The key speech
Legacy is an extremely easy concept to associate with Arup. The company's 2011 Design Yearbook contains an exaltation of engineering feats: a self-sufficient, edible restaurant in Sydney; affordable kindergartens in Ghana; a particle accelerator in the USA; an observatory in Japan; and a tunnel linking Denmark and Germany.
Each project is staggering in scale and oozes ingenuity, artistry and longevity. But if you want to understand what legacy means within Arup, its Design Yearbook isn't the right document to look at.
On 9 July 1970, Ove Arup addressed a meeting of his international partners with what has come to be known as his ‘Key Speech’. This speech is required reading for anybody who wants to understand what constitutes a cultural ‘legacy’ at Arup. In the speech, Arup describes his uncompromising ambition to make working at his company both interesting and rewarding. His ambition was to create an organisation that felt ‘human and friendly, in spite of being large and efficient’. To this end, Arup expounded a set of 'aims, ‘means’, ‘results’ and ‘principles’ that could be used as a guide for future leaders of the business.
We spoke to one such leader, Tristram Carfrae, Arup’s Head of Global Buildings Practice, who told us about the delicacy required to maintain the relevance of these ideals in a business that has grown dramatically over the 40 years since the Key Speech was delivered.
“We have no intention at the moment of refreshing the key speech. It is an authentic piece of writing by a man who studied philosophy before he studied engineering. The risk is whatever you write again wouldn’t be anything as good or as powerful as the authentic version that you have in front of you. However, you then have to treat it as a historical piece to some extent. But the bits that we perpetually refer to and people come to love are the values in the key speech, if I can call them that, which he refers to as being the aims, the means and the results. They are the reasons why people come to join Arup. And they are things that we live and breathe every day.”
Even 40 years on, Ove Arup’s ideal of a ‘humane‘ organisation informs how today‘s leaders measure their own success. As Carfrae explains, “In Ove‘s Speech, he states that being a humane organisation is an aim. In most organisations this would be a means. It would be something to have as a chassis to help you achieve something else. For me it is vitally important that for Arup it is part of the objective itself. The other [important aspect of the speech] is money. Ove says that money can be divisive, but at the same time, it is essential. It is a means. You have to be solvent. So money has this black and white aspect. It is absolutely fundamental to existence. At the same time, making tonnes of it is not an ambition. In the hurly burly of business, most of the people that you work with and for — most of the stuff you read in the newspapers — is actually all about maximising the monetary gain of an organisation. So you have to take the time to reflect: what do you actually want the money for?”
This question is more profound within Arup than many businesses. Arup is a wholly independent organisation owned in trust for the benefit of its employees and their dependents. Without external shareholders or investors, the question of money becomes a question of sustainability: how much money does an organisation require to safeguard its future? And what will that future look like? Arup must reach its own conclusions independently. This independence is central to Arup’s ability to adhere to its founder’s ideals. “Something our clients don’t always seem to think is important to them is the idea of independence: the independence that comes from owning our- selves and that gives us freedom to think.
“It takes away the pressure of having to owe something to an owner external to yourselves. Instead it gives you a fantastic opportunity to think about the real issues on behalf of the client. To really challenge and question. To ask the question, “why?” which is difficult with some clients. They are not expecting the people they have employed to ask, “why?” The most difficult attribute to persuade clients as having a real benefit is the idea of independence.”
Its independence enables Arup to think seriously about the long-term. To set out a vision for the future and to invest in making it happen. While many businesses may measure their legacy in terms of scale — number of employees, customers served, markets covered, annual revenues, market capitalisation or profit — Arup’s focus remains steadfastly on the quality and permanence of its work.
Even to the company responsible for some of the world’s most imposing structures, bigger does not always mean better. “At the moment there are a huge amount of acquisitions in our sector. A lot of firms are becoming very large. Sometimes we feel like we are sitting in a rowing boat in the middle of the ocean with big oil tankers passing us by. But we always decide when we think about it that we don’t want to be an oil tanker. As you grow, you inevitably become more ordinary. The more people you put in a room, the more likely the IQ will average at 100. So [we focus on how to] remain distinctive, remain what we are, remain empowering. How do we address the world’s needs? How do we remain cohesive? We think that means remaining true to our foundation and values, as illustrated in the Key Speech.”
The Key Speech, married with Arup’s independent status, ensures that the company will never stray too far from its roots, will never lose sight of what makes it special. When we ask of any bold plans for the future, the response is characteristically defiant: “It’s not going to be terribly exciting. Just more of the same thing. It’s a dull answer but we deliberately change slowly.” If all companies were as dull as Arup, the world might be a more enjoyable place in which to work.