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Interview: Stronger together

While Aecom’s buyout of URS may have created one of the UK’s largest geotechnical consultancies, recently appointed head of ground engineering Stephen Beales still has strong ambitions to grow the business

There is great potential for growth in the geotechnical market at the moment, according to recently appointed Aecom head of ground engineering for UK and Ireland Stephen Beales. “The opportunities in the UK and Irish market are huge with HS2, Crossrail 2 and the nuclear programme on the horizon,” he explains.

Stephen Beales  1

Stephen Beales was appointed head of ground engineering for UK and Ireland at Aecom in January

Beales took on his current role at the start of this year after the retirement of John Holden who oversaw the formation of Aecom as it stands today following URS’ acquisition of Scott Wilson in 2010 and Aecom’s buyout of URS in 2014. The combined businesses have already created one of the UK’s largest geotechnical consultancies but Beales’ remit is for a big drive on growth and says he has ambitious plans.

Beales describes the main focus of his role as identifying and leading on geotechnics, building capability and profile and controlling quality and efficiency, as well as winning work. He says that Aecom wants to be seen as the number one across the Europe, Middle East, Africa and Indian (EMEAI) market and the UK has a key role to play in that ambition.

“I believe we are already the number one in the UK and we are the largest business within the EMEAI group,” he says. “I have colleagues in similar roles to mine across the group and we will work together to drive growth.”

Although Beales clearly knows what Aecom plans to target and where, he would not be drawn on to put exact figures against specific sectors or timescales and simply described the plans as “ambitious”.

Beales believes that now Aecom is on the verge of completing the process of integrating URS into its business, it is well-placed to benefit from the major infrastructure investment planned for the UK.

“We have a wealth of experience from Crossrail – I believe our combined businesses had more Crossrail contracts than any other UK consultant – and we are also working on the Hinkley C enabling works,” he says. “This puts Aecom in a good position to win further work.

”The challenge in responding to this demand will always be the skills shortage”

“The challenge in responding to this demand will always be the skills shortage but I am confident that Aecom can respond to this as we have the potential to reach to a wider knowledge pool and transfer staff from other locations.”

Beales says that Aecom has 175 geotechnical staff in the UK and there are a total of 1,500 internationally. Nonetheless, Beales says that one of the challenges of his role is managing his UK team who are spread across 17 cities and he is trying to spend time travelling to each office to build up connections within the team.

Beales is supported by a management team formed from operations director Peter Boyd and business development director Patrick Cox with divisional managers responsible for Scotland, Ireland, northern and southern England.

Company man

Beales is well-placed to understand the history of the business that forms Aecom today as his own career has grown alongside the business of first Scott Wilson, then URS and now Aecom. He joined Scott Wilson as a graduate engineer based in Telford in 1989 after completing a civil engineering degree at Hatfield and an MSc in geotechnics at Surrey University.

“As a child I was always interested in problem solving and geology”

Beales, who describes himself as a Lego and Meccano child, says that he stumbled into geotechnics. “As a child I was always interested in problem solving and geology,” he says. “I always used to fill my parent’s car with rocks.”

This passion led him to want to study engineering and civils interested him due to the scale and impact it has on people’s lives.

His career with Scott Wilson started with ground remediation and infrastructure work before getting involved in major DBFO schemes in the UK and Ireland. In 2002, he helped to establish Scott Wilson’s Birmingham office before starting to manage a number of the company’s geotechnical offices.

In 2009, Beales started to work on Crossrail and he says that he is still involved in the project today. He describes the work as having had a major impact on his career and a great job. During the peak of his Crossrail tasks, Beales also worked on the Stockholm Bypass which was mostly built in hard rock giving him a very different experience to his role on Crossrail.

New challenge

Beales says that he was excited to take on his new role when Holden stepped down at the start of 2016.

The biggest project that Aecom is currently working on is the enabling for Hinkley C where the company is acting as the designer for the joint venture of Bam and Kier.

“We are expecting the work to ramp up in September,” says Beales. “It is geotechnically challenging as it involves creating 30m deep excavations with vertical walls that are effectively temporary works but will need to remain standing for 10 years.

“We are undertaking some sophisticated 3D modelling for the work to look at the impact of the big loads that are being placed by crane bases on the weak jointed rock geology at the site.”

While Beales’ new role may mean more management work for him, it is clear that he still has a passion for the geotechnical engineering and will be a hands-on manager of the upcoming mega projects that he is targeting rather than just a people manager.

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