It’s barely a year since the merger of the old Contractors Federation with Roading New Zealand to form Civil Contractors NZ, and new president Brian Warren is on a mission to maximise the merger’s benefits. By Hugh de Lacy.
Brian Warren, who recently left Christchurch-based Isaac Construction after 11 years as its chief executive, says he’s “got some work to do to hike the value proposition of membership” to the nearly 400 individuals and companies that comprise it.
That includes convincing more of those contractors still out in the wilderness to see the value of Civil Contractors membership.
“It’s difficult at times for some businesses to see what they’re missing out on by not being members when the membership ranges in size from Fletcher Construction at one end to Joe Bloggs at the other,” Warren says.
“We have been fragmented, and we need to speak with one voice with an industry body that is respected and listened to.”
One of the most difficult challenges for the smaller operators that Warren is keen to draw into Civil Contractors is that of procurement, where there is a perception that the big operators grab the main contracts and it’s up to the sub-contractors to wheedle a slice of the action.
“The reality is that the opportunities exist for all-sized operations; it’s a matter of positioning your business and building relationships.”
There’s an inherent conflict in this structure for a single organisation, and prior to the merger it expressed itself in the mutual suspicions between the two.
“When there were two organisations a lot of time was wasted almost arguing with each other,” Warren says.
Warren himself was a key figure in getting them to talk, then work together, and finally to merge, but that’s just the start, he says, and 15 months down the road the imperative is to ensure that the spirit of bonding around a mutual interest is paramount.
The structure’s in place, he says, and now it’s up to the industry to make it work.
His own start in the industry began after schooling at Christchurch Boys’ High, followed by a degree in civil engineering from the University of Canterbury School of Engineering in 1976.
He began his career with British Pavements that year, and continued with Fulton Hogan following the former’s takeover in 1981.
From site engineer he rose to divisional manager, which included a 15-month assignment managing a fledgling operation in Brisbane.
From 1990 to 1998, and from then until 2004 he was Fulton Hogan’s regional manager for, successively, Marlborough and Dunedin.
Warren then returned to his hometown to take up the role as chief executive of local firm Isaac Construction, 17 years after the death of its founder Sir Neil Isaac, who was survived until 2012 by his wife, Diana Lady Isaac.
The Isaacs had met on a ship heading for India after World War Two, in which Neil Isaac had served as a military engineer, and he saw off the intense English competition for the glamorous Diana Gilbert’s hand by declining to line up for services aboard the ship, remarking bluntly to her that “New Zealanders don’t stand in queues”.
At the helm of Isaac, Warren cranked the firm up from 140 staff to 250 by the time he left, seeing it safely through the Global Financial Crisis and then the Canterbury earthquakes.
Driven by engineering pragmatism, he was throughout this time at the forefront of managerial developments in the civil construction industry, including the evolution of joint ventures.
Though relatively young at 61, Warren’s decision to leave Isaac was prompted by a desire to go out on his own as a consultant after 40 years working in the corporate sector.
The move has by no means reduced his commitment to the wider industry, as evidenced by his election as Civil Contractors president and chair of the Civil Trades Certification Board.
Even before the election he had accepted the role as chairman of the Canterbury Aggregates Producers Group, originally formed in late 2008 to provide input into the Christchurch District Plan Review, something that was sidelined by the earthquakes in 2010-2011.
“A number of players had concerns about the district plan rules, and we wanted to assist the local authorities in drafting a new one,” Warren says.
“Over the years the group has been extensively involved in many planning and resource management initiatives with both the Christchurch City Council [CCC] and ECan [Environment Canterbury] in clouding the latest CCC District Plan Review.”
The group’s current priority is representing the owners of 10 quarries seeking ECan, CCC and Selwyn District Council consent to dig their quarries deeper than the present limits of a metre above the highest ever recorded groundwater level.
It’s a fraught issue revolving around protection of the city’s famously pure subterranean water supply, but the process of getting consent is still under way, and Warren will not be drawn into commenting on it.
The alternative to digging deeper is to shift operations elsewhere when they run out of their existing resource, something that would involve massive capital expenditure by the quarry operators.
That local matter aside, Warren says the outlook for the civil construction industry he heads is bright, with $110 billion of infrastructure spending forecast for the next decade.
That’s an impressive figure, but Warren says it masks the reality that the amount of work presently available varies widely throughout the country.
The Christchurch re-build and the Auckland housing shortage are the big drivers nationally, and while the likes of Central Otago, Bay of Plenty and Northland are in boom mode, work is patchy indeed in many of the provinces.
Christchurch has seen a marked drop-off in work over the past six months, and the 60 company liquidations that have occurred since the start of the re-build include well-established construction companies, no less than the plethora of painters, sparkies and carpenters.
And if there’s one lesson that Warren has learnt about the industry over his decades in it, it’s that, “You’re never going to be able to stop the boom-and-bust.”