Nathan Cartwright
Nathan Cartwright

GAJ's Nathan Cartwright discusses the advantages and pitfalls to having an integrated practice

Partner at one of the UAE’s longest standing architecture and design firms, Godwin Austen Johnson (GAJ), Australian-born Nathan Cartwright has more than 20 years of experience working in the construction industry. Before assuming his current role, he was associate director and head of MEP at URS Corporation, an AECOM company, as well as principal engineer at Scott Wilson. Here, he discusses the advantages and pitfalls to having an integrated practice in the GCC.

From GAJ’s perspective, how has expanding business services contributed to profit and company success?
Having an integrated practice has enabled us to control additional elements of projects thereby eliminating third party risk. That coupled with better coordination and efficiency ultimately helps our bottom line. More importantly, however, it allows us to provide a better product to our clients.

What do you think has led to the rising number of integrated practices?
At present what I see is the large international practices getting larger through acquisition. This is predominantly driven by ambitious growth targets globally, rather than a reaction to current market conditions. If anything, we are seeing existing firms consolidating and going back to their core services. This is coupled with the trend of more firms outsourcing work, including service lines. Off-shore business is leading to a decrease in what is offered locally.

What are the advantages to having an integrated practice?
The main advantages are communication and coordination. When teams are familiar with working together they feel comfortable communicating with each other and are more efficient in completing tasks. Being able to see a colleague for an immediate response is quicker and more convenient than arranging a meeting or trying to discuss a matter over the phone.

What have been the challenges?
We have had a number of challenges as you would expect in setting up new delivery lines. These include both in-house challenges, such as new integrated QA procedures, and external challenges in selling these service lines to other architectural firms who may see us as a competitor. The major challenge though is competing commercially. We do all of our work in-house in the UAE, and find it difficult to compete with those who have low-cost production houses elsewhere. The challenge is to get the client to see the value in what we do locally and the risk we eliminate by doing so.

How has being an integrated practice worked against GAJ?  
We have, on occasion, had clients request that the architectural and engineering firms must be separate, and we respect their decision; however, these situations are few and far between. The challenge isn’t in having an integrated practice, it’s in having an integrated practice that produces its work in-country. Fortunately having been in the region for the better part of 30 years, we are able to show our clients examples of the advantages of being an integrated firm that produces its work locally through our portfolio.

What do you foresee as the pitfalls of being an integrated practice? 
There is the risk in putting all your eggs in one basket. This has always been there contractually with the lead consultant arrangement favoured in this part of the world. From a client’s point of view, when dealing with large multidisciplinary firms, the key is ensuring you get the ‘A-team’ on your project.

How has GAJ managed the expansion to incorporate different services?
The growth of an integrated practice is through consolidation at first and repeat business through providing good service. Expanding based on your experience and track record,  rather than on the promise of what you think you can do is crucial. In our opinion, in the current market, it is important to have a solid base for growth rather than speculatively spending resources in the hope of gain. Targeting the correct markets and clients with proven track records, in both delivery and payment, is important.

What do clients gain from integrated practices?
I believe clients generally have greater confidence in their project being realised on time and to budget through a better coordinated design approach with an integrated practice.