Meet the MD: Phil Jones of PJA

Meet the MD: Phil Jones of PJA

For Phil Jones, managing director of PJA, a key priority for a great leader should be the wellbeing of the team around them. He chatted with BQ about how he has helped nurture his business from a back bedroom start up, to a leading independent transport planning consultancy.

Describe your role in no more than 100 words.

As the managing director of PJA, I oversee the direction and growth of the company. We’ve grown from a back bedroom start up, to the country’s leading independent transport planning consultancy with multiple offices and a team of around 35 people. I am also the public face of the company. 

I’m responsible for senior recruitment; for identifying new markets and services that we can offer to clients and developing strategies to target them accordingly. We have a number of working groups to help encourage everyone to take a role in developing PJA and I lead the ‘Research and Best Practice’ division.


What is it the company does?

We are a firm of transport planners and urban designers with around 35 staff and with offices in Birmingham, London, Reading and Bristol. We provide planning, design and research services for new developments and in existing places.

Our clients include developers, landowners, local authorities and government departments.


What do you believe makes a great leader?

A key priority for me has been to build a great team around me. A good leader has to be positive and communicative, but they must not be afraid to take tough decisions where necessary. They need to be able to spot opportunities early and identify trends that could be exploited to benefit the business.

It takes time to learn how to do these things but the skills need to be applied across all elements of the business from managing people, to client liaison, pitching for new instructions or determining new strategies.


What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?

The hardest part for me and for PJA as a whole, was getting through the 2008-10 period, when the property industry – our biggest market – went into freefall due to the economic downturn. Thankfully we only had to lose one person but it wasn’t an easy time.

We had diversified sufficiently by that point and were able to ride out the difficult period, but many of our competitors weren’t so fortunate.When the market came back during 2010 we were able to capitalise on that and grow strongly and quickly.


How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?

I really enjoy running and find that it really relaxes me mentally and physically but I think I’m probably one of the lucky ones in that I generally don’t get too stressed. I don’t mind remaining in touch with work even at weekends or on holidays – I’m more worried if I think something might go wrong due to my absence.


When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I can’t remember having any burning ambitions, but I do remember drawing fantastic buildings and then trying to recreate them in Lego, so perhaps I should have been an Architect.


Any pet hates in the workplace?

The worst thing for me is when companies mistake activity for productivity – I know we have to have systems and procedures, but every hour spent on such things is an hour less spent solving problems and earning fees.


Where do you see the company in five years time?

We aim to maintain our current growth trajectory to double our current size, if not more, both in terms of staff and project base.

We are looking to invest in our existing offices to mature and grow these regional bases as well as looking to establish new ones, particularly in the North of England.


What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?

I’d always recommend being bold and to have the courage of your convictions. You need to know your business inside out and back to front – and always more than the person you’re trying to convince!

Also, seek to learn as much as you can from everything you work on – especially when things go wrong.


Where did you start your career?

I first worked for WS Atkins, a large firm of consulting engineers in Surrey, initially in the design office on a major power station contract.


Give us a brief timeline of your career so far.

I graduated in 1980 in Civil Engineering. I joined Atkins in Surrey but then took two years building coal mines in Yorkshire. After that I joined a small Birmingham consultancy, working on roads and drainage schemes.

I completed my training to become Chartered in 1986 and then joined Halcrow where I spent 13 good years. I worked on a vast variety of projects there, initially on highways then moving into traffic and land development, which sparked a growing interest in planning and urban design.

In 1999, I joined WSP, leading the team on studies for major developments. I was also part of the team that undertook research for Government into tensions between highway design and planning policies, which resulted in the recommendation for new national street design guidance, which is now in place.

I started PJA in 2003, mainly working on development schemes, but also as part of the team preparing the aforementioned ‘Manual for Streets’, as recommended by our earlier research.

I have led the growth of the firm up to the present day – continuously expanding and broadening its capabilities.  While we are strongest in the new development field, we also have significant strengths in urban design, planning and designing for cycling as well as research and best practice.