Formulating policy, advocating and encouraging more young people to enter the industry are at the top of the agenda for the new Civil Contractors association chief. Peter Silcock chatted with RICHARD SILCOCK (a distant relation) about his new job, his background, the issues he sees facing the industry and where he would like to take the organisation.
PETER SILCOCK TOOK over the reins at CCNZ some seven months ago after three decades advocating for the horticultural industry. At 57 he says his bungee-jumping and mountain biking days may be over, but he is still very excited about his new role.
Born in Christchurch, he moved to Lower Hutt with his parents and attended Naenae College before going on to Victoria University where he qualified with a BSc degree. Geography, he says, was his strongest subject and he had early thoughts of becoming a secondary school teacher. His first job, while still at university was however with a small construction firm and after graduating he took up a position with the Lands and Survey Department (now Land Information NZ) in an administrative role which saw him assisting new farmers get onto farms. This, together with being involved in the formation of the Whanganui National Park in the mid-80s, provided the beginnings of acquiring good negotiation skills and dealing with people.
Such skills were soon noticed by other employers. The New Zealand Vegetable Growers Federation offered him a role as executive officer and this introduced him to working for an industry advocacy organisation. When the chief executive position becoming vacant six years later, he was appointed into that role, a position he retained for seven years. In 1997, while still retaining his role at Vegetable Growers he was also appointed chief executive of the NZ Fruit Growers Federation. When the two amalgamated in 2005 Peter was retained as chief executive and this saw him manage the merger of the two organisations and the rebrand as Horticulture New Zealand.
“Working with growers was very satisfying and with over 5000 members in the industry they collectively play a very important part in the wellbeing and economy of the country,” he says.
The role took him all around the country, interacting with growers, listening to their issues, and banging the drum on their behalf on a range of things – from biosecurity and border protection matters through to marketing and driving a growing export sector. This often involved considerable liaison with governments and being the face for the media. Such was his success, he became known as ‘Mr Horticulture’ with a high media profile and the go-to person the media sought out for comment.
Looking for another challenge early last year, he was ‘asked’ if he would be interested in heading up Civil Contractors and he again jumped at the chance.
“While the membership of Civil Contractors is small by comparison (400 members and 200 affiliated members), I saw an opportunity to bring my particular skill set of industry representation, leadership and building relationships to the role, while continuing to build on the work achieved by my predecessors.
“From a leadership perspective both the commercial growing and contracting industries have many similarities. I often say they both move dirt but for different reasons! Both involve working with and empathising with people, offering guidance, formulating policy, representing members, advocating, fostering innovation and promoting change where needed.
“To some degree both industries are interrelated.”
Both rely on each other, he adds, for without the infrastructure of roads and ports etc growers would not easily get their produce to market, and conversely the development of roads and ports would not be given the same priority without the need for conveying freight and produce to market.
“While the particular issues and challenges for the two industries may be different, I see financial survival in a constantly changing business environment as being the most critical challenge ahead.
“With the government’s recent announcement of a $110 billon infrastructure plan for the next 10 years, I believe the contracting industry as a whole can look forward to a lot of work going forward.
“It is however going to be about meeting the pace of change by working smarter and using technology. Business is becoming more complex, so it is about being mindful of the environmental legislation, the changes in work procurement processes, following principles of good practice, working in an increasingly competitive market and meeting the new health and safety requirements.
“I see our role as being not only the industry voice and supporting and providing value for our members, but also assisting them to meet the challenges and adjustments ahead. I also see us inspiring young people to look at contracting as a good career and a job of choice. We cannot all be brain surgeons or astronauts, but we will need good digger operators for example who can follow a plan and understand and use the new technology if we are to build this quality infrastructure.”
On the subject of the RMA and the new Health and Safety Act (the latter comes into force at the beginning of April), Peter says he sees the RMA as requiring some streamlining in balancing the environment with development.
“There have been some time-consuming ‘roadblocks’ experienced in the past with legal hearings etc holding up some developments. While being mindful of the environment and working to conserve it, construction for the benefit of the community must be considered.
“Engagement, consultation and building relationships with affected communities by and large finds an equitable pathway forward that is suitable for contractors, the client and the public. The new Kapiti Expressway is a good example of this where wetlands have been preserved and even added to.
“In relation to the Health and Safety Act, I believe it is a step in the right direction. We need to foster greater employee engagement and get people away from the notion of she’ll be right, as is so often found in smaller organisations, and follow a policy of good practice with good systems in place and a culture of safety for all concerned. Many companies already have good work-safe practices in place and as an organisation we are working with the NZ Transport Agency and the Construction Safety Council to inspire people and organisations to work safely and with due diligence.”
As to the future, Peter would like to see Civil Contractors as an organisation take on more leadership through the provision of advocacy and the dissemination of timely information and communication through more open, two-way dialogue with members. An increase in the frequency of the member newsletter is also on his agenda.
“I am also very supportive of the recently announced Civil Trades Certificate. It will help lift the perception of the industry and the expertise of the people who work in it, and provide recognition of the skills they have.”
On a personal front Peter is spending time with his children and says he pursues other hobbies such as gardening and watching sport – activities which he shares with his wife Annie. Finding a good work-life balance is, he says, important and having just returned from a relaxing summer holiday at Woolley’s Bay near Tutukaka, Peter says he is ‘recharged’ and ready to meet the challenges ahead for the contracting industry.
“I am passionate about the task ahead and hope I can make a significant contribution for the benefit of the contracting industry,” he says.
“At the end of the day I would like to think people will say, Peter has done a good job and put his all into it.”
“From a leadership perspective both the commercial growing and contracting industries have many similarities. I often say they both move dirt but for different reasons!”