Philip Thomson, chief executive at Atom Consultants
Suzy Powell meets Philip Thomson, chief executive at Atom Consultants, who uses lessons learned from Barcelona football club to help design food and drink factories.
Philip Thomson has been described as a “spinner of plates”, however the engineer’s management mode is based on a tried a tested football strategy rather than circus performance. Having worked with the biggest names in Scotland’s food and drink industry – from Marine Harvest to Browns Food Group – he has created a thriving engineering and project management company, yet few out-with the food industry will have heard of Atom Consultants.
The company has evolved in parallel with the burgeoning food and drink industry as growing demand for Scottish produce from the major UK retailers has led to expanded premises, more sophisticated processing factories and facilities to house increasing workforces.
Since 1995, the firm has undertaken £250m-worth of projects in the UK, £150m of which are food-related, and the team has grown to 56 people in four locations throughout Britain. Thomson has also honed a management method called “total project management” inspired by Barcelona football club, which means that projects are handled in-house with all professional skills available to give their “one touch”.
Thomson wanted to reflect the larger business that was developing internationally from its Scottish base with expansion into England via offices in Leeds and Canterbury, which are headed by partners he has worked with for many years. To reinforce this message, the company changed its name last year from Thomson & Partners to the punchier Atom Consultants.
A strategy was adopted to make each office a centre of excellence for one aspect of the business: Edinburgh focusing on food and drink projects, Leeds on building information modelling and Canterbury on timber frame design. A recently relaunched website reflects the repositioning and Thomson described the change as a “great success”: 98% of the food business is in Scotland, however clients include Canadian-owned Cooke Aquaculture and Polish salmon processor Morpol, while overseas contracts range from a power plant in Egypt to a hospital in Abu Dhabi.
Thomson studied civil engineering 38 years ago, and first worked for the former Central Regional Council designing sewage treatment works. He joined Kirkpatrick & Partners in Edinburgh as a project manager, then associate director, and became the youngest divisional director at the age of 34 for the Carl Bro Group when the Danish engineering consultancy took over.
However, he quickly realised that his new management role meant he was less involved in projects, which he missed.
“It was a challenge still being very hands on and running projects and it was clear I was going to spend more time in management meetings, so I decided to leave,” he explains.
In 1995, he set up his own business. “I started with a brass plaque, a phone and a desk on my own – it was the right decision for me,” he explained and Thomson & Partners was established in a listed building on Edinburgh’s Forth Street, which is still the company’s head office.
Hard work and long hours kept business ticking over and buoyant enough to expand. Three years on, Thomson bought the ground floor and then the labyrinthian basement, which was the former recording studio of Scottish folk duo The Corries. A sign above the meeting room door reads: “Quiet please recording in progress”, a reminder of the activity of the previous occupants, along with a rectangular glass window from the meeting room to the former sound engineer’s room.
Thomson is keen to show visitors the “wall of achievement” in the basement, which displays a value he adheres to: offering value for money. A quote from 19th century author John Ruskin is pinned to the wall: “It’s unwise to pay too much, but worse to pay too little”. “It’s been a great reference point for me,” Thomson points out.
At the time he left Carl Bro Group, Thomson recalls a recruitment consultant saying that directors could not be unproductive – a sentiment that he still firmly believes today. In the early days, contracts included work for Scot Trout & Salmon and Stockan’s Oatcakes in Orkney.
“However it took around ten years to get back to the level of projects I had been working on in the larger company,” Thomson admits. The breakthrough into the big league was when Thomson & Partners won a two-phase £3.45m project with biscuit maker Simmers of Edinburgh for a factory extension in 2005, which led to a steady flow of business with parent company Nairn’s Oatcakes, which continues today.
From 2000 to 2008 was a growth period for the company, with 50% of the business in the food and drink industry and the other half a mixture of traditional structural engineering projects, including a £26m refurbishment of the Grade B listed Blythswood Hotel and two-storey spa extension.
Then the recession took hold. Thomson explains: “In June 2008, I went to meetings with three clients and all the projects were put on hold. The real impact came in 2010 as existing projects continued until then, but there were no new projects coming in. We halved in size, made redundancies and went down to a three-day week. We had to write off £75,000 of bad debt. The challenge to me was to keep going.”
Around the same time, the company was invited to be part of a project to build a factory and visitor experience for Taste of Arran, which represents several artisan food producers on the island. When the funding was withdrawn, the proposals were shelved. However, it led to Thomson’s “eureka moment”.
“Our experience was so strong in the food and drink sector and I really enjoyed it, so I decided that would be the new focus, working less with sectors such as house-building, which were not as stable,” Thomson said.
These days, business is flourishing: 95% of the work is for food and drink companies, most of which are fish and seafood producers – 72% of smoked salmon in Scotland is processed in factories with which Atom Consultants has been involved – with a significant number of meat producers, bakery and biscuit manufacturers. Some 82% of new projects are repeat business or referrals and last year the company was involved in designing and project managing more than £30m-worth of projects.
The highest value project the company has won was constructing the largest fish processing facility in the UK for Marine Harvest after it won the contract to supply fresh and smoked salmon to Sainsbury’s – it was the supermarket’s single biggest order at the time. Work started in 2014 on a £5.4m processing factory and offices, followed by a £7.25m extension in 2015, and last year a smaller project to improve production efficiency.
With the news that Scotland’s food manufacturing turnover increased by 43% between 2008 and 2014, there is plenty more in the pipeline for companies like Atom, and Thomson sees food trends such as gluten-free and artisan gin driving his business for some time to come.
“When I was in the States in the summer of 2013, a supermarket I was in had a huge range of gluten-free produce taking up a whole aisle – a few years ago it was hard to find gluten-free at all in the UK,” he says. However, in recent years this has been expanding in the UK and is illustrated by the completion of a £6.3m gluten-free factory and cereal production unit completed for Nairn’s Oatcakes.
The revival of artisan gin distilling is another sector where Thomson sees potential – a small distillery in the grounds of Dornoch Castle Hotel is nearing completion; a property in Dornoch doubles up as an office for Thomson’s employees working in the Highlands for clients such as Loch Duart Salmon and ESCO.
The only cloud on the horizon is the uncertainty of Brexit and Thomson is concerned about the future of Scottish Government funding through Food, Manufacturing & Processing Grants, which have helped companies expand, along with equivalent grants for the fishing industry. “A lot of small to medium-sized food processors rely on the grant system and if not getting grants they may not make a product in Scotland,” he warns.
He also agreed that the industry is fragmented and that there is not enough collaboration between the different professions, however he has come up with his own solution: “total project management”, which has made outsourcing a thing of the past. Over time, he realised that clients preferred to deal with one person in one company, rather than multiple consultants.
“I came up with it from watching Barcelona, where they talk about ‘total football’ – no-one else touches the ball,” he says. “We have several disciplines under one roof – project management, quantity surveying, architectural, structural, mechanical and electrical engineers – and that is effective to clients as they are only dealing with one firm and one person.”
Thomson’s holistic approach to delivering projects from start to finish leaves no room for the ball to be dropped and would seem to have the food and drink industry hungry for more.