Robert Jones: Leading from the front

Robert Jones

RICHARD SILCOCK profiles Fulton Hogan’s New Zealand chief executive Robert Jones, a Yorkshireman and natural leader who doesn’t hesitate to roll up his sleeves and get stuck in.

AT THE AGE OF 62, Robert Jones heads one of the largest and most successful civil contracting businesses in the country – Fulton Hogan, which last year posted a turnover here of just under $1.3 billion.

Born in Yorkshire, Robert followed in the footsteps of his father, who was a civil engineer. After attending the University of Coventry and attaining a degree in construction management he joined Wimpey Construction as a trainee engineer. His grasp of what was required and his ability to get on with people led to him being posted on a number of projects. This included time in Nigeria, where, as a site engineer he was involved with road construction in and around Lagos, and then, several years later in Trinidad in the West Indies where his skills were utilised in the construction of a large high-rise bank building.

Returning to the UK, Robert was ‘collared’ by one of the Europe’s oldest and most respected construction firms, Christiani and Nielsen, which appointed him operations manager for a number of civil and construction projects in the south of England before moving him to South-East Asia, as regional director based in Bangkok.

“I had the opportunity to work on a number of large construction projects,” he says. “It took me to places like Laos, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia so it was an exciting time. I learnt some of the languages and local customs, for while most of the educated Asian people speak English I was keen to assimilate into their culture.

“I then joined the Western Australian company, Clough Engineering as general manager of their Thailand operations before moving to their head office in Perth in the late 1990s to lead a bid for a large alliance contract, contracts which at the time were pretty much unheard of.

“We were successful in the bid and I was appointed project director for the wastewater treatment plant upgrade near Freemantle. This was followed by a succession of infrastructure projects around Australia and internationally.”

One of the more unusual projects Robert recalls was dismantling a gold processing plant in WA, moving it and then re-erecting it in northern Mongolia.

“In Mongolia we were working up by the Russian border in extreme temperatures of minus 30 degrees in the winter to over 40 degrees in summer. We lived in nomadic tents as the accommodation promised did not arrive, ate some pretty basic food and could not understand much of the language – so it was interesting!”

His knowledge and experience of working in an alliance environment saw him approached by Leighton Contracting (now CPB Contracting) with an offer to move to New Zealand and establish a presence here while leading the Auckland Northern Gateway project in a JV with Fulton Hogan.

Following the tragic death of Bill Perry (Fulton Hogan’s previous CE) some five years ago and an approach from the company, he joined them as chief operating officer for infrastructure before being appointed CE for NZ.

“What made me move across to Fulton Hogan was the culture, values and ethics the company exhibits. The Fulton and Hogan families hold a majority of the shares in the business and while there are other shareholders it is still run along the lines of a large family owned business, with little hierarchy and a lot of loyalty and team work.

“Traditionally we are known as a roading contractor, but we do a lot more than that. We have expanded into rail, ports, airport runways, water, bridge construction, quarries and asphalt plants etc. We have established a strong vertical integration through the supply chain and now operate in the Pacific and across Australia, with the latter under a separate management structure.”

In New Zealand the company, which originated in 1933 following the merger of two small contracting companies, employs a staff of some 4500 and has depots throughout the country, for as Robert says: “We believe having local bases builds client confidence, as it’s all about having local knowledge and building relationships.”

The success of the business has, he says, been built on a spirit of commitment by all those involved in it, staff engagement, adherence to good business values and practices, and by forging relationships with both customers and suppliers.

Kohimarama storage tank.
Kohimarama storage tank.

Of his own management style Robert says he is open to well-founded suggestions, engaging with staff, leading from the front, providing opportunities for staff to advance and building a team that contributes to the company.

“I, as does all our staff, put people first. We treat everyone with respect and integrity, work as a family team and endeavour to bring a result for our clients that goes well beyond their expectation.

“For me, it’s about getting some boots on and joining a team on a job – that’s all part and parcel of being chief executive.”

Asked about his future and if he is interested in the group’s managing director role, following the stepping down of Nick Millar next year, he says: “No, it would not be fair on the organisation as I am approaching the end of my career, and there is an opportunity to develop other rising talent in the business.

“For me, here in NZ it has been satisfying to see some of the larger projects come to fruition and I am thinking, for instance, of the Northern Gateway which was delivered with innovation and well within budget and the Newmarket Viaduct which was both challenging and inspirational.

“I enjoy the variety our industry brings, pulling a team together, adapting to differing styles and cultures, learning and leading, having an appreciation of built structures and building the business are all attributes I would like to think typify me. I am however my own greatest critic and always feel there is more I could do.”

Robert is married to Marion, an ex-school teacher he met while working in Bangkok, and they now both enjoy a rural lifestyle based in Matakana, north of Auckland. When he is not travelling (he commutes between Auckland and Christchurch weekly) they take time out in the Bay of Islands where they have a small bach and a seven-metre runabout.

As to his rugby allegiance, Robert says he cannot decide between the Blues or the Crusaders, so as an Englishman, with an Australian passport, now living in NZ he has opted for his home town club – Huddersfield, the home of rugby league!

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