Contracting politics can be a lonely game

For nearly six years Jeremy Sole lived alone in Wellington without his family while working on behalf of contractors. He talks about the experience to Civil Contractors life member GAVIN RILEY.

IF 2002 HAD NOT TURNED out to be the National Party’s worst-ever performance at the polls, Jeremy Sole would have become the MP for Northcote and been set for a long career in politics that would, according to a party high-up, have taken him to ministerial heights.

Politics’ loss, as we know, was the civil-construction industry’s gain. But, ironically, during the entirety of Jeremy’s near six years as chief executive of the Contractors’ Federation he lived the uncomfortable life of an MP, leaving his young family behind in Birkenhead, Auckland, while he flatted in Wellington.

To fill in his evenings he worked all hours, cycled round the bays or played golf at Makara’s rustic nine-hole course, while doing a lot of strategising.

Strategising, as Jeremy discovered while studying for his MBA in 2006, is something he’s good at. It was a strength the former Stevenson’s executive brought to the contractors’ CEO role, along with an ability to understand and empathise with small businesses.

He also brought enviable political knowledge and contacts.

“I knew the people, the prime minister and ministers, not as personal friends but well enough and we knew the cut of each other’s jib and how we operated. That doesn’t mean you walk in the door and say, I want you to do this, and you’ll get the result. But it means when you speak they understand who you are and what’s behind what you’re saying.

“I also had an understanding of the political process. Which is not the same thing as understanding the government process. Going through parliament is a physical process but the political process is an organic process.

“And you need to understand how the different personalities interact, what they’re thinking and what their agendas are, what their principles are and how strongly they might be holding on to them.”

He saw his role at the federation (now Civil Contractors NZ) as that of facilitator – a conduit between government and federation, and between federation executive and members. After initial “new broom” work to improve the organisation’s financial management, marketing and strategic direction, and to get more out of capable staff, it was a case of being fast out of the starting blocks.

“Anything to do with government legislation and government policy, if you find yourself trying to argue your position at a select committee or to a minister, you’ve often already missed the boat.”

Besides the facilitator tasks “there are equally important things around providing value for members and associates, and opportunities for them to develop and grow their businesses and to network”.

And when all cylinders are firing, “somehow the organisation acquires more mana, more respect, more ability to influence and make a difference. There’s no one thing you can say made that happen, but there’s a whole lot of things together that created it. That’s a bit of the role I came to understand better once I was in the job.”

Achievements on the Jeremy Sole watch included exceeding the 400-member threshold for the first time in many years, winning an intense battle to keep excavators out of parts of the Crane Code that would have cost contractors significantly more than they ended up paying, establishing coherence within the organisation through a “healthy industry” statement, influencing important reviews of NZS 3910 and the Construction Contracts Act, helping create strong relationships between branches and their local councils and MPs, and – most crucial of all – reaching agreement with the Transport Agency to introduce the Network Outcomes Contracts (NOC) after the bundling and aggregating of roading contracts had threatened the viability of smaller contractors.

“With the NOC, the reason I say a success, is because there’s mandatory subcontracts in there, there’s more contracts, there’s controls all the way through, and I think we made a tremendous contribution to that being a potentially healthy form of contract,” says Jeremy.

“Our work on the NOC was successful in terms of moderating what NZTA was trying to do and having them come on board with that was really good. We didn’t force them to do it, they actually willingly came with us in the end. The bit we didn’t resolve was this idea of large-scale, long-term contracts and I’m still uncomfortable with it.”

He says he tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Transport Agency to appoint an ombudsman for subcontractors under the NOC, and for Civil Contractors to set up an ethics committee. Instead, the agency understands that if “perverse behaviours” arise, it will need to intervene.

“So the NOC contract will only be good for the subcontractor industry to the extent that NZTA will rise to that challenge.”

Even to reach a less-than-perfect agreement demanded patience and tolerance which went the extra mile.

“It was really hard with NZTA. The guys at NZTA who were running it and us, Malcolm [Abernethy] and I, we looked each other in the eye and we agreed we would find a meeting of minds and we would be friends at the end of it and that it would be for the benefit of the industry.

“We always knew that was going to be the goal and we all held on to it – which allowed us to get quite shitty with each other in the meantime without destroying the relationship. So there were shouting matches.

“I wrote a letter of complaint and asked for mediation from Geoff Dangerfield at one stage, which really pissed a few people off, because I wasn’t making any traction in what I thought was quite a rational and logical thing. I got my way.”

Not everything was a win on the Sole watch, in his opinion.

Though the unification of Roading New Zealand and the Contractors’ Federation was achieved last year to form Civil Contractors NZ, he considers changing the name of the organisation – a condition of the coming-together – was “unfortunate”.

“I think there’s no obvious strategic benefit for doing that, and a considerable amount of mana lost. Government agencies and other people said it was such a strong brand and it carried so much mana, why would you get rid of it? People have said what are we – we used to be the federation? There was a real pride and a camaraderie and a family around the federation, and it is going to take some work to settle the new brand.”

In his view Civil Contractors won’t lack challenges in 2015.

New health and safety regulations (not the bogey they appear to be) will have to be digested and explained to members in simple form; the “big picture” will need to be enlarged whereby the executive council is constantly testing its thinking with branch committees and finding out what the industry is thinking (which may require a marketing position at national office); and how to react when the Government sets about altering the retentions law (large and small contractors’ interests differ).

Jeremy believes he left Civil Contractors at the end of last year with enhanced skills in government-relations, strategising and writing. He’ll be continuing as managing director of Contrafed Publishing until the mid-year AGM and he’s set himself up as JP Sole, management consultant and government-relations advocate, while looking for a more permanent position.

But he won’t try again to enter Parliament, professing himself to be “cured” of political ambition. After the equivalent of two parliamentary terms in the service of contractors, he’s glad to be back in Birkenhead with wife Fiona, Isabella 11, Catherine 10 and William 7 (“the children will love to read their names in print”).

Not that raising the family alone for six years was all hardship for Fiona.

“I kept trying to get her to move everybody down to Wellington because it seemed like the logical thing to do and it would save us a whole lot of money, because I was subsidising the travel, but she wouldn’t do it,” Jeremy says.

“A couple of years in we were at a dinner party, and one of her friends said, ‘How does this work’? And she said, ‘I get up in the morning with the kids, I get them all ready for school and send them on their way with no interruptions, and when they get home at night I’ve got a routine, and there are no interruptions’. And her friend said, ‘Oh, you lucky bitch’.”

As Jeremy happily rejoins his family, he wishes Civil Contractors well.

“My concern, I guess, is that the members have made their decision on the way things should be and it’s their challenge now.

“I want them to have a positive viewpoint for it, to engage and to believe that everything that’s happened has been positive, and the organisation’s in a stronger and better position, potentially, than it has been for a long, long time.”

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