The Link Structural Engineering team celebrates its 30th anniversary!

A personal overview by Mark Brock

How can it be the case that the Link Structural Engineering team turned 30 years old in January 2023 when Link Engineering didn’t even exist 30 years ago?

The answer is that in February 2022, the practice “MBCE Projects Ltd” (soon to be 30 years old) changed its name to Link Engineering and joined forces with the dynamic, vibrant Civil Engineering team after several years of joint working. Now, all that knowledge and experience is being applied across all Link Engineering activities.

Where it all began

Back in 1992, I was a young, chartered engineer with a big mortgage, loving wife, and a small baby.  I thought I had a good job with the substantial but old Birmingham practice of James Carrington and Partners.  I was a structural engineer in charge of their Marks & Spencer work (new build and modifications) and developing a healthy market (building on a massive Carrington track record) for them in manufacturing (Land Rover) with a few other projects (Gaydon Motor Museum) thrown in. 

I was, though, something of a new broom in an old-fashioned business.  Before Carrington’s and after my PhD, I had worked at Arups and DGI on a wide range of projects, both large and small. These included the Birmingham Convention Centre, Pavilions Shopping Centre, Black Country Limestone mine evaluation, British Gas R&D headquarters, apartment blocks, hospitals, nursing homes, and Jaguar Cars’ heavy press shop. 

Unfortunately, there was a recession in 1992 and many of the Carrington directors I worked with most closely were encouraged to retire.  I felt safe, though, because I was personally earning fees greater than many times my salary for the practice.  It came as a bit of a shock to realise that my face didn’t fit with the remaining directors, and I was made redundant.  I had a stark choice: set up a new business or try to land a good job in a market where, all around me, others were losing theirs. 

So, MBCE was born!  No work to start me off, no money in the bank, and just a vague feeling that if I could earn decent fees for others then I should be able to do it for myself.

The beginnings of a business

The early days weren’t a great deal of fun. Really just a case of doing anything (including house and shop condition surveys) to create some income and putting as much effort as I could into talking to people to let them know I was open for business, not a natural skill for most engineers. 

What I soon discovered was that even people who knew me were very reticent about giving a start-up structural engineering business any decent projects to get my teeth into.  It was quite the breakthrough when I won a project at Wolverhampton University to remodel an office building! At the same time, I also worked as a sub-consultant on Sears Retail Park, Shirley, to co-ordinate services and road diversions. 

From those early springboard projects, I managed to create enough market confidence to get back to trading on my former structural experience, leading to work modifying large town centre shopping centres around the UK for incoming retailers and cutting and carving industrial buildings.  The Sears team became Helical Retail and new out of town shopping centre developments around the UK followed.

The early days were a bit hand-to-mouth regarding the other members of the MBCE team, which mostly involved working with people I had known in my previous work. 

I was always particularly keen to have robust quality processes and became dogmatic about ensuring that checking always happened and consisted of a bit more than a quick look over the calcs. With a small team, that often meant paying outside civil engineering consultants to check our work. 

In 1997, a close friend and former colleague from Arup, Nick Hirschman, returned from Cape Town and I offered him a couple of weeks work. However, it panned out rather differently!  Nick stayed, became a director, and remains today an integral part of the Link Engineering team.  Perry Millward followed as a third director a couple of years later and brought with him a lot of design and build experience working for contractors with particular strengths in health and education, until his retirement in 2021.  Simon Curtis, another former Arup colleague, joined the team as a director in 2020, again bringing with him a wealth of experience and contacts including, amongst other things, high rise residential work.

Developing as a collective

Between us, we have developed a strong reputation as building structural engineers in a wide range of sectors.  Economic times change and the sort of work we have done has changed with it.  Manufacturing buildings demand a specialist skill set which were, for a while, our ‘bread and butter’. But, over time, demand dropped as manufacturing migrated offshore, so it’s good to see it coming back into our workload again. 

We have often had a steady, continuous workload building new or extending existing schools, colleges, health centres, and hospitalsLeisure clients, including Showcase Cinemas and Goals Soccer, have used us to develop and reconfigure sites all over the UK.  Similarly, we have discovered that we seem to have more experience of repairing aging twentieth century buildings and car parks than most of our competitors, and that has become something of a niche market. 

New out of town shopping centres and supermarkets are becoming rare as a consequence of the growth of online retail.    However, perhaps the advent of distribution and logistics structural engineering projects, which are now an important part of our market, has come about as the other side of that same coin.

We often had a need for external civil engineering input on our building projects which exceeded our in-house capacity, which usually included car parks, service yards, roads, and drains.  We adopted the same rigorous approach to quality of those elements by working with outside resources. 

Working with Link Engineering

We came to work closely with the founders of Link Engineering and continued to do so as Link grew – there are a lot of good synergies between the approach and delivery of engineering consulting services for development projects.  It also became apparent to us that the feasibility of many building projects, especially in logistics, is led by civil engineering and transport considerations.  Clients are then inclined to want to use the same team throughout a project and don’t want different entities for building structures and civil engineering. 

We have worked hard this year to manage the name change from MBCE to Link Engineering and to bring our clients with us.  We think we have succeeded, and after 30 years we are looking forward to Link Engineering being the first name our customers consider when they want efficient structural engineering solutions for many years to come.

(The baby is also thirty now and, unlike her little sister, has stayed firmly away from Engineering)