

The company had remained financially solid throughout the recession years of the early 1980s and despite the economic relapse of the construction and other markets at the end of that decade. Part of the company's continuing profitability was due to its strict financial policies, enabling the company to emerge from the most difficult years of the recession with a strong war chest. Another factor helping the company was its decision to restructure in the mid-1980s as William Atkins prepared his own succession. The company, then called the WS Atkins Group, split into two separate entities. WS Atkins Consultants was created to encompass the company's original WS Atkins & Partners and its engineering consultancy work. The second company, Atkins Holdings Limited, contained the rest of the group's operations. At the time of the restructuring, WS Atkins's employees were given a major stake in the company's ownership. William Atkins and family kept a 20 percent share, while another 20 percent was placed in the company's pension fund. The option to buy the remaining 60 percent of shares was transferred to the company's staff.

William Atkins died in 1989 as the company prepared to launch a public offering. That move was put on hold in 1990, however, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait temporarily stranded a number of Atkins employees engaged as road engineers in the Persian Gulf region. As later Chairman Michael Jeffries told the Independent on Sunday: "It was pointless to even consider a floatation when the lives of our employees were at stake." Nonetheless, the company was able to go ahead with its shareholder restructuring, with the company's employees becoming its majority shareholder in 1992.

Engineering a Worldwide Business in the 21st Century

Atkins made a new attempt to go public in 1994; yet this effort too was placed on hold due to weak conditions in the IPO market. Atkins itself remained financially solid, however; by the mid-1990s, the company's treasury had grown to some £85 million, enabling the company not only to compete for consultancy contracts, both in the United Kingdom and increasingly abroad, but also to compete for full-service contracts. Such was the case with the company's investment in the British government's Private Finance Initiative, for which the company secured the contract to build a prison in Wales with partners Securicor and Costain. Another important company project at the time was its participation as architect, engineering consultant, and construction manager for the $700 million, manmade Chicago Beach resort island in Dubai.

Atkins's strong reputation among British government agencies was meanwhile helping it expand its operations throughout a variety of public sector industries as well, including such key government-owned areas as the railway network, the steel industry, the electrical and nuclear power services, as well as the Ministry of Defense and the Property Service Agency.

Michael Jeffries was named CEO in 1995 and took the company public the following year. The largest part of the shares placed on sale came from the Atkins family and from the company pension fund. Yet by the end of the decade Atkins's shareholder base had shifted substantially, with the Atkins family retaining just 7 percent of shares, and the company's employees just over 30 percent. The majority of the company's shares were bought up by institutional shareholders.

Atkins's public status enabled it to go on a strong expansion program in the last years of the century. In 1996, the company picked up its first acquisition, that of Cleveland, England-based quantity surveyors Faithful & Gould. That purchase added F&G's 50 years of construction services experiences, including full-service project support, from initial design to completed facilities management. Atkins continued its expansion, setting up its subsidiary Atmos Ltd in 1996 after winning a contract to partner with the Somerset County Council for Highway Engineering, Transportation and Related Services. Atkins also built up its railroad engineering wing, notably through the acquisition of a number of British Rail assets, including Opal Engineering Ltd. By the end of that year, the company's revenues had risen to £328 million.

By 1998, Atkins's expansion encouraged it to restructure its operations, abandoning its former regional structure for one grouped around three core business areas, Transportation, Property, and Industry. The company's growing activities outside of the United Kingdom were later grouped under a fourth division, International. The company took on a prestigious overseas job with the construction of the Kowloon to Canton railway in Hong Kong. At the same time, the company was shifting from its reliance on government contracts to a stronger proportion of contracts from the private sector.

The company paid £5.1 million for another quantity surveyor, Silk & Frazier, in 1998. The year saw the company move in a new direction when it took over a disused power station located near the Aldershot military compound, and began power generation for the British national power grid. Atkins also announced plans to spend as much as £50 million on new acquisitions. The company's immediate takeover ambitions were thwarted, however, after talks to acquire the Bovis construction unit of Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation fell through at the end of 1998.

The next year proved more successful for Atkins's expanding ambitions. After acquiring Irish engineering consultants McCarthy & Partners, the company added U.K. commercial property specialist consultants Lambert Smith Hampton. The move, at a price of £50 million, gave Atkins a top-five position in the property sector. A month after acquiring Lambert Smith Hampton, the company was back on the buying trail, adding water industry consulting specialist Richard Long Associates. The company posted two smaller deals toward the end of the year, paying £2.3 million for process engineering firm Ventron Technology, and £1.3 million for the quantity surveying company Yeoman & Edwards.

Atkins had by then built up a small presence in the North American market. Faced with the entry of its larger U.S. rivals into the United Kingdom, the company decided to strike back on their home territory. As Jeffries told the Financial Times, "The U.S. is a key part of our strategy. If we do not go to the U.S. and they come over here and take out smaller competitors, we will lose globally." In December 1999, the company announced that it had agreed to pay £32 million to acquire Oklahoma-based The Benham Companies. Founded in 1909 as an engineering consultant, The Benham Companies had developed as a full-service multidisciplinary firm with expertise in some 25 different architectural and engineering sectors. Benham, subsequently renamed Atkins Benham, also provided its new parent with a strong international component, particularly in Mexico and Latin America, and also in Asia.

Atkins took a break from acquisitions in 2000 as it integrated its purchases from the year before. The company was also preparing its--successful--bid to take over facilities management services from Telekom South Africa, in a joint-venture deal worth £1.5 billion over ten years. That deal, Atkins's largest ever, also marked a turning point of sorts for the company, as the proportion of service contracts in the company's overall revenues climbed to 60 percent.

Atkins returned to its expansion through acquisition program in 2001. In June of that year, the company agreed to acquire ScanRail, the transport and engineering consultancy arm of the Danish National Railway system. Renamed Atkins Danmark, the new subsidiary gave Atkins an important position in the Scandinavian and northern European railway market. Soon after, the company's U.K. railway activities received a strong boost when it won two two-year contracts to assess some 38,000 stations, bridges, tunnels, and other components of the Railtrack railroad network. At the same time, Atkins continued to explore expansion into new market areas, such as systems engineering. This component received a boost in August 2001 when the company announced its purchase of systems integration and consulting company Boward Computer Services.

Jeffries stepped up to the position of company chairman in April 2001, replaced by Robin Southwell as CEO. Southwell led the company into a new reorganization at the middle of that year, designed to replace the company's country-focused operations with a more globally operating, entrepreneurial, and market-segment focused business. The restructuring, expected to cost the company some £10 million, was to enable the company to compete more strongly in its increasingly global core segments of rail, road, government services, and industry. Atkins's record at the turn of the new century--in just five years the company had more than doubled its sales--and growing international focus gave it a strong position in its increasingly global market.

Principal Subsidiaries: Atkins Benham Inc. (USA); Atkins China Ltd; Atkins Danmark A/S; Atmos Ltd; Faithful & Gould Ltd.; Lambert Smith Hampton Group Ltd; WS Atkins (Services) Ltd; WS Atkins (UK Holdings) Ltd; WS Atkins Consultants Ltd; WS Atkins Facilities Management Ltd; WS Atkins International Ltd; WS Atkins Investments Ltd; WS Atkins Planning and Management Consultants Ltd; WS Atkins Rail Ltd; WS Atkins & Partners Overseas (Gibraltar); WS Atkins Insurance (Guernsey) Ltd.

Principal Competitors: AMEC Plc; Amey Plc; Babcock International Group Plc; Bovis Lend Lease; CH2M Hill Companies, Ltd.; EMC Engineers, Inc.; Hawtal Whiting Holdings Plc; Henkels & McCoy Inc.; Kvaerner ASA; Oystertec Plc; STS Consultants Ltd; STV Group Inc.; Widney Plc.


Additional Details

Further Reference

"Atkins Set for U.S. Expansion," Financial Times, December 3, 1999.Felsted, Andrea, "Atkins Set for Schools Contract," Financial Times, September 10, 2001.Litterick, David, "Atkins Surges on S. African Deal," Daily Telegraph, August 1, 2000.Osborne, Alistair, "Atkins Poised to Spend Pounds 50m on Acquisitions," Daily Telegraph, June 12, 1998.Phillips, Richard, "The Draughtsman's Contract," Independent on Sunday, June 9, 1996, p. 5.Tyler, Richard, "Railway Deal Keeps Atkins on Fast Track," Birmingham Post, April 7, 2001, p. 17.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: