WS Atkins Plc

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WS Atkins Plc

Woodcote Grove
Ashley Road
Epsom, Surrey KT18 5BW
United Kingdom
Telephone: (+44) 1372-726-140
Fax: (+44) 1372-740-055
Web site:

Public Company
1938 as WS Atkins & Partners
Employees: 12,800
Sales: £674 million ($954.6 million) (2000)
Stock Exchanges: London
Ticker Symbol: ATK
NAIC: 541330 Engineering Services

WS Atkins Plc is one of the worlds leading suppliers of consultancy and related support services with an emphasis on the engineering and other technology-related sectors. The companys 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 companys revenues, nearly 80 percent of the companys £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 companys American presence; and, in 2001, the Danish National Railway Agencys 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 regions 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 Atkinss 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 industrysuch as construction and operation of prisons and construction and management of toll roadsWS 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 companys 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 companys original WS Atkins & Partners and its engineering consultancy work. The second company, Atkins Holdings Limited, contained the rest of the groups operations. At the time of the restructuring, WS Atkinss employees were given a major stake in the companys ownership. William Atkins and family kept a 20 percent share, while another 20 percent was placed in the companys pension fund. The option to buy the remaining 60 percent of shares was transferred to the companys 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 companys 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 companys 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 companys investment in the British governments 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.

Atkinss 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 Atkinss shareholder base had shifted substantially, with the Atkins family retaining just 7 percent of shares, and the companys employees just over 30 percent. The majority of the companys shares were bought up by institutional shareholders.

Atkinss 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&Gs 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 companys revenues had risen to £328 million.

By 1998, Atkinss 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 companys 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 companys 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 Atkinss 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.

Company Perspectives:

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

Atkins took a break from acquisitions in 2000 as it integrated its purchases from the year before. The company was also preparing itssuccessfulbid to take over facilities management services from Telekom South Africa, in a joint-venture deal worth £1.5 billion over ten years. That deal, Atkinss largest ever, also marked a turning point of sorts for the company, as the proportion of service contracts in the companys 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 companys 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 companys 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. Atkinss record at the turn of the new centuryin just five years the company had more than doubled its salesand 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 Pic; 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.

Key Dates:

William Atkins founds engineering consultancy WS Atkins & Partners.
WS Atkins Group decides to spin off consulting operations, including WS Atkins & Partners as WS Atkins Consultants; the companys remaining assets are regrouped under a separate company, Atkins Holdings Ltd.; employees are given option to buy as much as 60 percent of the companys shares.
WS Atkins calls off first public offering after the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War strands a number of its employees in Kuwait.
WS Atkins Plc goes public on the London Stock Exchange; company acquires quantity surveyor Faithful & Gould and establishes Atmos Ltd. railroad subsidiary.
Company acquires Opal Engineering from British Rail.
Company acquires Silk & Frazier but fails attempted acquisition of Bovis Construction.
WS Atkins acquires McCarthys Consulting Engineers, Lambert Smith Hampton, and The Benham Companies.
Company secures £1 billion, ten-year facilities management contract with Telekom South Africa, the companys largest ever contract.
WS Atkins acquires ScanRail from Danish National Railway and Boward Computer Services.

Further Reading

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 Draughtsmans 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.

M.L. Cohen