Employee ownership helps engineering company take long-term approach.

Beca Group chief executive Keith Reynolds fronts up to the Herald the day after attending the forum to co-ordinate a business response to the tragedy in Christchurch.

The company's 23 Christchurch-based staff and their families are physically unharmed, Reynolds reports. The PWC building in the central business district, where Beca is based, suffered some damage but is structurally sound.

His team of engineers should know; they are people whose calling involves the planning, design and implementation of building projects from the smallest toilet block in Myanmar to the skyscrapers of Singapore and a large desalination plant in Melbourne.

Staff are also seasoned hands at disaster relief - and not just in Christchurch. Beca is heavily involved in Brisbane's rebuild from flooding and helped shape Romania's building code to reduce damage from seismic activity.

In Christchurch, Beca engineers are scouring the crippled city to assess the structural soundness, or lack thereof, of critical infrastructure and buildings. One team is seconded to Civil Defence; another to urban search and rescue.

"They're going through the hard stuff," Reynolds says.

The public don't know a lot about Beca because it is employee-owned and, therefore, doesn't get the sort of media coverage afforded listed entities of a similar size.

Beca generated revenue of $366 million in the year to March 2010, roughly doubling turnover since 2005. It employs 2500 people, more than 900 of whom are shareholders.

It's a big company, operating across the Asia-Pacific region. In 2009 its engineers took home the supreme prizes at the NZ International Business Awards and the Engineering Excellence Awards. Last year Deloitte named it New Zealand company of the year and its finance team also took the top accolade.

Perhaps typifying the company's business ethos is a little in-house magazine that skites about its many projects. Some seem like tin-pot operations, generating next to no profit but, crucially, offering ingenious engineering solutions to intractable problems, such as extracting potable water from a tainted source. And these little jobs are extolled as much as the huge projects, such as the $5 billion Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, or its headline-grabbing work at the New Zealand pavilion in Shanghai.

Having interviewed, over many years, Beca chairman Richard Aitken, chief financial officer Chye Heng and its chief executive, I can report that its leaders really do evince what Reynolds calls "a common identity".

Perhaps it is the ownership structure, unusual among large New Zealand companies, that engenders such singularity of purpose. After all, public and private companies are forever changing ownership and leadership but Beca claims to still hold true to the ethos of its founders; the late George Beca, Gavin Cormack and Sir Ron Carter - people Reynolds calls "my forefathers".

"Often the temptation for growth will lead to short-term options like listing or heavy borrowing, which then direct you into a certain business structure," Reynolds says. "If you take a long-term approach, as my forefathers have, then it provides options for a more sustainable integrity within the business."

To be a shareholding employee is by invitation only but the fact that more than a third hold a stake suggests the executive is determined to operate a broad church.

"Our model is a very attractive one," Reynolds says - its success demonstrates that debt and public ownership are not the only vehicles for growth.

During the financial crisis, the hammer fell hardest on the construction sector, to which consulting engineers are intrinsically linked, but Beca managed to double revenue. "One of our themes as a business is around diversity," he says. Beca manages "a suite of services" across different geographies and sectors, reducing the risk from cyclical downturns.

"We have a 90-year pedigree and we want to ensure we're here for the next 90 years," he says.

Reynolds says Beca's longevity is built on "substance and a deeply embedded culture" that prizes above all "the sustainable long-term future of our business".