Army life helps put RMJM chief in a position to lead

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 December, 2009, 12:00am

What do you plan to do after graduating from university?

Some might dream of taking to the road and travelling the world before getting down to work; others might be impatient to hit the career trail straight away.

But for a young law graduate whose father is one of Scotland's richest men, there was a third option that in some senses combined the two - the army.

Peter Morrison, who eventually rose to the post of chief executive of international architecture firm RMJM after hanging up his combat boots, decided after graduating to experience the hardships life in the British Army might offer.

His four years of service exposed him to the challenge of dealing with the troubles in Northern Ireland and in the process provided him with the training that he credits with helping him lead a company with more than 1,000 staff in 16 offices worldwide.

'When I got my law degree I was 21 years old. I was still pretty young. I wanted to get some leadership experience,' Morrison recalled.

'I travelled all over the world with the army and had many different experiences.'

This included experiencing first hand the troubles in Northern Island, which he described as a 'pretty frightening environment'.

But despite the danger, he enjoyed life as an officer in the military. 'The challenge of being a good officer is very similar to the challenge of being a good chief executive. Both require you to find a way to lead people,' he said.

After his stint in the army, Morrison joined RMJM as a non-executive director after his father, Fraser Morrison, acquired a controlling stake in the company in 2002.

He was then 28, having followed up army life by taking an MBA from Imperial College.

Three years later he was appointed chief executive.

'It was very exciting. But obviously it's a high pressure job,' Morrison reflected.

At the time the company was small and not performing well, but that gave Morrison a challenge that he relished tackling.

With the help of his father, who knows the industry well, the young chief executive kept RMJM on a fast-paced expansion path with profits jumping nearly 90 per cent between 2006 and 2007.

'We had 300 to 400 people four to five years ago and we have over 1,000 people today. Revenue was then US$30 million to US$40 million and today [the firm] generates revenues of US$200 million per year,' he said.

RMJM is also one of the most aggressive of corporate investors in the Asian region, especially in Hong Kong and China.

The company plans to double the size of its staff of 200 in Hong Kong and also to continue its rapid expansion on the mainland.

The aggressive expansion plan rested on the view that the market for the company's services in the area was huge and would continue growing rapidly, as well as its long investment history in China, where the company tackled its first project in 1998, said Morrison.

This long history gave RMJM a big advantage over its rivals, he said. Asia at present accounted for 25 per cent of the company's revenues, though Morrison expected the ratio would increase to 35 per cent in the next few years.

Morrison said the architecture industry in the area was fragmented and he expected to see consolidation in the sector that would force small players out of the market.

His ambition is now to turn RMJM into a firm with global reach through mergers and acquisitions as well as organic growth.

Once a sports lover and rugby player, Morrison said his busy working life - 18 hours a day - left him with few opportunities to kick a ball about. What leisure time he has he now spends with his wife and three children, he said.