Britain's Most Admired Companies 2021: The top 10

Which companies made it to the top of the rankings?

by Robert Jeffery
Interior shot of London's Kings Cross station

1. Arup

The most disruptive businesses aren’t necessarily the most successful. But Arup has steered a profitable path between challenging convention and bringing home the bacon ever since it was founded in London in 1946. Its Most Admired crown is recognition not just of a hugely financially successful year (2020 operating profits more than doubled to £63m) but also that it feels like a firm facing the multiple challenges of our future with an unshakeable confidence. Arup’s services span everything from technical advice to system integration, but in essence it brings the vision of the world’s leading architects to fruition through its superior project management and logistical skills, which have been behind everything from Apple’s spectacular ovular Californian headquarters to London’s Shard. Along the way, it insists on doing the right thing: its 16,000 staff share in its profits and can spread their working hours across the entire week, while its commitment to sustainability means it is now refusing to take on any work that will involve the extraction of fossil fuels – an industry first. “Social usefulness” has long been one of its guiding principles. Now, it seems the rest of the world is catching up.

2. Entain plc

Gambling businesses are rarely admired, not least because they struggle to portray themselves as responsible corporate actors. Entain – the business behind Ladbrokes, Coral and online giant Bwin, which first came to prominence as GVC Holdings in 2004 – is trying its best to turn the tide and was cited by numerous Most Admired panellists for its efforts to tackle problem gambling, alongside wider ESG issues. It is Entain’s bottom line, however, which has made 2021 a stellar inaugural year for chief executive Jette Nygaard-Andersen, the first woman to lead a major betting firm. Its BetMGM joint venture now has a quarter of the newly liberalised US sports betting market, which continues to expand, and its investment in esports and gaming means the end of lockdown shouldn’t take the gloss off its impressive earnings growth. And while it still has a footprint of physical stores, this is not a business rooted in the past or reliant on controversial fixed-odds betting terminals, as its recent investments in technology demonstrate.

3. Pennon Group

Covid has led to a hike in demand for domestic water services – music to the ears of Pennon, owner of South West Water, which last year sold its waste management arm to concentrate on H2O. The business, one of only four in the FTSE 350 to be led by both a female chief executive and chair, has been rewarded for its solid financial performance (2020-21’s £157m pre-tax profit was slightly down on the previous year but is still regarded as respectable) and its growing customer base, which now stands at 3.5 million, mostly across the south west of England, where it spent more than £800m on buying Bristol Water in 2021. The elephant in the room is regulation: Ofwat has promised to scrutinise “outsize” profits among water firms and South West was one of the worst offenders for sewage-related pollution, which has led to negative headlines this year. Like the rest of its industry, Pennon will spend 2022 cleaning up its act as well as cleaning up the profits.

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