The global transformation of Beca

Beca Group CEO Greg Lowe.
Beca Group CEO Greg Lowe.

What does an international engineering and consultancy business look like? 

Between its Auckland and Jakarta offices, the giant Beca Group is in the throes of designing 33 individual towers in the Indonesian capital.

To give you some sense of the scale, that amounts to one-and-a-half times the total commercial floorspace in Auckland city. 

It’s a long way from Beca’s humble beginnings 95 years ago, when returned serviceman Arthur Gray purchased a small engineering practice.

Since then the Auckland-headquartered company has created a reputation as a leader in its field - 'reliable' and 'trustworthy' are the epithets that crop up most often. 

During the global recession Beca never broke stride, helped by having an unusually wide-ranging suite of services - it runs the gamut from project management to planning, design, and even software development, with a total global staff of close to 3000. 

With its centennial year in sight, Beca is upping the ante, with a radical restructure aimed at becoming a truly global enterprise, rather than another Kiwi company reaching out to the world. 

And there is a difference between those two things, says Beca Group CEO Greg Lowe.

“Our journey over the last 95 years has been a strong New Zealand business that invested internationally, and over time bought up those investments, so that we have a number of subsidiary companies offshore, with the business arranged into three primary regions - New Zealand, Australia and Asia. Over the last few years the interactivity between the regions has increased. This restructure is the next step in that journey for us, taking steps to make the business more seamless internally.”

In terms of company structure, that means integrating various trading companies to clarify leadership at regional level.

New executive roles have been added to the global team, charged with building a 'whole market' approach to sniffing out opportunities in Beca’s three key regions in areas such as infrastructure, industry and defence. 

“They’re able to then coordinate with regional teams on how to best allocate resources to pursue projects, set up and deliver projects,” says Lowe.

“We’ve also introduced a new global structure on how we deliver, so that we do things consistently. And that is really important. We have a strong business in New Zealand with very deep and longterm client relationships. Our clients are used to us delivering in a consistent way in New Zealand, but if we ask that same question about our offices in Shanghai or Myanmar, do we do things at Beca the same everywhere? No, we don’t.”

New Zealand managing director Don Lyon says the creation of a much more integrated business is also about making the most of Beca’s stocks of expertise. 

He gives the example of between 30 and 40 Sydney-based staff working on Christchurch rebuild projects.

Meanwhile, Kiwi staff are heavily involved in the Changi Terminal 4 airport project in Singapore, while a specialist Singaporean micro-tunnelling group has skills potentially applicable to the New Zealand business. 

“By behaving seamlessly, we can really bring the expertise to where it is needed,” says Lyon. “As we go more global … it is very easy to have much greater collaboration happening on a day-to-day basis.”

The result is that Beca can now get into activities of  greater scale. Says Lowe: “In the next five years our focus will be around getting gains in the Asia Pacific region. I think it’s important that New Zealand and Australia see themselves as a participating part of Asia, and get greater engagement. We see expansion opportunities in China, Myanmar and Indonesia, but also in Southeast Asia, Malaysia and Vietnam.”

Wendy Lai, a consulting partner at Deloitte, believes the changes at Beca could deliver.

But she adds that the newly-defined Beca corporate parent needs to resist any temptation to start “calling the shots” locally.

“That’s especially true for the Asian market. As one of my US partners used to say, 'once you’ve been to one country in Asia, you’ve been to one country in Asia'. No country is the same.”

Lai stresses the significance of Beca’s ownership structure in that regard, with more than a third of employees being shareholders in the company.

“Beca is effectively giving its local employees ownership rights to better fine tune the business to meet local client needs. If that local signal can be amplified above the corporate noise, Beca could be very successful.”

Lowe says the company is keen for more of its people to have skin in the game. “The evidence we have is that employee-owned businesses perform more strongly.”  

So what advice does the CEO have for other Kiwi firms looking to go global? Lowe’s answer suggests he is well aware of the potential pitfalls Lai mentions.

“You have to recognise that every market is different. It is an important lesson we learned in Australia, where the recipe for success is different between states and different again from New Zealand. Build strong leaders, people who live in those markets and understand them. ” 

Finally, he adds, it’s about sticking to the vision. “It’s one of our core values - tenacity.”