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Planning for Success: Alan Macdonald

For planning and design firm URBIS Limited, a culture of camaraderie is key to driving its growth both in Hong Kong and further afield, says Director Alan Macdonald.

It may be almost three decades ago now, but Alan Macdonald recalls the situation with clarity.

"We had 28 staff and not much money in the bank," he tells The CEO Magazine, his mind drifting back to 1995. "It was a daunting prospect."

The prospect in question was a management buyout led by his long-time business partner Sandy Duggie at Hong Kong-based town planning, urban and landscape design consultancy, URBIS Limited (URBIS).

Almost 30 years later, the duo remains at the helm, with Macdonald as Director and Planning and Urban Design Team Leader and Duggie as Managing Director.

Daunting it may have been, but something clicked.

"We managed to get projects almost immediately, and we grew rapidly after that. It’s been like an express train," Macdonald says, when asked about the URBIS journey since the buyout.

Casting a Wide Net

Together, they have overseen a multitude of residential and commercial projects in Asia and the Middle East, spanning the gamut of rural and urban landscapes and environments from golf courses to waterfronts, decommissioned airports to railways.

And they are not the only ones who have been shaping the business since the mid-1990s.

Currently, the board comprises seven directors and seven associate directors, together encompassing nine different nationalities, and leading a complement of 90 staff, from landscape architects and town planners to urban designers and horticulturalists in offices in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Peter Cookson Smith, who founded URBIS in 1977, remains a presence, popping into the office to write books and share his near 50-year knowledge of the business with the team.

"Peter’s not an employee, but we value his contribution enormously, he’s a fountain of knowledge about Hong Kong," Macdonald says.

"There’s a balance. If you’re not in touch with your team and appreciating the difficulties they may be having, then you’re not a good leader."

Given the longevity of such senior members of the team, it will not be a surprise to learn, then, that Macdonald lists staff camaraderie as an imperative in fostering a positive and successful working culture.

That not only means gathering together for social events, but learning about each other’s projects, their roles, and more broadly, familiarizing themselves with past work undertaken by the company.

Furthermore, staff are encouraged to pursue industry qualifications to enhance their professional development.

For Macdonald himself, the collaborative culture he has helped develop involves keeping abreast of any problems staff are encountering, but without breathing down their necks.

"There’s a balance. If you’re not in touch with your team and appreciating the difficulties they may be having, then you’re not a good leader. But you also can’t be authoritarian," he explains.

Delivering the Goods

Such camaraderie and teamwork has helped the company collect no fewer than 200 planning and design awards, many of them international, with Macdonald treasuring the Royal Town Planning Institute Award for Design Excellence.

"That’s the one I am personally most proud of," Macdonald says. "There was a lot of competition. For me, that was like receiving an Oscar."

If staff togetherness is one essential component of winning so many accolades, forging close relationships with partners is another. URBIS has a reputation for quality, having won more awards than any other local planning and landscape design consultancy. Top developers seek out URBIS to work on their most prestigious developments.

"URBIS is our long-term business partner supporting our development initiatives including residential, commercial, industrial, institutional and other mixed-use projects. URBIS is skilled in prioritizing sustainability in business and translating these insights into visualizable urban forms and urban design solutions. URBIS’ design skill and planning knowledge help bridge the aspirational gaps between the community, environment and business landscapes." – Leung Shu Ki, Senior Deputy General Manager, Property Development Department, Henderson Land Group


"Some of our bigger projects are with people we’ve worked with for many years," Macdonald says.

But as successful as URBIS has been, it knows, as any good business does, that it must continue to evolve and strive for improvement.

As ever, technology is a key area of focus, as is the need for sustainable development initiatives and techniques.

"We’re great believers in sustainable development, we’ve just done a presentation on biophilic development which is all about reconnecting humans with nature," Macdonald says. "We want to increase our role in creating sustainable environments."

"We want to increase our role in creating sustainable environments."

On the tech side, among URBIS’ aims is to improve its graphic expertise. The days of providing clip art for clients is fast disappearing as demand rises for more sophisticated imagery.

The company has made great strides in this area, Macdonald says, with the company possessing the ability to make movie-quality video of its projects.

"We used to outsource this work to contractors but we’ve now got a great in-house team who are able to create these very sophisticated CGI videos," he reveals.

It would seem that this express train is showing no sign of slowing down.

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