INTERVIEW: Remaking the brand

John Steele has taken the best of a string of specialist companies and created a focused consultancy division that is making its mark, Bryan Johnston discovers.

Forging a distinctive identity for the UK's leading planning and environmental consultancy is not a task for the faint hearted. But John Steele can look back with some satisfaction as he approaches the end of his first year as business development director at RPS Planning, Transport and Environment (RPS PTE).

The division was formed at the beginning of last year, drawing together the core planning and environmental business of the London Stock Exchange-listed RPS Group with the specialist skills of a string of companies acquired over the past three years, including planning household names Chapman Warren and Town Planning Consultancy.

It has not always been an easy marriage, Steele acknowledges. He reckons around 20 per cent of partners or directors of the acquired firms have moved on. Some were happy to settle for the equity in their former practices, he says. "But a number found it difficult to look across the boundaries beyond their narrow band of expertise."

He regards the departures as an inevitable consequence of the RPS Group's determination to develop the new brand. "Staff who moved over to RPS below partner level are blossoming now that they're getting the chance to run their own offices," he reports. He is confident that the division has already reached the point where staff and clients alike no longer associate with the old company names.

"We have gone from being a disparate group of competing entities to a single market-facing division," he maintains. "This has allowed us to focus our resources on our core business. But being part of RPS also enables us to draw in skills from other parts of the group. This is of paramount importance in a sector that evolves so quickly, and allows us to react more effectively than our competitors."

The proof of the pudding lies in this year's consultancy survey results.

The group can currently deploy 111 chartered town planners, almost 40 more than its nearest competitor, out of a total of some 420 professional staff involved in planning-related work. Planning fee income last year of almost £40 million is nearly three times higher than the closest opposition.

Its geographical coverage is unparalleled, with RTPI-registered planners working out of 17 UK regional offices.

Steele can hardly have expected Rural Planning Services, as it was known at the time, to mushroom to the extent that it has in the years since he joined the firm straight from Reading University in 1982. In those early years the company had about ten professional staff operating from rented offices above a job centre in Didcot, Oxfordshire.

Until the mid 1980s he was an agricultural economist. But the acquisition of well-established landscape practice Brian Clouston & Partners in 1987, and with it a string of regional offices, signalled RPS founder Alan Hearne's aspirations to build RPS into a national name. The move into mainstream planning came in 1991, with the acquisition of another Oxfordshire practice, Nigel Moor & Associates.

By that time, the original environmental impact assessment (EIA) regulations had started to open up significant opportunities in the public sector for RPS, which had previously catered mainly for private sector clients.

"We were the first consultancy to start taking a multi-disciplinary approach to the EIA process," he claims.

When the post of business development director was offered last year, he jumped at the opportunity. "With 20 years' experience I felt that I had something to offer the whole group," he recalls. His initial emphasis has been on improving internal communications. "With the acquisitions, we could have finished up with 17 offices operating as small firms rather than speaking with a corporate voice. We had large shoes but they weren't fitting."

Under Steele's guidance, the past year has seen the emergence of a series of expert forums set up to examine the opportunities for cross-selling the specialist expertise built up by the division's component parts. Each forum is charged with developing a business strategy and accompanying objectives that have to be submitted to the divisional board.

Quarterly meetings enable results to be examined and strategies to be fine-tuned. "They are not a talkfest," Steele emphasises. He maintains that the forums closest to the market, such as those covering renewable energy and regeneration, are already doing well "because they have something to latch onto". So far the ecology forum has served a useful purpose in spreading best practice, but he expects it to become more business-orientated.

Another key aspect of RPS's business development strategy is to ensure that major clients are fully apprised of the planning and environmental consequences of their activities from the outset. "We are trying to move up the food chain and get in higher up as strategic advisers to influence decisions at board level," Steele explains. PLC status has helped in this respect, he adds.

It is an approach that has paid off with clients like BAA and the Ministry of Defence (MoD), which has had to come to terms with its environmental impact following a hefty compensation bill for the disturbance caused by low-flying jets to a country house in Lincolnshire. While its advice does not quite amount to a rubber stamp for new military technology, Steele observes: "Environment and planning are now on the MoD's critical path."

He adds: "That's a good example of where we are potentially different, in the time that we put into understanding business and technical requirements, so we are able to advise at a fairly strategic level. Most consultancies are linked to clients seeking consents, but we look at what needs to be done to get a client from A to B in the round."

Steele emphasises that RPS PTE will not abandon bread-and-butter planning work on small-scale applications and appeals - even if it only brings in £30 an hour. Grass-roots work is essential in developing junior staff, serves as a fallback in the event of a downturn and helps to distinguish the company from the "blue skies" approach adopted by leading management consultancies, he argues.

Steele tries to save weekends for family life, which includes catering for his daughter's fascination with ponies and turning out for Reading Hockey Club's veterans team. But otherwise he reckons on a ten- or 12-hour day. He expects RPS staff to be similarly productive, minimising downtime that cannot be billed to clients.

What of the future? Further acquisitions are in prospect, Steele reveals, although he will not be drawn on the timing of the next announcement.

For the year ahead, RPS is predicting growth of around ten to 15 per cent, in line with market expectations. "But we are very careful not to set targets that we cannot achieve because of staff shortages," he makes clear.

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CAREER DETAILS

Age: 44.

Family: Married with two children.

Education: BSc in agriculture, University of Newcastle; MSc in

economics, University of Reading.

Career: Agricultural economist, Rural Planning Services, 1982-88;

agricultural software developer, EIA project manager, senior associate

and technical director, RPS Group PLC, 1988-2002; business development

director, RPS PTE, January 2003 to date.

Interests: Family life, hockey.

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