From the rugby field to Downer’s management

After a promising career as a professional rugby player, Craig West hung up his boots and re-joined his former employer, Downer NZ in 2009 and is now executive general manager for transport infrastructure services. Richard Silcock interviews him over his career and the civil contracting industry in general.

Let’s start with a brief look at your background: As a rugby player, how, when you got into civil contracting and why you chose this career?

I started in the industry working alongside my father doing summer jobs. It was this that showcased for me the career opportunities available in civil engineering. I started as a cadet with Downer in 2001 and shortly afterwards was offered a position with the Chiefs and the Maori All Blacks. My boss, who coincidentally is still my boss, supported my development by allowing me the flexibility to play rugby and return when I was done.

What attributes do you bring to your current role as a senior manager and how do you motivate people?

My time in high performance sport set some solid foundations for my attitude and approach to work. I’ve spent time shaping our teams and working with our graduates, cadets and apprentices to help them shape their careers.

The advice I give them is: know your strengths and build on them, be proactive, don’t be afraid of failure, challenge yourself and push hard to reach goals.

It is important to maintain a positive attitude as setbacks are unavoidable and are an inevitable part of life so it is important to manage stress ¬– you’ll not only grow as a person but you’ll be able to bring others on the journey with you.

Tell me about one of the more interesting/challenging/meaningful projects you have been involved with. What briefly did it entail?

For me the most meaningful project has been the growth and development of our Maori people.

While we have many successful programmes, our Te Ara Whanake is probably the most important as it has helped shape our business. Started in 2014 this leadership programme has lifted the participation levels of our Maori workforce.

It specifically focuses on embracing their heritage and shaping their leadership in a heritage context. It has been very successful and we have over 200 graduates of the programme. In addition our retention rate has improved and our engagement with iwi has grown and developed.

What changes have you seen affecting the industry over the last decade, ie: contracts, procurement, government policy on new roads, sustainability and risk issues etc. How do you see the next couple of years panning out?

One of the things I am most excited about going forward are the shifts we are seeing in procurement, both at government level and client level. Some clients are transitioning to active engagement in the supply chain and choosing to be leaders in strategy, safety and sustainability.

An example of this is our contract with the New Plymouth District Council where health and safety is at the forefront of our work and planning is designed to eliminate risk and remove barriers to productivity.

Our recent work at Queenstown Airport where the client specifically requested the use of recycled materials in the resurfacing of the apron is a good example of environmental sustainability.

We used a product which utilises spent toner cartridges from printers and recycled glass in the paving mix and it was produced on-site using our mobile asphalt plant.

Avoiding the boom and bust cycles of infrastructure construction is critical for creating a sustainable industry. We need to collectively maintain investment in growing the right capability and skill sets to enable this country to flourish and this can only be done with the surety of forward work.

In terms of where funds are spent I remain reasonably neutral and recognise that it is the role of government to determine this.

However it is important that the industry is engaged in policy changes so that required skill are developed and a flow of work maintained. This is at the heart of a sustainable industry and its ability to provide improvements in safety, quality and productivity.

The H&S Act has been criticised by some as being too cumbersome and that one policy does not fit all. Is this a fair statement in your opinion? Does Downer have any issues in relation to the Act and its enforcement?

In essence, the Act may have changed but the intent is still the same – it’s about ensuring people are safe at work. Safety isn’t something that just happens. We plan for safety in all our projects which is another reason we promote operational excellence across our business.

In 2016 our employees participated in our Stand-in-the-Gap programme to develop a safety culture. The message was simple: everyone has the power to stop unsafe work practices regardless of their position. We continue to promote safety by personalising safety messages through videos, our First Day Back programme, tool box talks etc.

As an industry we need to shift our focus on safety to one of zero harm for both our people and for our environment. We also need to shift our minds away from a culture of compliance to a culture of commitment.

This extends to having a greater focus on the psychological safety of people and this is generally less understood and supported by comparison to physical safety. Statistics and anecdotal evidence suggest that this needs to become a priority for the industry.

“As an industry we need to shift our focus on safety to one of zero harm for both our people and for our environment. We also need to shift our minds away from a culture of compliance to a culture of commitment.”

What H&S precautions have been put in place following the 2016 bridge incident where a worker lost sight in one eye following the disintegration of an angle grinder blade?

Downer agreed to an ‘Enforceable Undertaking’ with WorkSafe [published in Contractor magazine in 2018)] that included a wide range of initiatives to help improve safety and we have done a significant amount of work to shift behaviour.

Our key area of focus has been to enhance safety in this area particularly for our subcontractors and we have implemented a standardised process to ensure our subbies follow an induction path and receive ongoing monitoring, reviewing and management.

The civil contracting industry is quite competitive. What is Downer’s point of difference when competing for contracts?

Downer has evolved significantly over recent years. With the Hawkins and Spotless acquisitions, together with some smaller acquisitions complementing our civil contracting business, we are able to provide a seamless design, construct and maintenance service and this, together with a focus on providing excellence and adding value for our clients, provides for an integrated service delivery.

Talking of civil contracting companies amalgamating over recent years, do you see more of this happening in the future?

Yes, it is highly likely that there will be further acquisitions in the industry and we have seen greater interest in the New Zealand market from both European and Chinese companies that operate globally.

There is no doubt that the industry is going through some tough times in some sectors and as a consequence there may be more business failures over the next twelve months.

Does Downer have any issues with NZTA and LAs over procurement, contracts and Alliance/JV relationships? If so what?

Our brand is built around relationships and we have always been an advocate of collaborative contracting. A strategic alliance model creates a framework for the industry to build partnering relationships and it helps to set new standards for delivery while collectively managing risk.

With clients in infrastructure, utilities, hospitality and construction we see significant opportunities to improve procurement processes by openly discussing the allocation of risk and risk profiles and reminding clients that lowest price does not drive lowest cost.

A move to best practice procurement and standardised contracts that reflect appropriate risk allocation will assist in improving the efficiency of the industry and in turn reduce whole of life costs.

Going forward, there needs to be a change in focus on sustainability – by reassessing the value of outcomes and reducing the focus on inputs. We are now seeing a significant number of clients placing a higher value on social outcomes through procurement.

With the current skill shortage facing the industry, do you think bringing in more foreign workers is the answer, if only in the short term? How is Downer dealing with this shortage?

As mentioned, our people are at the heart of our business and we are always looking at ways to get the right people into the right roles.

One of our more successful programmes has been our Basics Programme which started in 2011 in partnership with the Ministry of Social Development.

It is designed to provide an introduction to the infrastructure sector by targeting Work and Income clients, who include people from other cultures and ethnicities, helping them to find job opportunities with us.

We’ve placed over 1100 people into employment and it has now extended to include our subcontractors.

Do you encourage school leavers and graduates to consider civil engineering as a career?

I encourage young people to consider a career in civil engineering. It provides a depth of experience, diversity and opportunity and is virtually transferable to anywhere in the world.

I’ve travelled extensively throughout my career and built long-lasting friendships across the country and around the world.

In summary, what would you attribute your personal successes to?

I am a goals achiever.

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