We want to be the best

As of April 1, Greg Hodkinson will take over the role of Arup’s global chairman (succeeding Philip Dilley, who has stepped down to take on other roles). Francesca Birks spoke with him about his decades of experience with the firm and his plans for its future.


In the 68 years since our founding, Arup has evolved from a small structural engineering firm into a large professional services firm, doing everything from ecology to economics. What’s next?

I think it’s not quite right that we started as a structural engineer. I think we were a civil and structural engineering firm from the beginning, but we didn’t stay civil and structural engineers for long, because there was always another challenge to take on, and another associated professional who got excited to work in that environment. So I think that will continue, and I hope it does.

What I would like us to be is the best consultant in the urban environment. We don’t need to or want to be the biggest at all, actually — but damn it, we want to be the best.

Now, what does that mean? For me, it means a continuation of our multidisciplinary development. I could certainly see us expanding the service that we provide even further into the human and behavioral environments as well as the technical, built environment.

Before Ove started the firm that’s now Arup, he was a design-build contractor, and something tells me that he might have even been tempted back into that world again, if he’d seen what was happening 70 years later. But who knows?

You’ve chosen to live in many of the different regions where Arup operates over the years. Is there an Arup office that you would model all others on?

I’ve had the benefit of actually working in four of our five current regions. I would have liked to have been based also in East Asia; although I’ve done project work there, I’ve never lived there.

I’ve seen many great Arup offices that have a good energy, that have a humane feel to them. You come into the office and you can see that it’s a community of professional people working together and not like a white-collar sweatshop. We want to be the opposite of that.

I’ve seen great Arup offices that have six people and great Arup offices that have 60 people and great Arup offices that have 600 people. I do, however, think the real level of excitement tends to come with the bigger offices, because there you have a diversity of people, you have a diversity of skills, experience. And those things come together, sometimes in a planned way, sometimes serendipitously, and wonderful things happen.

We don’t need to or want to be the biggest at all, actually — but damn it, we want to be the best

What the magic number is, I don’t know. I don’t want to say.

You’re not feeling like you need to impose a certain model or a certain size on all Arup offices?

I wouldn’t like to impose, no. Encourage us towards larger, more diverse offices, yes.

I’ve got no interest in closing offices because they’re not big. That’s not what it’s about. This is about encouraging us to work strategically, with metropolitan, multidisciplinary, diverse, larger offices which can really throw out some wonderful things.

Richard Smyth and Greg Hodkinson at the 2005 groundbreaking for the jetBlue Airways terminal at New York’s JFK International Airport

Not to say that great things haven’t been invented in small places; of course they have. I’m old enough to have read Small is Beautiful when it was first published, and I get that.

When I joined Arup, I joined a Sydney office that was 60 people, and I thought it was enormous. And looking back, of course, that’s a very small office, in the scheme of things. Wonderful things were happening there then, but I happen to think that the larger, multidisciplinary, more diverse offices are the most exciting.

How did your experience as chairman of the Americas region contribute to your outlook on the role of the Arup group chairman?

First of all, I think that it’s important that the Arup group board and its chair have a good appreciation of the differences around the world, the way that our firm operates in the different environments that it’s in. So being in the Americas for 23 years helped me develop that understanding of America.

There are some other particular things about working in the States — skill sets or points of view. That American can-do thing is something that I carry with me. “Of course there are complications, but come on, let’s get over them” — that kind of mindset. Whether that’s something that I had from the beginning I don’t know, but it certainly developed in the Americas.

Greg Hodkinson at the Arup Annual Meeting

Going back to the issue of size: we’re not as large as, let’s say, an AECOM. A few months ago I went to a Harvard Graduate School of Design seminar on entrepreneurship in design, and Phil Bernstein from Autodesk was talking about how in the future there may only be extremely large, multidisciplinary firms that are 40,000 and up or small, niche, very localized firms: like, “we do brownstones in Brooklyn.” The middle would probably disappear.

Do you accept that? Do you believe we have to grow as large as AECOM, or do you feel like there’s a place for midsize firms?

Look, there are only three reasons to grow. One is to be big enough to take on the projects you want to take on, to be able to do them well, and have capacity to take on others. That’s one.

Number two is you also need to be of a size where you’re known well enough in the marketplace. You’ve got to be of a size where you’re doing prominent-enough projects in the places where you want to practice so that clients know you.

The third reason is to provide career paths and opportunities for all of our colleagues. If you’re not growing, you can’t keep taking on the bright young people and giving them opportunities to thrive, because they’ll look above them and they’ll see plenty of people blocking their route. On the other hand, if you’re growing, there are more and more pathways for people to take.

We’ve traditionally thrived, and I hope that we continue to do so, on taking on good people and supporting them to do their own thing

We’ve traditionally thrived, and I hope that we continue to do so, on taking on good people and supporting them to do their own thing. And so long as they think as we do, and so long as they subscribe to our values, which include the quality of work and the humane values and the behavioral ones — and, by the way, delivering reasonable prosperity to all the staff members — then why wouldn’t we continue that? That’s a very healthy thing.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never liked working in a place where people tell me what to do all the time. I want to do my own thing.

Definitely. And I think that it’s right that you bring up humane values. I’ve been hearing that in the air recently, how workplaces have to transition from being in the age of industry to the age of the knowledge worker, which means being collaborative, relationship-driven, enabling, and supportive. What does humane mean to you, and what does prosperity mean for you?

Humane for me means treating each other in the way that we’d like to be treated ourselves.

We’re professional people. We go to college and we develop professional skills, we practice our profession, and we want to be free to do that. But we also want to be free to collaborate with our fellow professionals. We need to work together in teams. In fact, we want to work together in teams, to realise the kinds of challenges and projects that we take on. But we want to do that in teams that are happy to work together, not teams that are driven from above.

Humane also means looking out for our colleagues, treating them as friends, supporting those who might need a bit of support — particularly younger colleagues who we can help develop professionally, from time to time.

Hodkinson and collaborators in Nigeria discussing a WaterAid project in 2007

It doesn’t mean that we’re running a charity. We’re a professional business, and one of our values, which is just as important as the others, is reasonable prosperity. We’re practicing our profession, we’re getting paid to do that. We like to share the profit of our work — and in fact, I’d like there to be more profit, so that we could share it all. Actually, it’s within our grasp to double and even triple the amount of profit that we’re sharing, and that will be to the benefit of all of our colleagues. That would be amazing, wouldn’t it?

Reasonable prosperity for me would be, I guess, first of all, reasonable in the sense that it’s shared equitably among us. That doesn’t mean to say that the directors take the same profit share as the year-one graduates; that isn’t the way that it works. But equally, we don’t take 100 times what the graduates do. We’re not like some of the bigger firms who’ve got a small number of senior shareholders who might be getting paid very, very highly, and a whole lot of people who are getting paid modestly. You can have the comfort that the big bosses, quote unquote, are not running off with the profit. Our income profile is relatively flat, and I think that’s very important.

I think that also means, if you want to get rich, Arup is not a place for you to stay. And I think that’s fine too. I think we should have reasonable prosperity. We should be well paid in relation to other professional people working in other firms. And, in fact, because we do the best work, we should be able to make among the best profits, and share those among us. That’s the plan for me.

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