“We need to be loud and proud about the difference we make as an industry”

“We are a people business and our only asset is our people, so we need to look after them,” says new Arcadis CEO, Alan Brookes.

In May this year, Arcadis appointed a new CEO, with Alan Brookes taking over from Peter Oosterveer. Infrastructure Global’s Andy Walker spoke with Brookes about his thoughts on taking over at the helm of the global design, engineering and management consulting company.

There are some people who when you first speak to them you instinctively know you’re going to like. Plain speaking, straightforward, modest and honest, Alan Brookes, who has taken over as CEO at Arcadis, is one such person. He now leads one of the leading global design, engineering and management consultancy firms in the construction and infrastructure sector, operating in excess of 350 offices across 70 countries. So, how does it feel to be its new CEO?

“Of course, I’m honoured and privileged to be the new CEO. Peter Oosterveer has left big shoes to fill but I’m excited, a little daunted to be honest, but the timing is good as we approach the launch of our new three-year strategy at the end of the year, so I can lead on that,” he says. As the son of a painter and decorator and a pupil at a Chester high school and sixth form in the north of England, Brookes probably never expected to be leading a global business but here he is and he’s keen to embrace the task ahead.

“The new three-year strategy and my arrival will be evolution not revolution. Our current strategy talks about sustainability and digitalisation and I think those two areas are key for the future and will go faster, both from the demands on companies around ESG reporting but also the digital changes that are also likely to move faster in the next five years. Also, people and skills are going to be important going forward too,” Brookes says.

Arcadis has always been synonymous with being a ‘people company’ that pays attention to its staff and involves them in the business. I ask Brookes how important this is to him and what benefits he sees from such an approach? “We are a people business and our only asset is our people, so we need to look after them,” he tells me. “We have always wanted to create a diverse, inclusive organisation with a great sense of belonging and our passion is to improve quality of life and that really resonates with people in the work that we do. Our people want that diverse way of thinking and also to give something back and I think that comes from our Dutch heritage – collaboration and consensus and a people-first approach,” he says.

Sustainability is who we are and we talk about it constantly

As well as its people-first approach, sustainability has always been a cornerstone of Arcadis and it’s front and centre in the company’s mission and values. Brookes is passionate about the issue and in promoting the company’s commitments in this area. “This is who we are and we are talking about it constantly. Our clients know that we understand sustainability, which is great for our credentials,” he says.

Brookes also believes that the whole industry has to do its bit and show commitment to preserving the world for future generations. “I think that we should be loud and proud as an industry about our commitment to net zero, about the work that we do and about making the choices that give back and put back and restore and reduce carbon. We need to be really loud about it. It may have consequences, but we have to do it,” he says. “Our younger staff want us to be even bolder in this area. There is also lots of opportunity for the industry around this agenda if we embrace it properly and make a difference,” says Brookes.

Like all businesses operating in the construction and infrastructure sector, Arcadis is working in an ever-changing world, so how has it managed to weather the challenges of recent years and also the ongoing challenges of economic and political uncertainty?

“Times have certainly changed, with new considerations for companies to consider and we are having to do that constantly,” Brookes says. “It’s not just running the business and making a profit, CEOs now have to grapple with a range of issues including ESG, sustainability, the post-pandemic landscape, AI, hybrid working and more. All you can do these days is listen to your clients and what they want and just be as agile as you can. No one could have predicted what happened during the pandemic but the best advice is to keep talking to people, especially your people and also take advice. We won’t get everything right, but it won’t be through a lack of consultation or listening to people. Remaining agile and flexible is crucial,” he says.

I ask Brookes about what kind of leader he is and how he will approach his new role as CEO of such a large and diverse global organisation. What will be his approach?

“I want to remain a people-first, open and approachable leader,” he tells me. “People can talk to me. I really do feel privileged. From my north of England background, if you like, I never thought that I would be leading a global business, so I want to be open and approachable to everybody. I’d like to make a difference as a business and take a lead on that, especially around sustainability,” says Brookes.

A determination to make a difference

You certainly don’t doubt his sincerity on this or his determination to make a difference. “I’d also like to do more for our own people around underrepresented groups. I’d like to link to communities where perhaps people can’t afford to go to university, but can we offer them jobs? Can we get a broader base coming through that better represents society. So that whole people agenda for me, as well as sustainability, is probably who I am and what I stand for and being loud about it,” Brookes says.

It’s clear that he will apply that passionate approach to the key tasks in his in-tray as Arcadis’s new CEO. I ask him about his immediate priorities on taking over as CEO and also about some of his longer-term aims. “We have made two major acquisitions in 2022 – IBI Group and DPS Group -, so we need to land those successfully in the business. We are lucky in that we globalised the business about 18 months ago into our three global business units and so we have used the same team to look at our recent acquisitions and align them in the same way with our global business and we need to finish that work this year. These acquisitions will take us into new and important markets, like EV battery production and life sciences, which means new opportunities,” Brookes explains.

“The other priority will be around getting our new three-year strategy finalised and then honing all that together with what we are doing on sustainability, digital, people, clients and where this will take us into the future. And making sure that we remain agile to deal with change,” he says.

And what does Brookes see as the key issues facing the engineering, construction and infrastructure sector, currently and in the future? “Standardisation and automation are going to be key. We will see even more digitalisation in the way we operate, whether that’s engineering design, AI and the impact on architectural design and the computerisation of cost management,” he says.

“Also, looking at how we combine our people’s deep asset knowledge and the excellent way they work with technology and tools to really give better answers to our clients is going to be important. Software developments also offer us the ability to give clients more insight through the use of data analytics and these are all big areas for us,” says Brookes.

A people-focused approach

Typically, Brookes sees the changes and challenges Arcadis and the industry faces as opportunities to develop people, their skills and ultimately their careers. “For our people we have to have that honest, continuous learning mindset, because as new areas come in like digital we are going to invest in a skills-powered organisation and that means we will be looking at what skills we need in the future and how we develop our people skills. This is also beneficial to our people, because by embracing that sort of technology they can see how they can manage their own careers better and what learning and development they will need and that will be a big step forward both for them, our business and indeed the industry,” Brookes says.

Brookes also expects to see more industry consolidation driven by changing client needs. “We are a very fragmented industry. We see some big players now in the world and perhaps as we see more standardised ways of working, with clients looking for more advice on carbon, net zero and managing their assets, we are seeing more clients coming to us for advice on how to run their assets more efficiently and not just build them, but also operate them. So, we will see a broadening and deepening in what the industry has to offer,” he says.

“The whole carbon and biodiversity agenda is altering some of the fundamentals of where we build, how we build and how we operate and as we see more developments like timber high-rise developments our industry is going to have to adapt to that. We can’t just sit on our hands and wait for things to happen – I really don’t think the industry is going to remain the same or work the same in the future,” Brookes says.

Brookes also expects social and political concerns to continue moving up the agenda and affecting the industry and the arena in which it operates. “We are going to see these fundamental shifts because ESG is rising in importance. With more and more people concerned about environmental issues, the rise of popular opinion will hit our industry as much as anything else. We can’t just sit here and say we will carry on building with carbon-emitting concrete and carry on doing what we have always done because popular opinion will turn against us if we don’t adapt. That’s why I’m keen we build on our strong sustainability credentials and really double down on digital to help us,” says Brookes.

“So, we have computerisation, ESG concerns and don’t forget human rights, because we are going to be pushed more and more into giving consideration to not just how we operate as a business, but also to where we are getting our support from and who are we working with. Are those businesses doing the right thing and are our clients? In the past we have always operated in splendid isolation, but it’s not going to happen in the future,” Brookes warns.

Importance of having a global voice

Finally, I ask Brookes about his and his company’s involvement in FIDIC’s Global Leadership Forum. Arcadis is playing a key role within it and Brookes sits on its advisory board. So, how important does he think global bodies like FIDIC are in representing the industry? “Bodies like FIDIC are really important because you need forums to discuss the important issues of the day, so anything from the geopolitical situation, to economic prospects and also those other issues we are all focused on like sustainability, carbon, the climate and human rights,” he says.

“If you can talk together and make decisions together you become a bigger voice that can be heard by the politicians, other leaders and clients, but also you can also start to help one another and act together because there is some benefit in having a consistency of our approach. So, having forums like FIDIC to discuss the issues, come together, make decisions and have a bigger voice is hugely important to the industry,” Brookes says.

I came away from our discussion with the feeling that Arcadis is in safe and capable hands for the future, but also something more than that. And that was that the construction and infrastructure industry and the people who work in it are fortunate to have good people like Alan Brookes in leading roles who really care about those people – and the industry – and are determined that it will make a positive difference now and in the future.