‘I put my all into it’

CCNZ chief executive, Peter Silcock retired at the end of last year after six-and-a-half years in the job. Richard Silcock (no relation), who interviewed Peter when he first took up his post, talked with him on the eve of his departure.

Affable, friendly and a good communicator are the personal attributes that would describe Peter Silcock, who in the few days prior to Christmas will hand over to his successor and leave the office to pursue the more relaxing activities that hopefully retirement brings.

“I may look to do some part-time or voluntary work at some stage, but I am looking forward to initially spending more time with my wife Annie and family and we have plans for a long trip away in February,” says Peter.

Peter came to the job at CCNZ back in July 2015, after a considerable period as chief executive of Horticulture NZ during its formation and the merger of the NZ Vegetable Growers Federation and NZ Fruit Growers Federation.

“Interestingly, Horticulture NZ and CCNZ have some very similar parallels from a leadership perspective as both involve empathising with people, formulating policy, representation, advocacy, fostering innovation, communications and promoting change where needed.

“I’ve really enjoyed my time here,” he says. “It has presented some new challenges for me and I’ve met and worked with some great people and got to grips with the issues facing the industry.

“We now have a slightly bigger and stronger team and I have enjoyed the support from across the membership and the Board of CCNZ.”

Peter says some of the biggest challenges have been centred around the forever changing pipeline of work, maintaining a healthy industry where there are opportunities for all sizes of contractors and trying to get clients to focus on value and relationships rather than lowest costs and risk transfer.

He also praised CCNZ’s technical manager, saying Stacy Goldsworthy has done a great job in developing protocols for managing Covid impacts, the handling of bituminous materials, working around the issues of Covid and the subsequent lockdowns and implementing greater controls around roadworks safety. We have also been advocating for more continuity and a sustainable pipeline of work without the highs and lows which have made future planning difficult for companies, both in staffing and in acquiring equipment and resources.

“It’s been a pretty busy six plus years and the job has been far more hands-on compared to my time with Horticulture NZ where I had a staff of around 26. When I started here we only had six staff so it has been a case of being involved not only from a leadership perspective, but in many cases hitting the ground and physically implementing things.

“I’ve really enjoyed that as it enabled me to establish some good relationships with our membership around the country from both small and large companies.

“Members seem pretty happy with what we have done and we have built some good relationships not only with members, but also with clients such as the local councils and organisations like the Infrastructure Commission and the NZTA, MATES in construction and Construction Health and Safety NZ as well as other construction industry organisations like Registered Master Builders and the Construction Industry Council.

“From CCNZ’s perspective, it’s about what our members are saying and the feedback suggests we are delivering what they want and they are talking to their colleagues in a positive way about us and this has helped grow the membership and strengthen our position as the industry voice and advocate.

“As an organisation we have deliberately increased and improved the amount of member communication and I think that’s been pretty important. We have done this through the appointment of communications manager Fraser May and a new membership and events manager, Eve Cooper; as a result we have raised our profile and broadened the channels we use for our communications.

“In addition to our regular newsletters we are now utilising webinars and social media to connect with our younger members.

“It’s also been pleasing to see our Branches develop too partly due to being better connected with them and we are seeing more membership growth as a result.

“Branches are doing a great job at the local level, with for example, big regional construction awards events, which I think is great as it helps to draw people in to celebrate achievements and foster greater collectiveness.

“Our branches are really important in terms of keeping in touch at grass root level on what is happening locally and we have strengthened our relationship with them.

“This not only helps lift our profile, but perhaps more importantly it positions us as the central advocate for the industry and shows members we are doing this job on their behalf.

“Interestingly, during the Covid lockdowns our membership increased and has continued do so since. I put that down to their need for information about working under the Covid guidelines. We were seen to be the reliable source of information for members in a time of uncertainty.

“We were able to step up, be responsive and provide timely and accurate information for our members.”

Peter says providing information to the media about civil contracting has been another aspect of his job. It is important to retain a media presence as it helps to reinforce our messaging and it often puts pressure on politicians to respond to our issues.”

On the question of advocacy, Peter says he has built some good relationships and credibility with politicians, but perhaps more importantly, he has ‘welded’ the two separate organisations, Roading NZ and the Contractors’ Federation, into one organisation, with one voice and a collaborative common agenda.

“The merger had occurred by the time I arrived – it was my job to make sure it worked for all parties.

“That has been a key and important achievement merging and consolidating the two organisations and I think it is working well,” says Peter.

“Members have recognised we are one organisation speaking for the whole contracting industry.

“The key is to recognise the differences in needs of members and do our best to meet them. What road contractors are interested in is sometimes different from three waters contractors, just like Auckland contractors and Canterbury contractors may sometimes be interested in different issues, the same goes for big and small contractors.

“We need to cater for all those views; they are rarely in conflict as we are all in the same business and need to focus on similarities not differences. Together we are stronger for everyone.”

Recruitment and attracting young people to enter the industry has been another matter that has been on Peter’s agenda and he says while we have made some progress there is still a huge amount to do.

“It has been a real challenge, but we have put some measures in place such as our Epic Careers in Infrastructure campaign and this is going some way in attracting more young people to the industry,” he says.

“There has also been an upswing in the number of females seeking positions and this is pleasing to see.

“One of the reasons school leavers don’t see our industry as being an attractive career option is because they don’t know much about it. It is not widely promoted within schools and this needs further work. For instance, working outside and being part of a team, working with state-of-the-art technology, operating some big machinery and building infrastructure for the nation.

“We need to look at ways of connecting more young people with the industry through training and job opportunities with greater recognition given to manual skills. Right now we have around 600 civil trade’s qualified people in the country which is good start, but we need to increase that number and I would like to see it becoming a prerequisite, with clients stipulating at the very least that on-site supervisors must be qualified.

“To lessen our dependency on bringing labour and skills from overseas, it’s about ensuring we have the trained, skilled and qualified people here, along with the right equipment and availability of resources.

“Even if we start now it’s going to take several years to bring the needs of the industry up to a desirable level but this is closely linked to having a continuity of projects in the pipeline.

“Right now, I would say there is a need for more people with rail, water infrastructure and underground tunnelling skills and experience. There are some large projects looming requiring these skills, but we need to see more evidence of a continuity of work from Government and a flow-on of projects irrespective of who is in power.

“In regards to contracts – I am seeing more long-term contracts being entered into, particularly in regards to maintenance work and this is probably a good thing as far as planning goes and as we move away from the lowest price procurement tender scenarios of past years into what economic/social/environmental/experience benefits are being provided by the tenderer in addition to a fair price.

“The industry is also entering into a time where carbon emissions are being closely scrutinised and as users of some pretty big, diesel powered equipment, I can see this being an issue for the industry – for example the Government’s desire to see more battery powered vehicles in future.

“There are advances being made with technology in this regard but I don’t see battery power as being the immediate answer for this industry as currently battery power output and recharging could be an issue. Perhaps the answer lies in hydrogen fuel cell technology and there are some advances being made with that.”

On the Government’s recently announced, and controversial, three water reforms Peter remains neutral and sees it from a civil contracting perspective.

“There is a clear need for much more investment in water infrastructure, both in terms of development and maintenance.

“Whether what is proposed is the right model remains to be seen, but from an industry perspective it will be the clients who decide. If we can get the funding and Governance right there is a lot of work to do, so we need to be sure we can deliver what is required when the time comes.”

Likewise on the reforms of the RMA, Peter says he welcomes and supports the new legislation but does not think it will work in its current state without sufficient detail being added.

“I believe the proposed Natural and Built Environments Act (NBA), the first tranche of the RMA reform, will be one of the most important pieces of legislation proposed in recent years.

“While councils will be at the sharp end of managing the process once the legislation is introduced by Government, civil contractors will be the ones bound by and actually implementing it.

“The RMA has done nothing to halt the decline in the natural environment, but it has added substantial time and costs to the development of infrastructure and the built environment in this country and has contributed to the rising cost of construction and building.

“The issue for me is that councils will need a lot more clarity around how to balance between environmental protection and social and cultural well-being, and how to avoid holdups in the design/planning approval process which has been a stumbling block of the current Act which has been in place for 30 years, so this reform is an opportunity to get it right.”

On commenting about the CCNZ Executive Council, Peter says his working relationship has been really good.

“One of the things I looked at before I took the job was who was on the Executive Council, as I wanted to see that both the larger and the smaller players in the contracting business were represented and I have been pleased this balance has been maintained throughout my time here, with a lot of valuable foresight, guidance and contributions made at that level.

“Likewise, I have enjoyed my time on the Contrafed Board (publishers of Contractor magazine). It’s been enjoyable and I have appreciated working with Charlie Taylor who has been doing a bloody good job in his role as chairperson but I won’t be staying on the board as I believe it is best served by the new CEO of CCNZ.”

Asked if he would have liked to have done more or done anything differently during his time with CCNZ, Peter says he is generally pleased with what has been achieved.

“Yes there is always more to do, such as promoting civil trades and I would have liked to have seen it as being more ‘main-stream’ within the industry than it currently is and with more recognition given to it.

“I think some of the Epic Careers work has been significant, but we now need to look at ways of better connecting people with jobs as the next step. We did set out to do that initially and asked the branches to support us in making it happen, but it has unfortunately been a bit inconsistent.

“In hindsight maybe we should have invested more time and funding and made it a bigger part in the whole delivery of the campaign but the reality was we did not have the available funds at the time, so we could only do so much, but I’m pretty happy with what was achieved and ongoing.

“And as previously mentioned, we need Government to address the labour shortage by investing more in skills training. At CCNZ we have discussed having a work-force development person on board to manage that element, but we haven’t got that far as yet.

“The Government also needs to invest more in road maintenance and get our road network back up to scratch as this has been neglected over the past decade, with a ‘sweat the asset’ approach.

“However I believe I am leaving at a time when the civil contracting industry is in a reasonably strong and vibrant position and I would like to think that in my time with CCNZ I have helped lift the profile of the industry and CCNZ at a central and local government level and advocated on behalf of the membership for the things that needed clarification, improvement and positive change.

“Generally speaking we [CCNZ] are about what is good for the industry as a whole and we perhaps need to promote that a bit more.”

When I reminded Peter of when I interviewed him shortly after he took up the position with CCNZ that he had said he wanted to take on the challenges and the issues facing the civil contracting industry because it was; “something I could put my all into,” I asked if he thought he had done this.

His response was that he was pleased with what he had achieved and brought to the organisation and that he had certainly ‘put his all into it’.

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