An unlikely eco-warrior rides out

Atkins CEO Keith Clarke has been called an unlikely eco-warrior

Christopher Burke for The National
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Keith Clarke, the chief executive of the global engineering consultancy WS Atkins, wants to make it clear he doesn't like celebrity industry profiles.

"The cult of the CEO as being all-seeing and dominant, I think, is specious and nonsense, frankly," he says. But he has a cause to promote, so he agrees with some reluctance to be featured here.

Mr Clarke travels the world these days as something of a climate-change evangelist, promoting the message that the construction industry needs to move quickly to dramatically reduce carbon emissions.

He has been called an "unlikely eco-warrior", and is the head of a business better known for designing highways and bridgesrather than pushing environmental policy.

"We're the people who can answer the question that the client needs answering," Mr Clarke says. "If we're not the people helping the client and government in an informed way, who should be?"

The path to a zero-carbon economy for the construction industry is an engineering solution, he believes. Engineering and design firms serve their clients, but they also have a professional responsibility to push the boundaries, to develop approaches that reduce carbon emissions and represent their client's interests, he says emphatically.

"It requires considerable bravery by design teams to explore things they don't understand," Mr Clarke says. "Because otherwise you are just doing a 'try harder', and we're not going to get to an 80 per cent reduction in [carbon dioxide] in the world by trying harder."

Developing a leadership role in reducing carbon emissions simply makes good economic sense, he believes.

"The trick here is to be ahead of the game, and that's how you get to be a winner," he says.

Mr Clarke took over the helm at Atkins, Britain's largest engineering consultancy, in 2003, moving from Skanska, where he was an executive vice president. He was viewed as something of a surprise choice, a relative unknown coming from a company known as a contractor.

But Mr Clarke had trained as an architect and his CV included a lengthy stint at Olympia & York, the original developer of London's Canary Wharf, giving him a background in the client's side of the business.

"Keith has one of the best analytical minds in planning and architecture and is an extremely sharp-minded and likable person," George Iacobescu, the Canary Wharf chief executive, told Building Magazine in 2004.

After taking over at Atkins, Mr Clarke quickly acted to change the culture of the company.

"It was that period where everybody became a global solution provider and I don't think anybody knew what it meant," Mr Clarke says. "We went back to what Atkins started with, which was good engineers doing things for their clients that clients couldn't do."

The company is now all about engineering and environmental design, which represents the roots of the firm, he says.

Under Mr Clarke's leadership, Atkins has moved to diversify its exposure to the UK, including a push into the US last year with the US$280 million (Dh1.02 billion) cash purchase of the construction manager PBSJ Corporation, based in Florida. "We really have moved to a multi-local company rather than a UK company exporting skills," Mr Clarke says.

"Multi-local" means the company is committed to training and maintaining engineers and designers in the region, rather than simply parachuting in for big projects.

"We're less and less reliant on the 'mothership' in the UK, which is just another region," he says.

Under Mr Clarke's direction Atkins has shown an agility in the marketplace, particularly in tough times. That has included quickly cutting back on staff during the global economic crisis, helping manage the company's bottom line during one of the toughest eras in recent memory for the construction industry.

"The company is very proactive in adjusting to the business climate," says John Lawson, an analyst with Investec. "They don't waste time."

During his tenure Atkins has become a major player in the Middle East, working on an array of major projects, including the Bahrain World Trade Center and the Al Sharq office complex in Kuwait. In the UAE its projects include the Burj Al Arab, Dubai Metro and The Address hotel in Dubai.

At the height of the construction boom, the company employed 3,300 people in the region. That has shrunk to 1,700 in the wake of the downturn, but the Middle East remains an integral part of the company's future, Mr Clarke says.

In the next five years he expects the region to grow from 13 per cent of the company's revenue to more than 25 per cent, thanks to large-scale projects such as the new airport in Jeddah and the development of a rail network in the UAE.

Atkins last November reported £70m (Dh420.3m) in revenue in the Middle East for the first half of the current financial year, compared with a full-year total of £136m for the 2009-2010 financial year.

"We're very confident the region is one we will be in for a long time," Mr Clarke says.

But Atkins' Middle East operation has changed since 2008, when the company was 95 per cent focused on new buildings and 70 per cent of its regional business was in Dubai.

Today, the focus is on infrastructure projects and only about 30 per cent of its work involves building - and 70 per cent is outside Dubai.

"We've changed our skill base," Mr Clarke says. "And that's taking a view of where the Gulf is going to go over the next 20 years, which is about a different infrastructure."

The Middle East, along with the UK and China, is leading the way in tackling carbon emissions and climate change, he believes.

He points to Masdar City in Abu Dhabi and the Emirates Green Building Council in Dubai as examples of governments displaying a willingness to tread new ground environmentally.

In the Middle East he sees a fundamental shift taking place.

"The fact that Abu Dhabi and Dubai have clear visions of their next future," Mr Clarke says, "which is about a different type of economy, a low-carbon economy, one that is sustainable, one [that is] not just demand-created real estate, but one that is demand-led with infrastructure to support it.

"It's a massive structural change for the region."

The next challenge in the Middle East is to couple a comprehensive energy policy with a plan for providing water to the region, he believes.

"You cannot deal with energy without dealing with water in the Middle East," he says. "Joining that together with an energy policy which leads you to massive decline in carbon footprint, that's the next step."

Worldwide, he believes the "carbon floor price" recently introduced in the UK is an essential leap forward. The carbon floor price sets a minimum price per tonne for carbon emissions, making it more difficult for polluters to simply buy permits to cover their carbon pollution.

The floor price will force companies to make changes, he believes. But others say it is simply a tax that will damage companies operating in any country using the system.

"You will not have revolution without disruption," Mr Clarke says. "That's the whole point. And the carbon floor as opposed to a simply carbon market price is a fundamental start."

That type of revolutionary talk may send shivers through many engineering and design executives, who avoid saying anything that might upset their clients.

Some of Mr Clarke's competitors scoff at the idea of engineers leading the environmental movement, but he thinks he will have the last laugh.

"I think it would be tremendous if some of our competitors said that," Mr Clarke says, "because I'm going to make more money than them."

As professionals, he says it is incumbent on engineers and designers to engage clients, to demonstrate that the low-carbon approach is best for everyone.

"This is not an easy process. But then you don't get paid to do easy stuff," Mr Clarke says.

That means drawing in the sceptics, who still insist climate change is not a real issue. Decarbonising the industry does not mean stunting economic growth, he insists.

"We are not going to not have economic growth," he says. "We're just going to do it differently."

At heart, Mr Clarke is a pragmatist, and has no time for idealists.

"That was the failure of the environmental movement," he says. "They wanted the solution. It was right, but if it had been workable we wouldn't have climate change issues.

"Being right is not enough."