Case Study: Arcadis
Author: Kate Whitehead
Good communication can overcome teething problems when buying new businesses, says a highly acquisitive design company
Mergers and acquisitions (M&A) are stressful undertakings for HR leaders. There’s the worry over the financials, the communication with existing staff and the inevitable concern over how a whole new set of employees can be successfully integrated into the business. It’s a state of mind Cindy Kalliecharan, head of compensation and benefits and HR operations Asia for Arcadis, knows only too well.
For many years, the Dutch-headquartered firm – which specialises in managing and undertaking design and engineering projects, as well as facilities and infrastructure management – had only limited operations in Asia. But that changed dramatically in 2011 when it acquired EC Harris, where Kalliecharan worked, and went on to buy two more significant Asian rivals over the next three years.
As the person charged with combining different reward structures, Kalliecharan has played a key role in ensuring that bringing together companies means getting the best from each while creating a common culture. “We did a little analysis and realised that the companies were quite similar in how we did things, and the end goal was the same,” says Kalliecharan, who joined EC Harris in 2007. “We took time to look at why each one had the culture it did, why it gave them an advantage, and brought the best together.”
One of the keys to culture is the means by which rewards are offered. In Hong Kong, the most common mechanism is an annual one-month bonus, and rewards are less likely to be performance-based. But at EC Harris, which used a globalised system, rewards were based solely on performance. Kalliecharan is looking at a solution that will see employees offered a one-month bonus with the possibility of a top-up based on performance.
It’s important, she says, to consider each market individually: “I’m looking at what is relevant for each country. You can’t have one-size-fits-all because then you are missing out on best practice and attracting people in different countries. We adapt to the market.”
Benchmarking data has been useful in analysing not only the acquired companies, but also what Arcadis’s competitors are doing, she adds. And having integrated its acquisitions, the business is now looking to ensure that it is as streamlined as possible, deploying technology to create a consistent way of operating. A new system, the ‘Arcadis Way’, is being rolled out globally this year, beginning with Malaysia and Singapore. It will act as a hub for all projects, says Kalliecharan, harmonising the workflow from the time a project is identified, to winning it and deciding how to deliver it. An HR stream sets out the framework for the recruitment and retention of employees.
“It won’t change what we are looking for, but there will be a more structured and global way of recruiting people,” says Kalliecharan. “We’ve got so many countries globally, so the people we recruit in Asia will have opportunities to work in other locations across the world. Mobility is key for us – the ability to work in any of our locations is one of the central propositions we offer people.”
While talent has been an issue in parts of the world, Arcadis has found Asia to be a more rewarding recruitment market, with the exception of IT staff. Kalliecharan says social networking has proved a fruitful channel, but the most effective method remains an employee referral scheme. “In Asia, we rely a lot less on agencies,” she says. “The referral scheme works well because of the Asian culture, where people tend to recommend and know a lot of people.”
Graduates make up a significant portion of the company’s fresh blood. Arcadis is savvy about the best way to reach out to them, using a combination of social media and visits to universities. But Kalliecharan says she has noticed a shift of focus in what graduates are looking for. Salary used to be the deciding factor, but today a career path has become a vital selling point: “They want to know what you can offer them – what the developmental opportunities are. I might come in as a project manager but, if I do the graduate rotation scheme and I learn about quantity surveying, will I have an opportunity to switch to being a quantity surveyor?”
She says graduate hires are often keen to progress quickly. While some companies still retain relatively rigid structures regarding progression, at Arcadis there are no such restrictions – as soon as someone has the necessary skills and qualifications and shows they can perform, they can move to the next level. This, she says, is a big draw.
In Asia, Arcadis now has significant scale, with 5,000 staff across 50 offices. It oversees MRT lines in Malaysia and the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, among other flagship projects. And Kalliecharan herself has benefited from a flexible approach to progression. She grew up in Trinidad, and worked in the US, Europe, the UK and the Middle East before coming to Hong Kong – the latter three locations while part of EC Harris and Arcadis. “I’ve had the opportunity to work in different countries and the business has never said to me ‘you can’t have that opportunity’. It’s based on skills, performance and ability.”
Indeed, Kalliecharan feels that both mobility and general operational ability can only benefit from the M&A activity the business has been involved in. Langdon & Seah, one acquisition that operates in 10 countries from India to Indonesia, has an advanced technical skills programme, while EC Harris has an emphasis on softer competencies. Bringing together such strengths creates an even better proposition.
That’s not to say that there weren’t jitters at the prospect of being taken over. But Kalliecharan says Arcadis focused on good communication, making clear its strategy and vision and being as transparent as possible. Ultimately, employee turnover was minimised through good communication. And now, the firm is working equally hard at ensuring that the Arcadis message gets out to the wider community.
“People in Asia don’t really know about the Arcadis brand – it’s [about] making sure that we are bringing together all these companies and strengths to form this amazing organisation in Asia,” says Kalliecharan. Given the business’s lively recent history, it seems safe to say that there is more to come.