No parts of the world are off-limits when it comes to winning new work internationally, according to a high-level panel of senior government and industry experts speaking at an online roundtable on Friday 27 November 2020.
The latest event in the Infrastructure Intelligence Live autumn series, organised in partnership with communication specialists BECG, heard a knowledgeable line-up of panellists explore the key trends, developments and the prospects for UK firms looking to work overseas.
In the post-Brexit business landscape, it is likely that some firms will need to cast their horizons further afield in the search for work opportunities, and the roundtable found that Peru, Indonesia, Ghana, China, South America, the Far East, Africa, East Asia, Central America, Kenya, Vietnam, Australia and even Russia were just some of the areas that represented both key and emerging markets for the industry to explore.
Tom Cargill, CEO of British Expertise International, set a positive tone by outlining a growing recognition within UK government circles of the importance of helping the industry win more infrastructure contracts in international markets in a post-Brexit world.
“The UK is at a crossroads on trade. We’re developing new relationships and trading opportunities with different parts of the world, and our focus is on driving exports all around the world,” he said. But, recognising the often “chaotic headlines” surrounding Brexit, he added: “Unfortunately our competitors have been more organised in this space for a number of years, with a better track record than us in recent years of supporting their companies internationally,” said Cargill.
Cargill said that a big challenge in 2021 was to get the relationship between government and the industry right but, stressing the importance of effective communications in winning vital local regional and global consensus and support along the way, he quoted Dr Henry Kissinger and said: “No foreign policy - no matter how ingenious – has any chance of success if it is born in the minds of a few and carried in the minds of none.”
Matt Crossman, deputy director of infrastructure at the Department for International Trade, began by using what he said former US president Ronald Reagan had described as the nine most frightening words in the English language - “I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” he said, before outlining that infrastructure is critical for achieving sustainable development goals across the world and, that, in response to Tom Cargill, the government was indeed “here to help.”.
Looking ahead to 2021, he emphasised recovery, resilience and relationships as three key themes vital in the year ahead and beyond. “Recovering from Covid is vital in rebuilding the economy,” said Crossman. “Resilience is key in recovering from the aftershocks from Covid, with an increasing emphasis on making sure infrastructure keeps countries running in the fight against climate change. Relationships are also key - securing international trade relationships. It’s really important that the government does what it does best, but that it also leaves business to do what it does best. We’re here to help, encourage, support and facilitate the industry.
“There’s a continuing emphasis from the Department of Trade – a global emphasis on global infrastructure,” he added. “We won’t get development and achieve net zero goals if we don’t get infrastructure right, so I’m confident the will is there from governments across the globe,” Crossman said.
Bruce Tomlinson, chief executive of HR Wallingford, spun the conversation on its head and said the emphasis should be more about how the industry could help the government form infrastructure policy rather than the other way around. He also highlighted the importance of net zero and the change towards more localised delivery models in procurement.
“There’s a big focus on investment in research and development that will drive innovation and enable the industry to offer new solutions,” said Tomlinson. “Procurement and meeting the challenges of climate change are key trends. In procurement there are more demands to deliver the work locally. Clients want us to be where they or their projects are. And there is a huge need for future infrastructure to help manage the effects of a changing climate,” he said.
Patricia Moore, UK managing director at Turner & Townsend, emphasised that having a clear business strategy with social value at its heart was key to operating successfully across global regions, with a strong focus on management expertise. “The key to growth is building strong global relationships and alliance partnerships, and taking best practice around the world,” she said, highlighting a consistency of approach that has served the company well from its 1950s origins in Darlington right through to working on large-scale projects in Dubai. Looking ahead, Moore highlighted transport, digital infrastructure, renewable energy and retrofitting as major themes for 2021.
Martin Bellamy, managing director of contracting company BAM Nuttall, emphasised that Africa has huge potential for infrastructure development, with solid economic growth, but stressed the need to take a long-term approach. “Choose and focus on your target market and have a local presence.” he said. Describing the region as an “African Powerhouse”, Bellamy said that he had high hopes for the continent, though he had made predictions of the region’s boom in the past. Maybe 2021 would be the year of African infrastructure after all.
Nathan Holloway, managing director for management and surveying at WYG, highlighted the importance of localisation, cultural considerations, and preparing staff effectively when looking to win new work internationally. “If you fail to prepare, then prepare to fail,” he said, as he outlined the "positive prospects for firms working overseas.”
Alex Challoner, managing director of Cavendish Advocacy put 2020 firmly in its place, looked forward to a positive “green revolution” in a post-Bexit 2021 and urged both the government and the industry to quickly build a positive relationship with the incoming US president Joe Biden. “Hosting Cop26 and chairing G7 will give the UK two significant international platforms,” said Challoner. “2021 will give us much more opportunity and the US presidential results will mean much more political certainty around the globe,” he said.
On Brexit, he said: “I’m an optimist, I think we’ll clinch some kind of deal. Maybe not the deal everyone wanted, but one that will form a basis for winning more work internationally with our European partners moving forward. 2021 will clearly be a better year, but not a return to normal. Good corporate citizenship is going to be very important,” he said.
Describing the effects of the US election result on international markets, Challoner said: “I think it could be quite transformative. But the UK embassy in the US has got to change gear very quickly. There are significant opportunities, but the UK has quickly got to get under the skin on what the new US administration is all about. British business needs to hitch their wagons to the Biden administration quite quickly,” Challoner said.
Andy Walker, Infrastructure Intelligence editor, said: “This was another excellent live event with a first-rate panel. It was also great to have representation from government and I’m sure that our audience will have learned much from the insights provided by our speakers and I look forward to hearing more about the brilliant work being done by these world-class firms over the coming year.”
The Department for International Trade website for companies interested in working internationally is www.great.gov.uk.
The final event in our Infrastructure Intelligence Live autumn series takes place on Friday 11 December 2020 at 11am and is entitled, “Looking ahead to 2021 – the prospects for construction and infrastructure”. The webinar will be a look forward to what 2021 has in store for the construction and infrastructure sector as well as a brief look back at 2020 and what has been a truly unprecedented year.
The Infrastructure Intelligence LIVE series of events is organised in association with our strategic partner, BECG.