McConnell Dowell Constructors MD Roger McRae has spent his career helping build the infrastructure that shapes our lives and connects our communities. He tells Ruth Le Pla about the power of creative construction.
At McConnell Dowell Constructors even the bananas are laid out creatively. I’m not suggesting MD Roger McRae does this himself, of course. But on my way through the offices I can’t help noticing a spectacular fruit construction in the staff kitchen where the bananas loop so securely around the edge of the bowl they’d make a retaining wall expert giddy with pride.
The nice banana-laying-out-cum-receptionist lady looks a bit surprised when I comment on her fruit-construction expertise. But she’s happy enough to chat about the names of inspirational people etched on the glass office partitions. And she volunteers that the design helps people actually see the glass walls instead of blindly bumping into them.
Picasso, Beethoven and Wordsworth have reached new heights of usefulness. Which is very uplifting and functional, and somehow very fitting for a company whose brand is all about creative construction.
All this before I even get to sit down with Roger McRae who, after a brief discussion on the futility of us sitting in a row next to each other at the humungous boardroom table, ends up in front of a wall painted with the company’s values statements.
So we launch into our chat while snatches of wisdom about teamwork, loyalty and trust dance on the wall behind him.
There’s one values statement on the wall asking how people can know where they’re going if they don’t know where they came from. It seems especially apt given Roger’s fondness for the “difficult and challenging” projects the company likes to take on and his pride that McConnell Dowell has been doing this kind of work ever since he first joined it over 30 years ago.
He says McConnell Dowell’s willingness to front up to the hard stuff was one of the things that first attracted him to the company. To be fair, he also admits he liked the company just because it offered him a job, which makes a lot of sense when you’re young and looking for good employment.
For apart from a few short early stints elsewhere, Roger has spent most of his working life with McConnell Dowell. So he’s known it as a company that thrived through the heady days of Marsden Point, the NZ Steel development, Motunui Synthetic Fuels plant and Tiwai Point. He was there when it listed on the NZ Stock Exchange, did a reverse takeover of Hawkins and grew like topsy through the ’80s branching out to own everything from mechanical companies to electrical firms and reinforcing steel ones. “We were,” he says, “extremely broad.”
And he was there when the focus changed in ’91, the head office shifted over the Tasman and the company started morphing into its current form as what he describes as an “Australia-based international construction company”.
“Unfortunately, they tend not to take you quite so seriously if your head office is in New Zealand,” he says, “so the company is now headquartered in Melbourne.”
There are also now regional offices in the Middle East, Asia and, of course, New Zealand which, with responsibility for work in the Pacific as well, alone employs some 1000 to 1100 people. South African company Aveng Group, which is McConnell Dowell’s ultimate and 100 percent parent, operates solely on the African continent.
From modest Kiwi beginnings 53 years ago, McConnell Dowell has sprouted into a major international engineering, construction, building and maintenance company renowned for its tunnelling and marine expertise and for the construction of transport network infrastructure.
Over half of the firm’s New Zealand revenue now comes from local government work: with a hefty focus on the larger councils with correspondingly larger budgets such as Auckland and Christchurch City. Not surprisingly, NZTA is a close working partner too.
Roger’s first job with the company was as a site engineer on a tunnel project in the backblocks of central Otago. It was a “really challenging” job, he says, which makes me think it played right into his practical background as a member of a Southland farming family. He was the first “escapee”, he says, not to follow in the family’s farming footsteps. “Yes, there’s always one,” he laughs, “and I’ve still got a small block of land and a few sheep to remind me of why I didn’t go farming.”
Roger says there was no one single mentor who pointed him towards engineering, but he “guesses” he was always “quite good” at physics and maths “and so really the opportunities were mainly in engineering”. Construction was just something he fell into and loved. “And I’m still doing it and still loving it.”
He’s disappointed it’s taken so long for engineering to develop traction as a career option. “Many people in the teaching industry, whether it’s secondary or even tertiary training, tend to steer people towards what are regarded as the more sexy careers – such as law or commerce – and not so much into the sciences.”
He’s especially concerned at the small number of women in the profession and has been upping his support of women in the industry for some time now.
It’s no coincidence that the inspirational names etched into the office walls include a healthy dollop of inspirational women. Frances Hodgkins, Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo and Janet Frame adorn the strip design around the building and meeting room names include Jean Batten, Kate Sheppard and Katherine Mansfield.
Roger’s a founding board member of the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team (SCIRT) alliance – the major driving force in rebuilding the city’s earthquake-damaged roads, freshwater, wastewater and stormwater networks. Significantly, he’s also the board’s champion for women in construction.
And in this role he recently nipped down to Christchurch to support the launch of new personal protective equipment especially designed for women. Besides all the practicalities of now having safe stuff that fits them, Roger says the initiative also helps contribute to the picture that women are welcome in the industry.
Pushed to pick just one of his own career highs he manages to slip two examples past me. The first is Auckland’s Waterview Connection Project. Once opened in early 2017, it will connect the city’s southwestern and northwestern motorways by carrying six lanes of traffic through twin tunnels up to 40 metres below Avondale and Waterview in west Auckland.
For Roger this is “the Everest of construction”. Alice the tunnel boring machine is creating the 10th largest diameter tunnel in the world and the longest road tunnel in New Zealand. “It’s a $1.4 billion project of immense size, scale and complexity, with a lot of interaction with the community,” he says. “To build a tunnel of that size and scale… it just hasn’t been done in New Zealand before.”
He’s genuinely proud of the work and since 2013 has chaired the board of the Well-Connected Alliance group which teams McConnell Dowell Constructors with a who’s who of sector heavyweights including the Transport Agency, Fletcher Construction, Parsons Brinckerhoff, Beca Infrastructure, Tonkin and Taylor, and the Japanese construction company Obayashi Corporation.
For me, the community aspect isn’t just rhetoric. The park at the Owairaka end of the 4.2 kilometre tunnel is where I used to pick mushrooms on my early morning runs. It’s where, for months, at a high point overlooking the construction site, local people would show off their wonky knowledge of diggers, explosives and gantries. It was our new game of one-upmanship. I expect most of what we said was tosh. But it was fascinating tosh and did, in an unexpected way, forge closer community bonds. We’ve grown to think of it as our project.
The people component similarly underpins Roger’s other project pick. For down in Christchurch, McConnell Dowell continues to play its part in the long post-earthquake rebuild of the garden city. It’s working alongside the Transport Agency, Christchurch City Council and CERA, and with other SCIRT partners City Care, Downer, Fletcher Construction and Fulton Hogan.
In essence, Roger says, the extreme situation was a huge catalyst for the different organisations to work closely together. The key lies in focusing on the overall objectives. “You keep testing your thinking about what’s best for the project – not what’s best for McConnell Dowell or Fletcher or Downer, for example.” It is, he agrees, quite refreshing.
Add to that, feedback which suggests something like 85 percent of the public support what SCIRT is doing. “Given the disruption that has been caused to people’s lives through the earthquakes and everything following,” says Roger, “it’s really quite outstanding to get that level of support from a community.”
To Roger, creative construction is about being prepared to take on the difficult jobs, working out new ways to do them, and thriving on the complexities and challenges they throw your way.
“As an engineer that’s what gets you excited,” says Roger. “That’s what gets you out of bed early in the morning and keeps you awake at night.”
This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.