Emerging leader makes his mark

The winner of the 2023 CCNZ Emerging Leader Award is a young project manager making a big impression at Utilities Infrastructure. By Mary Searle Bell.

Dunedin-born Ryan Thom always knew he would go into construction, just like his dad. As a youngster, he could often be found on site, working alongside his father.

“I was practically brought up on a building site,” he says. “But rather than taking up building like dad, at the end of high school, I thought I’d give engineering a pop.”

So, he headed to the University of Canterbury to study civil engineering.

“As I progressed through my degree, I got more and more keen on the construction-based stuff. I just loved it. And when I graduated, I had to choose between working in contracting, or as a consultant. As a people person, contracting was a better fit for me.”

In 2019 he took a graduate role with Brian Perry Civil, where he worked as a site engineer and was exposed to “heaps of cool projects around the country”.

“They gave me the opportunity to ‘step up’ and manage the 200-metre extension of the heritage platform at Greymouth Railway Station for KiwiRail. It was my first big leadership role.

“From there I went to Bluff, where we were doing a big wharf upgrade for South Port to future-proof Southland’s bitumen and fuel imports. I assisted in managing the piling ops for that.”

In mid-2021, Ryan was looking to base himself in Christchurch to be with his partner and saw “an awesome opportunity” with Utilities Infrastructure. It offered the next step up, and he joined the team as a junior project manager. After just a year with the team, he was bumped up to project manager.

“They’ve given me every opportunity to grow. I love being thrown in the deep end – being challenged.

“Utilities Infrastructure has an awesome management structure that lets you make your role what you want it to be.”

Company General Manager Gareth Bruce says he nominated Ryan for the CCNZ Emerging Leader Award because, although he’s just 27 years old and has fairly limited experience, he has unlimited potential.

“Ryan has been employed by Utilities Infrastructure for just under three years, starting as a junior project manager and now progressing to project manager, running the two largest projects we have secured in the past year.

“He’s managing complex, multi-million-dollar civil infrastructure projects, doing things that some people with 20 years of experience would struggle to do.”

One of those projects was the Kurimoto Seismic Resilient Ductile Iron Pipe (SRDIP) installation, the new bulk watermain feeding all of Lyttelton and the port. A total of 1.45 kilometres of this specialist pipe, which has the ability to move during an earthquake without breaking, was laid.

Ryan says; “I was working with an eight-man crew to deliver a pretty special and unique product – it was the first pipeline of its kind, serviceable in New Zealand, and a real forward-thinking piece of infrastructure.

“To complete the project, we had to have two weeks of in-depth training with the Japanese designers and manufacturers of the pipe.”

Right now, Thom is working in Palmerston North, installing a 5.4-kilometre pressure sewer for the Ohakea Airbase. “If you want to do the cool jobs, you have to be prepared to jump around a bit,” he says.

Jeff Sharp, the company’s trenchless operations manager, says Ryan’s attention to detail is something he’s not witnessed in a such a young man before.

“His passion and drive is to be the best that he can be, across all facets of the work he is involved with. But at the same time, he brings a humility and humour to his work, that makes him so good at relating to everybody that he’s in touch with.”

Gareth Bruce agrees; “He’s a motivator; able to get the most out of people around him, and always uses positivity and honesty to bring out the best of the teams that work with him to make sure he always delivers the result.”

Ryan says he likes to lead by example, and to know the people he’s working with – how they work and what makes them tick.

“It’s also important to celebrate the small things – to acknowledge the successes.”

Colleague Shaun Spencer, a foreman at Utilities Infrastructure, says Ryan has given him a lot of his time and energy.

“I know a lot of people in his position get tied up – it’s a very stressful job and they have a lot on their plates – but Ryan will step out, in his own time, and put effort into helping others. Not only in the field, but with bookwork too. “He’s pushed me a lot to help me get my Level 5 trade papers done. He just likes to see people go further.”

Ryan’s technical knowledge and engineering background complements the operational skills of the teams on the ground. Gareth Bruce says Ryan keeps the company up to date with the relevant standards through his memberships of both Engineering NZ and Civil Contractors NZ.

“And although he’s a qualified engineer, he’s just completed his Connexis Level 4 trade papers to help his understanding of the detailed requirements for the jobs that he’s running for us.

“He’s extremely dedicated to maintaining his professional knowledge and furthering his horizons in the civil infrastructure field.”

Ryan says he was “pretty humbled” to be put forward for the award and amazed to be picked as the winner.

“I pride myself on my work ethic, and so most of the time I’ve got my head down. The award nomination gave me a breather – the opportunity to look over what I’ve achieved so far.”

Eventually, Ryan would like to own his own contracting business, but he realises he has a lot to learn before then. Fortunately, he says Utilities Infrastructure is in a growth phase right now, so it has plenty of opportunities for him to continue expanding his experience and his skillset. Preparing him for the time when he’s ready to go out on his own.

“One day, I want to be able to drive my grandkids down the road and say, ‘grandad built that’.”

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