The Environmental Financial Consulting Group (EFCG) sounds a warning note on "overoptimism" in consultancy business projections through the COVID crisis and recovery period. This is based an observation made at the New York-based strategic and finance advisory specialist’s ‘state of the industry’ webinar series which took place earlier this month.
More than 900 a/e/c (architecture/engineering consulting/construction) business leaders - primarily based in North America but also including global industry representatives - were in attendance, with many also taking part in EFCG’s associated a/e/c industry outlook survey.
The survey indicated a drop off in average net revenue growth from around the ~8% level seen annually in both 2018 and 2019 to an expected 3% growth in 2020, before swiftly bouncing back to 8% again in 2021. ECFG commented: "While the industry is historically recession resilient according to EFCG proprietary data, it is also known for making overoptimistic projections. Knowing this, EFCG urges firms to remain conservative when setting budgets."
Water/wastewater, US state/municipal work, and US federal work are seen as stable sectors, while infrastructure, healthcare and technology are expected to outperform, according to the survey results. The least attractive areas, cited by most firms, are oil & gas, airports/aviation, hospitality and other private sector client work.
Meanwhile, less than 5% of firms surveyed pointed to the environmental sector as the area that will be hardest hit during the downturn, but at the same time less than 5% said the environmental sector would provide the best opportunities during and after the downturn.
EFCG noted that with these statistics in mind it is important to consider that the environmental sector provides services across many other sectors. And that this in itself "makes the environmental sector more resilient in general than some other sectors", but it also means that the firms who provide environmental services to sectors that are expected to be particularly hit hard will be more exposed.
Cost containment efforts
Most firms - more than 90% - have implemented various cost and cash management measures in response to the crisis, such as staff furloughs/layoffs, salary increase deferrals, expedited A/R (accounts receivable), recruitment freezes and/or limitations on non-essential spending. And these measures are having a positive impact, as the average cash in hand for a/e/c firms is now at 16%, compared to 7% last year.
Presenting these statistics at the webinar, EFCG managing partner Rebecca Zofnass noted that although growth and profit are traditionally two of the most important metrics for an a/e/c firm, "in recessions [revenue] growth is no longer correlated with success". Instead, she suggested the two most significant metrics for a/e/c firms are risk and profitability.
To best advise firms on how to prepare for the economic downturn, EFCG has developed its 'EFCG Risk Index' to evaluate risk exposure, which is defined by several drivers correlated with success in previous recessions, as Environment Analyst detailed in a recent Insight Report.
"An a/e/c firm’s risk and profitability profile highlights how likely the firm is to survive or thrive during economic downturns, and what short- and long-term actions could be taken to improve performance," EFCG stated.
One of the webinar series’ guest panellists Alexandre L’Heureux, CEO of WSP, shared his perspective that it is important to focus internally on being proactive in reshaping the business early on to emerge as a stronger company once the crisis is over. Finding new ways to utilise technology and collaboration tools to deliver services remotely is clearly fundamental for flexibility whilst limiting social interaction. "Our goal was to be ahead of the curve, and not in reactive mode," he said.
Another positive take home for the industry, made by president and CEO of the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) Linda Darr, is where talent and next generation recruitment is concerned given the well-documented challenges around skills and now that "remote working will be part of the new normal".
Shape of recession
EFCG webinar participants were invited to take part in a straw poll on how they expect the COVID-induced recession to pan out. Half of the firms expect the downturn to last well into 2021 via a "U shape" recession, while 30% thought it would last until the end of 2020 (more in line with the classic "V shape"), and the rest - some 20% or so - believe it could last all the way until 2022 or beyond in a "L shape".
With respect to which year would be the worst for the industry, responses were almost equally divided between 2020 and 2021. EFCG’s survey also found that only around four in ten a/e/c firms have a "fully developed plan on how to deal with the recession".
In terms of crisis management strategies, panellist Jesper Dalsgaard, managing director of Ramboll, highlighted the need to be more proactive and engaging with clients to help shore up a solid stream of work, stating: "We may not see an instant disruptive change [across the a/e/c industry], but what we will see is that the speed of change will accelerate."
Keryn James, CEO of ERM, agreed with this broad assessment on effective communications, underlining that "speed trumps perfection – you must move quickly in a crisis".
Meanwhile, the chief exec of Jensen Hughes Raj Arora believes it critically important not to neglect longer-term strategising to make sure your firm is well positioned to address the changes in how B/D, marketing and other business activities will be conducted in the future. "Technology will play a larger role in our firm’s revenue mix," he confirmed.
Critical role of tech
Panellists agreed that the key to building resilience depends on investing in the right technology at the right time. EFCG technology practice lead Marcus Quigley advised a/e/c/firms to "be proactive to reshape their business during this period" in terms of technologies to enhance core values and capabilities.
Firms can choose to follow with the ‘build’, ‘borrow’ or ‘buy’ approach to technology investment, he suggested. Webinar survey participants mainly aligned with the third model, with 50% saying they have chosen the buy in option through acquiring technologies or firms to build up their technology portfolios.
Guest panellist Leo Argiris, COO of Arup Americas, noted that building in-house software capabilities and teaming these capabilities with technical and engineering subject matter expertise is fundamental in moving technology strategies forward. But efficiency gained through digitisation and automation is just one part of the technology puzzle. "Automating workflows can lead to a more predictable deliverable and higher quality overall," he stated.
Another panellist emphasised the importance of creating the right conditions for technology teams to innovate and develop new digital products and services through a strategic planning process, as well as tactical moves to integrate digital transformation expertise. "We see technology as a way to empower VHB," said Michael Carragher, CEO of VHB.
The complete webinar series can be accessed through the EFCG.com website.
We are delighted to announce that EFCG's Jessica Barclay and Andreas Georgoulias will be presenting at the (now virtual) Environment Analyst Business Summit 2020 in a few weeks' time (view programme and book here).