Interview: WT Partnership on its continued growth across South East Asia

Interview: WT Partnership on its continued growth across South East Asia

WT Partnership is an independent international provider of quantity surveying and construction cost management services. Founded in 1949 and with a presence in Asia since 1962, its Asian Holdings regional business, comprising Greater China, Hong Kong, Macau, North Asia and South East Asia (SEA), occupies a key position in one of the most culturally diverse and economically-tempestuous regions on earth. A fast-growing global company with an expertise that extends bespoke offerings of quantity surveying, cost management and facilities management consultancy across Asia and internationally, WTP is highly regarded in the region, with unprecedented growth in SEA over the past decade.

After an initial spell there in the early 1990s, Will Kennedy-Cooke, MD SEA, relocated back to Singapore in 2006. At that time, after more than 40 years of continuous operations, the SEA business comprised 40 staff in two locations. Today WTP employs more than 200 staff based in six offices across four ASEAN countries working on projects across the region with revenue increased by more than six times in that period. In the short term WTP plans to open fulltime operations in two additional countries with staff numbers potentially growing to 300-plus in three to five years.

“We have been very strategic in each location, harnessing home-grown talent with international expertise where and when required, but without losing sight of being a local business able to support local developers,” Will explains. “Our Singapore office is a hub that supports the region as a whole from which we can add management expertise to any location, together with sharing resources in specific sectors such as infrastructure and facilities management consultancy.

“It is an integral part of our strategy that we play to our strengths, work with the clients and partners that are a best fit with our people and develop a business that is built to last. We do not need or want to be the biggest, taking on any and all opportunities without regard to suitability. However, we do strive to be very good at what we do, to be an employer of equality and choice, to grow while retaining quality of service, to aspire for continuous improvement and to care for how our clients optimise value from their development investment decisions.

“We get involved with all sizes and types of projects providing proactive and assured construction cost management for our clients’ investments, together with enduring interest, variety and opportunity for our staff,” says Will, who oversees operations across the 10 ASEAN countries. “Our significant presence in the region ensures we are able to deliver both local and international services with a reputation for providing effective delivery of complex and mega projects.”

Due to WTP’s longevity in the region, it enjoys excellent relations with some premium partners from a variety of locations. Will has been involved in some high-profile projects in SEA covering both commercial and public-sector constructions including World Trade Centres 2 and 3 in Jakarta, TRX Living Quarter in Kuala Lumpur, Australian Embassy in Bangkok, the International School Ho Chi Minh City and Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.

“In SEA we've undertaken a lot of work with Cognita, a leading global education provider,” says Will. “The relationship with Cognita stretches more than 12 years based on the formation of trusted relationships with their key people while creating a baseline for common understanding. We have collaborated on more than 10 projects across SEA markets, assisting Cognita to provide world-class teaching environments. It continues to be a very strong, fertile and mutually beneficial relationship.

“We continue to work with Toll, an Australian origin logistics group now owned by Japan Post. We started working directly for them in Asia a decade ago and more recently, having successfully delivered a number of projects in Singapore, we are also working with them in Australia and New Zealand.

“Our Hong Kong office was initiated in 1976 to start working with Hongkong Land, a member of the Jardine Matheson Group. We are very proud of the relationship that has flourished through several generational changes of key personnel in either business over more than 40 years and continues today working across multiple markets in our region. Project locations include Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore with the most recent completion being World Trade Centre 3 in Jakarta for PT Jakarta Land, a company jointly owned by CCM and Hongkong Land.

“Another client we do a lot of repeat order work for in SEA is Lendlease which has been in Singapore since the early 1970s. We've been fortunate to be involved with their more recent SEA development work and we're currently working on both their Paya Lebar Quarter project in Singapore and their Tun Razak Exchange Lifestyle Quarter project in Kuala Lumpur; the latter being delivered in joint venture with TRX City, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Malaysian Ministry of Finance.

“In an ideal sense, we get involved right from the outset,” he explains. “Setting the construction budget through collaboration with the client and, where available, with input from the principal design team members. We will then be employed to continuously advise, monitor and update, providing forward forecasting to enable decisions that deliver the completed project to budget. Assuming the budget for capital expenditure is correctly established and informs the feasibility for the project, and assuming revenue projections are met, then delivering to, or within, that capital budget means the project returns for the client will be met or even enhanced. We provide an early warning system for issues that are either likely to compromise the budget or may provide value-added opportunities, meaning the earlier you capture it, the easier it is to plan for how and when that issue is to be managed.”

When commissioned to do so, WTP provides and facilitates formal value engineering, or value management workshops early in the design process to help establish the real aspirations and requirements of a project. Focus is set upon what's wanted rather than “what's nice to have” and the removal of waste. In the process of determining value, WTP assesses what has to be there and what is discretionary for the design to balance the budget and project brief.

“Much of the discipline of managing the budget obviously depends on the procurement system that transfers the project to the construction phase, together with the profile of the client and its risk appetite. Time is always a big issue because time is cost and therefore overall project programme has a big influence on the procurement strategy. Alternative approaches allow for transfer of construction time and cost risk at various points in the design process depending on the profile tailored to the client’s objectives. Once the transfer of that risk has been completed, the business of construction begins,” says Will.

“We're also the certifier of payments made to the contractors and we deal with any change through variations, getting further involved if the contractor, for whatever reason, is unable to deliver to time and cost. Our cost forecasting to the completion of the project helps manage financial decisions and mitigate opportunities for dispute. However, should a client become engaged in difficulties on a project, then we're there to help, interpret and diffuse,” he explains.

Quantity surveying is an historically entrenched part of the construction process across parts of the western world, principally where the British had some involvement with establishing standards and procedures, yet differs in relevancy and application in other locations, especially in today’s emerging markets.

“Quantity surveying in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore is an implicit discipline, being the legacy of British involvement in their development, and today these locations provide education through full-time courses in the expertise,” Will explains. “In these three locations, quantity surveying is just a part of the DNA of the construction and development industry. However, in the other SEA locations, there are a number of developers who may often be unaware of the discipline of cost planning and construction cost management, or how to use the expertise.

“While the core of quantity surveying and construction cost management may be similar the world over, the detailed services we provide across SEA markets varies and can also differ from those required, for example, in each of China, Japan, South Korea or Taiwan. Day to day in SEA we are still mostly commissioned to provide a very traditional, almost old-fashioned service, that almost mimics what used to be seen in the British market when I started my career there in the mid-1980s.

“Although catching up fast and introducing many of more recent approaches from other more developed international markets, we do lag behind them in many jurisdictions where the infrastructure is not as well developed and the majority of work is still executed in a highly traditional manner; the client's team completing full design before going to a hard money tender to builders. However, especially in the complex and mega projects, there are more clients now with the appetite to finish extremely quickly, adopting fast track methods for those who can accept both alternative systems and a different risk profile. But the project still needs to be delivered to budget.”

New tech

A typical opportunity for potential disagreement between contractors and professional quantity surveyors has been the quantification. Ask several people to measure the same major project, you will inevitably end up with differing opinions on the quantities for individual components. However, if you can get reliable and meaningful quantities out of an accurate computer-generated model this issue should be resolved.

“BIM (building information modelling) and other technological advances, should be embraced fully by all parts of the construction industry and should certainly not be seen as a threat to the quantity surveying profession,” Will explains. “With readily accessible, reliable and useful quantities, experts can focus on what really drives the cost aspects of the project. We will see in due course, sooner rather than later, a coordinated BIM output that incorporates both time and cost, not only for the construction process but for future operations as well. The opportunities with other new technologies are immense and the data input requirements to maximise the effectiveness of BIM is coming up to speed. WTP is ready and looking forward to the potential to move towards real time cost planning & estimating and cost management.”

New services

“Most of our work traditionally has been in the core building sectors, but we now have a flourishing infrastructure division working on roads, rail, airports, renewable energies and utilities (including water, waste, power and district cooling), together with the full range of land reclamation and other large-scale infrastructure.”

Facilities management consultancy services, led from Singapore, is another more recent addition to an increasingly diversified offering from WTP in Asia that is an extension to the same services that have been established earlier within the Australia and UK businesses. “We introduced FM consultancy services into the region just over 12 months ago and have already completed several interesting commissions, both for new and existing clients. The wider market for these services is not very mature and currently nearly all of the work we're undertaking is in Singapore and Hong Kong,” Will explains. “There are a number of international Asian-based operators that are quite sophisticated in their approach to FM, but generally the facilities management market in this part of the world is playing catch-up with the West.

Sustainability is a key requirement in every sector and is of growing importance to WTP’s services offering. “Several world markets have initiated sustainability targets through a point-scoring exercise,” Will says. “We have Green Mark in Singapore and Australia has Green Star. Leed, a United States Green Building Council initiative, has wide international recognition with a high profile for many corporate clients and there are a number of other sustainable standards in particular markets. Where there isn't a standard in a country, they may well adopt one so we have projects, for example, in Vietnam that are being done to LEED and others in Indonesia being delivered under Green Mark.

“Originally we became involved with how the cost achieves those sustainable standards in terms of the capital expenditure. We now look at not just the cost through the initial construction project, but also examine the implications for the building’s operational life cycle. Over the economic life with an appropriate planned maintenance regime, are we better with this particular system or an alternative one? Establishing life cycle models and completing whole-of-life studies are an emerging requirement, harnessing both our sustainability and FM consultancy expertise.

“We can also become involved with reviews of how existing buildings can be improved in energy management to the long-term benefit of a building owner and the occupants. We aim to provide value in minimising waste through design, construction and operation. We look at how the total product can still be cost effective, but become leaner without compromising time or safety while improving sustainability.”

Expanding footprint

WTP’s expansion in SEA hasn’t seen the company veer too far from its ethos thus far. “Our growth, short to medium term, has been to stick to our core competences; continuing to do what we do well,” Will explains. “We're careful about the model we adopt for each location and the planning we do, to the extent that when we do go into new markets or provide new services, we have the best chance to get it right. That's about people and network. It's about understanding the market and not overstretching our management capabilities. It's about structuring a business that is sufficiently flexible, agile and mobile with capability to both deliver to the local market expectations as well as the requirements of our international clients as opportunities evolve in different locations.”

Internationally, in addition to the long-term operations that originally started in Australia and the UK, WTP has now also been operating in North America and India for a few years with the Middle East being a more recent market entry. As an international group, the geographic footprint is also growing as more opportunities arise and the business is confident of its ability to both plan and manage this expansion programme that is sure to see the company continuing to spread, and deepen its roots.