Alex Gilbert on the secret to success – first understand the problem

Alex Gilbert, Managing Director
11 June 2021
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Amey Consulting Managing Director, Alex Gilbert, has shared how the business secured £170m worth of new work in 2020 despite Covid-19 challenges, what he wants the business to achieve and how he is attracting the talent to do so.

Despite the challenges of the global pandemic over the last 12 months, Amey Consulting managing director Alex Gilbert retains his trademark positivity: “Business wise, 2020 was a good year,” he says. It’s not a phrase you hear too often right now.

Yet having capped a fifth year of continuous growth by securing £170M worth of new work in 2020 and having refreshed the business with a new leadership team and strong vision for 2021 and beyond, Gilbert is right to be upbeat.

“Our teams have remained rooted in practicality, working with operational colleagues to understand how designs are responding, and with live feedback from the network, help clients to know what works and what doesn't,” says Gilbert. “We continue to make interventions that help operational designs become more effective and more efficient.” As a result of this success, he says, the Consulting business is now at the heart of Amey’s future, a key component of the wider business, both leading opportunities with other businesses units and acting in a supporting role.

Secret to success – first understand the problem

The winning ways are continuing in 2021 for Gilbert’s team. Consulting has already secured two frameworks in Wales, the three-year Transport for Greater Manchester framework and the four-year Civil Engineering Professional Services Framework for Translink in Northern Ireland.

Gilbert puts much of this success down to developing a business culture with the confidence to challenge existing thinking. “You have got to dig in and understand the real problem that you are trying to solve. ‘Why’ is the most important word. “Understanding ‘why’ leads to finding real, practical solutions - not cookie cutter solutions”

Traditional expertise meets digital thinking

Success in 2020 was split across three key three areas: the advisory business putting data at the heart of infrastructure management; the professional design services business bringing technical expertise to the heart of practical solutions; and integration with the wider Amey business to support and enhance asset maintenance contracts.

The newly won 15-year Avonmouth and Severn Bridges contract for Highways England underlines the way that Gilbert has redefined the business to focus on identifying and solving problems. Bringing together Consulting’s advisory and analytics skills with Amey’s Transport Infrastructure business, this contract is its first big multi-bridge maintenance contract in England and builds on Amey’s management of the Forth Bridges for Transport Scotland.

The contract will see Amey manage the two Severn Bridges – the original now carrying the M48 and the Second Severn bridge carrying the M4 - plus the Avonmouth Bridge just downstream carrying the M5 over the River Avon.

At the heart of the contract will be Amey Consulting’s Pearl and Mercury cloud-based asset management software tools. Pearl was developed on the Forth Road Bridge and Queensferry Crossing project to help support inspection and maintenance of civil structures by bringing together live inspection data to enable engineering teams to make better asset management decisions. Mercury sits alongside, gathering and analysing data to enable predictive analytics which further improve the asset performance.

“It’s about blending the old with the new - steel and concrete plus data,” explains Gilbert highlighting the key partnership required between the asset inspectors, data analysts, designers and site teams.

“Our clients really want us to manage assets in a different way, putting data together with engineering,” he says. “By using data to understand more about the structures, we can help the maintenance teams to better understand what they need to do to keep the asset in service much longer.”

The win builds upon Amey Consulting’s work as Highways England’s data science partner. “For the Advisory and Analytics business, the Highways England data science contract was a huge win for us and has put us at the centre of delivery of their Information Vision & Strategy,” says Gilbert, However, he is quick to emphasise that not all of Amey Consulting’s success is about leveraging data.

“Our traditional design services business has had a number of tremendous wins, such as the A66 design partner contract where we are working with Arup to transform the Northern Trans-Pennine route, the Swindon Borough Council Highways and Professional Services contract, the Highways England collaborative delivery framework on the M27 and the Specialist Professional & Technical Services 2 (SPaTS2) framework with Capita,” he points out.

End-to-end solutions with day-to-day impacts

Being able to draw on the capabilities of internal partners such as the Transport Infrastructure business, delivering on-site maintenance and renewal across highways and rail, or the Secure Infrastructure business, providing critical facilities services for the Public Sector, has widened Consulting’s ability to serve clients.

“It's about creating end-to-end solutions with day-to-day impacts,” says Gilbert.

His team of designers, asset managers and data scientists provide a practical, integrated solution, in collaboration with Amey’s operational business, for several major local authority clients.

Amey has been working in partnership with Staffordshire County Council as their Infrastructure+ partner since 1998.

Staffordshire to support inward investment, providing developers an efficient end-to-end solution for their infrastructure needs: planning, design and construction.

“The question then is what else can we do to help – and Staffordshire is very open to ideas because they see the benefits and this is where our Live Labs is having some real traction” he adds.

Working together with Amey’s Transport Infrastructure business, Amey Consulting is rolling out a series of innovative solutions in air quality and intelligent mobility as part of the ADEPT SMART Places Live Labs programme. We’re always asking, “what else can we do to help”.

Amey Consulting is working in collaboration with Staffordshire County Council and Amey’s Transport Infrastructure business, to successfully roll out a series of innovative solutions in air quality and intelligent mobility as part of the ADEPT SMART Places Live Labs programme.

“From living walls and air quality sensors, to the introduction of e-scooters and fibre sensor technology. It’s about working in partnership with SME’s to solve real world challenges faced by Staffordshire County Council” says Gilbert.

Virtual analysis leading to real savings

The use of Consulting’s data analysis & data science skills has also led to a change in client thinking. Gilbert highlights a recent example as Highways England’s Data Science Partner, where the team developed and delivered their “optimised working windows” solution to optimise road closures.

“The use of data science & analytics can identify better working windows for road space booking for contractors, so they can be more efficient in the way they work,” explains Gilbert pointing out that having access to one longer working window allows you to do much more than you could in multiple shorter windows.

“As a result, Highways England should see savings via more efficient maintenance of £20m, potentially rising upwards of £60m from this programme across RIS2 and shows where we can start making a difference by linking data with the operational performance,” he says, “We are providing the client with genuine opportunity for savings.”

Similar techniques are being used to help Network Rail on its Intelligent Infrastructure programme to use data to help move away from time-based, fix on fail maintenance strategy towards a more automated predict and prevent strategy.

Amey Consulting is working on the programme in partnership with technology business Cognizant and consultant Arup, to deliver major operational efficiencies across signalling, drainage, track and operational property until the end of CP6 in 2024.

“The key is to really understand those asset groups and look at what is really the best maintenance solution,” says Gilbert. “Working with Cognizant and Arup we will really start to see the benefits of sharing and collaborating on those contracts”

Setting the vision; making it happen

The journey of Amey Consulting’s success started when Amey bought the historic civil engineering consultancy Owen Williams in 2006. At that stage the business was focused on simply providing engineering support to the other operational delivery businesses within Amey.

Gilbert worked for Owen Williams briefly from 2000 to 2002. He returned to the business in 2007 where he led the complex and award-winning Phase 1 strengthening contract for Hammersmith Flyover on the A4 in west London.

Over the last 15 years, he has helped the Consulting business evolve from a support business for the wider group to develop its own corporate identity and service offer to compete effectively against its own competitors. Now, as managing director, Gilbert retains his focus on supporting the wider Amey Group but points out that the business is just as likely to take the lead on contracts and look to the Group for support.

“I want Amey Consulting to be a place where people feel valued and alive,” he says. “It’s the difference that we make day to day that makes me feel alive - providing real solutions that help people and society - bringing change to communities and giving opportunities to people.”

Partnerships for success

Working with internal teams to bring about this change has always been the norm for the Consulting business. But over the last few years partnerships and collaboration has extended outside the business to include businesses that could also be considered as competitors.

“It's something we're doing by choice,” Gilbert explains. “We are looking at the problems that currently need to be solved for our clients and asking how can we give the best solution? If that means working in partnership to deliver the best solution, then we have to be mature about it and realise that by putting organisations together we can offer a much better breadth of skills and capability.”

A long-term relationship with Arup, for example, started on the Highways England Smart Motorways programme, continued in Scotland on the Forth Bridges before heading into Australia and most recently on the A66 Trans-Pennine contract. This relationship has also extended into the rail sector with both forms supporting IT consulting business Cognizant on the Network Rail Intelligent Infrastructure framework.

Similarly, explains Gilbert, past experience working with Capita meant it was a very obvious choice to form a partnership when it came to bidding for the Highways England Specialist Professional & Technical Services 2 (SPaTS2) framework.

“We will continue to look for the right partners to take opportunities forward in future,” adds Gilbert. “We also have a number of joint ventures such as Amey VTOL, which recently trialled the UK first ‘beyond visual line of sight’ drone inspection”.

Recruiting for long term success

People are, of course, at the heart of the Consulting business and Gilbert understands that a lack of the right skills is one certain way to put the brakes on business growth. Alongside the need to properly manage existing teams is the critical need to build a talent pool to meet the demands growth aspirations.

“You can't live project by project. The future is about building a sustainable business to grow and continue to be agile to meet clients’ changing needs,” he explains. He highlights the importance of Amey Consulting’s degree apprenticeship programmes, which train talent straight from college, as key to sourcing the 400 plus new employees needed to fuel growth.

“It has always been an aspiration of mine to grow our own talent and I see these degree apprentice programmes as being our way to pick people up early in their career, train them and to give them benefits of work experience right from the start,” he adds.

This programme started last year with the award-winning rail degree apprentice programme and is now being extended to civil engineering, data science and environment & sustainability. It means Amey Consulting can develop a more regionally, ethnically and socially diverse workforce and can tailor the learning to the meet the needs of the marketplace.

This is particularly evident in the environmental arena and in response, Amey Consulting is working with universities and educational establishments to bring courses on decarbonisation and climate change modules into the degree apprentice programmes.

 “Why wouldn't I look at 10% of my business having a green collar element or indeed everyone having that awareness in their work when there is such a massive job to do in decarbonising our industry,” says Gilbert. “We are making a start, but this is an industry problem – a global problem - we have to solve it together. As an industry we need to be drivers for making decarbonisation happen.”

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