Head of Oceania plots course for controlled growth amid infrastructure boom

HKA’s rapid growth in Australia and the region has accelerated over the last 18 months, and it’s continuing, even with the brakes on.

Outlining the bright outlook for the consultancy, Partner and Head of Oceania, Alistair Mein, explained HKA’s prudent strategy amid unprecedented opportunities in the local engineering and construction market.

“With the infrastructure boom on the eastern seaboard of Australia, our steady growth has accelerated,” he said. “But as the hottest infrastructure market ever seen in Australia generates lots of opportunities, we have to attract the best talent and make sure it gels together.”

“We could have expanded more rapidly but there are staff shortages in the region. We’ve been careful to attract the right people and build from there.”

The firm’s consultant headcount has increased by more than 25% in the last 12 months alone. “And the calibre of staff we’ve brought into the business is astounding,” he said, citing his impressions from a recent internal training course for 20 of its ‘emerging leadership’.

That underlines the question of “how best to harness this amazing talent and give them the opportunities and pathways to inspiring and fulfilling careers – the way McLachlan Lister did for me,” he said. Alistair spent his first his 10 years in the advisory services team of the firm, which was founded in Sydney in 1999, became part of Hill International in 2010, and is now part of HKA.

Originally a town planner, Alistair’s career swerve was encouraged by rugby teammates working for McLachlan Lister. “Rather than planning or reviewing someone else’s plans, I wanted to be involved in bringing projects to fruition,” he recalled. Alistair made the move in 2005, bringing experience in property development, urban renewal and project management, as well as planning.

HKA’s recruits typically come from engineering, chartered surveying, construction management or legal backgrounds. What attracts, and keeps them? “We’re a progressive organisation that truly values its people. And they’ve been through the most phenomenal 18 months of positive change. Inevitably, change is unsettling. But our staff turnover remains low, especially given the heat in the jobs market.”

Since its demerger from Hill International in May 2017, HKA has undergone significant organisational change along with the growth spurt of what, in many ways, has been like a start-up, said Alistair. “The sheer volume of activity to re-engineer the organisation to where we are now has been tremendous and it’s not over yet.”

The nature of the business is to always want to do things better, identifying problems in organisations, coming up with solutions, and spearheading reform.

“The HKA organisation is doing this on a global scale,” the Head of Oceania explained. A new governance structure is in place with a global board and a Partner heading up each of five continental regions; the other four are Europe, the Americas, Middle East & Asia, and Africa.

“The continent heads are working together, as are business development teams and resources are being shared across the regions. There are no silos. And we’re now starting to see the benefits of this one HKA, globally connected approach.”

The progressive McLachlan Lister legacy of valuing people is also being embedded. “Values and behaviours are just as important as the revenue you generate for the business as a consultant,” said Alistair. These values are now central to a global review of HKA’s reward programme, eschewing the more individualistic and competitive approach with other firms.

“In tandem, we’re developing a vastly improved performance management system. It’s all about focusing attention on our people globally, how they’re performing, what they need to develop, and their career pathways.”

A recent staff engagement survey, mentoring programmes, encouraging staff to move between regions to avail of opportunities, and cultural workshops are other examples of the investment in people.

This is also one of the pillars of the five-year Oceania 2022 strategy finalised in August 2018 – to ‘professionalise’: “It means investing in people and getting the basics right – quality assurance of our services, updating systems, policies and processes,” Alistair explains.

“Our corporate services have had to mature rapidly to support our growth. The Business Services team has worked so hard – from due diligence for the demerger through re-branding and our massive change programme. HR, finance, marketing and all our business support people have made it possible for our consultants to continue delivering at the coal face.” The other pillars of the strategy are to ‘strengthen, diversify and expand’ HKA’s operations. This means continuing to grow in the same controlled way, the Head of Oceania stressed, giving examples:

  • HKA’s long involvement in Sydney Metro has provided the springboard to other megaprojects in New South Wales.
  • “Our expansion from Sydney beyond New South Wales was very calculated.” The Perth office opened in 2010, and Melbourne in 2015, a decade after Brisbane.
  • “We’ve developed our IP significantly and now we’re taking that expertise into new markets, like water and social infrastructure, such as schools and social housing.”
  • As the biggest claims specialist in the oil, gas and mining sectors, HKA pivoted to commercial property and infrastructure as these sectors plateaued.
  • The firm has diversified within sectors; for example, in transport, from rail to roads.
  • The service offering has also expanded. HKA’s quantum and delay experts now work alongside technical engineering specialists – a disputes services triumvirate embraced by the market.
  • Consultants are advising on disputes in New Zealand; other HKA services are well suited to its increasing infrastructure pipeline.
  • Advisory services have also expanded from managing project development and delivery into more commercial advice.

“Our disputes pedigree means that we know all the things that go wrong on projects, so we’re uniquely placed to help our clients improve at the front end. This strategy is broadening the client base and spread of projects, reducing susceptibility to risk from changes in government priorities, and it will sustain growth, the HKA Partner concluded. “The outlook for Oceania is exceptionally bright.”

Alistair Mein Oceania Head of Region

With the infrastructure boom on the eastern seaboard of Australia, our steady growth has accelerated. But as the hottest infrastructure market ever seen in Australia generates lots of opportunities, we have to attract the best talent and make sure it gels together.

Alistair Mein, Partner, Head of Oceania

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