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In an exclusive interview, Amey chief executive Amanda Fisher tells Lem Bingley about becoming a first-time CEO and attempting a major turnaround, under a for-sale sign, in the midst of a global pandemic
Circumstances were not kind to Amanda Fisher when she took on the mantle of chief executive at infrastructure contractor and services firm Amey in December 2019.
The firm had endured what she calls “a torrid time” prior to her appointment. “It just seemed to be that everything was against us,” she reflects.
Notable among those difficulties was the protracted exit from a loss-making 25-year contract with Birmingham City Council. The roads maintenance deal ended 14 years early in June 2019, at a cost to Amey of £300m, after the High Court settled a three-year dispute in the council’s favour.
Exit terms were phased over several years but accounted for £123m of a £428m annual pre-tax loss the company reported that summer. Red ink across the 2018 year-end figures also included large writedowns in the book value of Amey’s business.
“It was fortunate I was in the business already. I’d had two years to see where the strengths were and the opportunities for change”
It came as no surprise to see chief executive Andy Milner step aside at the end of 2019. Irrespective of any blame, his tenure had not exactly showcased the firm in its best light, given that parent company Ferrovial had been trying, unsuccessfully, to find a buyer for Amey all year.
Fisher, initially installed as acting chief executive, was braced for a tough turnaround job. But, of course, a microscopic foe was about to make her task harder still. She had barely three months in charge before the rapidly spiralling virus crisis was declared a pandemic in March 2020.
In her first major interview since taking charge, she talks candidly with Construction News about the stresses and decisions that have shaped her first 18 months.
“It was fortunate I was in the business already,” Fisher says. “I’d had two years to see where the strengths were and the opportunities for change.”
In those prior years, Fisher had turned around Amey’s Facilities Management, Defence and Justice (FMDJ) division. “When I came into Amey, they weren’t sure whether to sell it [separately] or not, as it wasn’t profitable. I turned that into a profitable business, stabilised it.”
Elevated to the top job, she was expected to repeat that process at a larger scale.
“I realised that the business had a lot of turning around to do,” she says. “I knew that if we were going to move forward, I had to change the structure, change the management [and] went about doing that quickly. I did that in the first 30 days.”
When COVID hit
In that period, Fisher hired ex-Balfour Beatty managing director Craig McGilvray to run the FMDJ division, let Amey Utilities interim MD David McLoughlin go and brought in Andy Halsall, a former Mitie MD, as his replacement.
And then COVID-19 struck. “In a way it accelerated the agenda,” she says, “because nobody had [a pandemic] rule book, and we were all learning together.”
In June last year, the £2.14bn-turnover, 15,300-employee business warned that COVID was likely to hit profit for 2020 to the tune of £30m to £50m.
Signs of the virus crisis are everywhere as we meet, face to face, in Amey’s London office. The building is replete with transparent screens and handwash stations but eerily quiet, with most staff still working remotely when CN arrives, in mid-May. We talk across a large table, flanked by seats marked not for sitting in.
Fisher recalls the pressures of dealing with the unexpected health crisis. As a newly established leader, she found herself grateful, not just for her familiarity with the business but for the skills she had acquired at the start of her career, as a Sandhurst-trained Army officer.
“It’s only with age I realise that this is where my military training comes into play,” she says. “In a crisis, people are looking for clarity in the [midst of] ambiguity. They’re looking for direction.”
Amanda Fisher’s CV: from Army to Amey
Fisher was appointed acting chief executive of Amey in December 2019, replacing Andy Milner. She had previously served as managing director of the firm’s Facilities Management, Defence and Justice division, having joined Amey in 2017.
Between 2008 and 2017 she worked for Balfour Beatty, latterly as managing director of Living Places, a division providing highways maintenance, street lighting and other services to local authorities.
Prior to Balfour, she worked for Alfred McAlpine and for Allied Healthcare in senior operations management roles.
A graduate of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, as well as the University of Surrey, Fisher served for almost eight years as a commissioned officer in the Army Catering Corps and, after catering was merged with related disciplines, the Royal Logistics Corps.
Proud of her military career, Fisher describes Sandhurst as “the best finishing school you could have”.
She also knew that her own uncertainties were not to be shared because crisis leadership is “about calmness, taking control, being decisive, and just giving confidence”. She adds: “There’s no point thinking too far ahead. I’m very structured, very logical, and that’s how I approach any problem.”
Of course, there were missteps. In the first few weeks of lockdown, trade unions were critical of an Amey policy that gave some self-isolating employees only statutory sick pay.
Fisher readily concedes that this episode was a bad mistake but one fixed “on the same day”. She says she’d authorised payment of sick-pay to individuals fit to work but forced to self-isolate, without realising that meant some would receive only statutory amounts.
“They were only going to get something like £94 a week,” she admits. When the unions reacted angrily, she moved “straight away” to give the affected workers full pay.
“That’s when I realised that the decisions we were going to take were actually going to define who we are as a company going forward,” Fisher adds.
Shaping Amey’s future
The human impact of corporate decisions is a theme she returns to frequently. “It doesn’t matter what you build, it comes back to people, every single time,” she says. “When the board were looking to appoint me, I think [they thought] I would sort out the operations of the business. I don’t think anybody envisaged [I’d focus on] people, to make cultural change.”
In that vein she sees COVID not simply as a challenge to be endured but as “the biggest disruptor in our generation” and an opportunity to “break away from hierarchical [structures] to a much more fluid and flexible organisation”. She adds, in determined tones: “Shame on us as an industry if we go back, and we don’t take the opportunity to move forward.”
That forward march includes “launching flexibility around our people, around our space, and then technology,” she explains, saying the company is working to bring in flexible hours, for blue-collar as well as office-based roles. “It means we need a different type of manager,” she admits. “How do we enable the business to deliver the outputs if there is this flexibility of working?”
The Prince of Wales Bridge over the Severn – one of several maintained by Amey under a 15-year deal
Despite such issues, Fisher says she is determined to roll out flexible hours. “Only by doing that are we really going to change the industry,” she says. “[How else] are we going to attract the younger generation, more women, the different balance, the stay-at-home dads, even?”
Fisher also highlights that Amey became a Real Living Wage employer in the first quarter of 2020, providing improved pay and benefits for lower-paid workers. She says the upgrade was rolled out as planned despite the uncertainties of the pandemic.
Fisher confirms that Spanish parent company Ferrovial still intends to offload the business. In February this year, it was reported that Ferrovial had drafted in advisors Morgan Stanley to renew its search for a buyer after two years of trying.
“One of the reasons for me being appointed was to stabilise, strengthen and then create value for the business for the sale,” Fisher says, adding that private equity firms as well as other names in construction have “shown interest” in Amey during the pandemic.
Until a deal is done, she says her working relationship with Ferrovial is close. “Our shareholder takes a very active interest in what we’re doing,” she says. “Twice a week I have an interaction with Spain. Next week I’ve got six meetings.”
Fisher says such frequent interaction has been “helpful and positive” as a first-time chief executive.
Meanwhile, Fisher says headway has been made in turning the firm’s finances around, with Amey continuing to win work throughout the pandemic. Financial reports filed last summer cited contracts worth £620m landed in the first five months of 2020 and in the following 12 months it has publicised further wins worth at least £740m, not including framework appointments.
“One of the reasons for me being appointed was to stabilise, strengthen and then create value for the business for the sale”
Fisher has restructured core activities into three divisions, covering transport infrastructure, secure infrastructure and consulting services, with the non-core waste and utilities businesses up for sale.
As part of that rethink, Amey has backed out of the troublesome energy-from-waste (EfW) sector, with Fisher confirming the company has no plans to pursue any more EfW projects in the future. “We don’t see that as being part of our portfolio, going forward,” Fisher says flatly.
Instead, Amey intends to “focus, totally” on winning work from government. “We see, absolutely, our growth in transport infrastructure,” Fisher says.
In that context, Fisher welcomes the Construction Playbook, which attempts to embed an approach favouring delivered value over upfront costs in public sector procurement. But she also sounds a note of caution. “The government needs to make sure it is used, and we are seeing signs that it’s being ignored,” she says. “There has to be much more rigour in applying it.”
As a woman in charge of a construction company, Amanda Fisher remains a rarity in the industry. She suggests that many of construction’s enduring problems and difficulties instigating cultural change, may be linked to that fact.
“Now is the time for women’s leadership to really make that step change,” says Fisher. “I do think the qualities we bring are different.”
She adds that while many people associate women leaders with “humility, flexibility, communication”, she prefers to cite women’s “emotional intelligence”.
Fisher explains: “When I was appointed chief exec, I said we’re going to be a people-focused organisation. This will need a real reset in culture.”
The construction industry as a sector remains “somewhat dated”, she adds. “The talk is about modernisation and diversity: the phrase you’ll hear is ‘attracting women into the industry’. But that’s a bit like moving the deckchairs on the Titanic. You need to change the boat, actually, because it’s going under.”
The playbook’s guidance has been issued on a ‘comply-or-explain’ basis and as Fisher observes: “You can explain your way out of a lot of things.”
She adds that the government “is investing a lot of money, over a lot of years, to have an infrastructure that works and that’s fit for purpose”, and if public procurement really does move towards social value, sustainability and levelling up, she says, “inevitably, you’re going to get a very different type of outcome, not just all about the price. Because at the moment the industry is all about price”.
Fisher argues that Amey is well placed if procurement does indeed adopt a more outcomes-based approach, due to the company’s in-house data analytics, engineering and consulting resources.
“No [competitor] has got an analytical, data-driven business unit as part of their business. They always buy [that expertise] in,” she says. She adds that her restructuring process has brought all the firm’s consultants into Amey Consulting and given that division more autonomy. “Now, rather than going through the business to reach clients, it’s going directly to the clients,” she says.
She adds that the power of that arrangement was illustrated by an August 2020 win: a 15-year, £16m-per-annum contract with Highways England, which will see Amey inspect and maintain the Avonmouth and Severn bridges.
“We were looking at all the data [about the bridges]: their movement, how long things will last, when repair interventions will be needed,” she says. “We won the contract on that [basis] and we’ve been approached since, saying this is really at the forefront of thinking. The highways network has hundreds of bridges, and could we apply [the same analytics] technology?”
She adds: “We all talk about data but it’s how you use that to create outcomes [that matters].”
CN suggests that Amey’s reputation for digital insights may have been dented by an episode just before Christmas, when the company fell victim to a ransomware attack. Several other big construction companies have also been struck by hackers in the past 18 months. Fisher says the attack on Amey was “super sophisticated” but that the firm responded “very quickly” once the breach became apparent.
“We identified which service had been attacked; we notified all the regulators; we phoned our clients immediately,” she says. “We [physically] deployed our people, literally within hours, to where our servers were.”
Experts from technology firms BAE Systems and McAfee were also called in to guide the response. “We had literally 48 hours to decide if we were we going to enter into [ransom] negotiations or not,” Fisher says. Ultimately, no payment was made. “We weren’t going to fund crime,” she says.
“If you think COVID was hard to get through, my goodness, that was probably the most stressful period, to go through that. But it’s like any crisis, it’s how you respond,” she adds. “It’s the decisions you make, and about timing as well.”
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