“We are a customer-driven organisation that understands how to meet our customers’ needs”
BAM Ireland’s new executive director Alasdair Henderson speaks with ROBBIE COUSINS about how a new organisational structure will benefit Irish customers and staff and why he sees Ireland as one of the most exciting construction markets in Europe.
With a Royal BAM career spanning 26 years, Alasdair Henderson recently took up the new role of executive director of BAM Ireland. A chartered civil engineer, he joined the organisation in 1996 and held various operational and business management roles before his appointment in Ireland. These included divisional director of BAM Ritchies, people and culture director at BAM Nuttall, and, most recently global director of HR business partnering in the civil engineering business line.
Royal BAM has also recently reconfigured its operating structure to focus on growth markets, with the overall group now comprising two geographical divisions; The Netherlands, and the UK & Ireland. The reconfiguration means that resources and expertise from the UK & Ireland division can be allocated in and out of Ireland as required.
Alasdair Henderson explains that BAM is a business that carries out projects rather than being a projects business.
“We see ourselves as a business that carries out projects, rather than being a projects business. This is a very important distinction. While individual projects are important, if you think of yourself as a projects business, you tend to get down in the weeds of the project, taking a functional approach and forgetting about tomorrow. As a business that carries out projects, our foremost thought is on the long-term business, having an eye to the future, looking at how we are developing as a business and what we really do. This approach enables us to answer questions such as how we build sustainability into our current and future offering as a business and how we address the needs of our current employees and the needs of those who will work for us in the future. It’s business thinking rather than project thinking. And that’s the key distinction for me. By integrating with the larger operating Division, while BAM’s Irish operations remain fully Irish, we can now support operations in other parts of Europe with our specific skill sets. At the same time, we can call on resources and expertise from other parts of the company as required.”
BAM Ireland continues to deliver ambitious projects across all sectors, and Alasdair Henderson has hit the ground running, taking a hands-on approach.
“BAM Ireland has a long history of delivering incredible projects across all sectors in Ireland. I am still discovering the impressive legacy we have created here. I have also been meeting our teams on site. When I go into a particular building or visit a piece of infrastructure, it is highly gratifying to see the pride everyone takes in their work and the contribution they are making to Irish society in terms of projects we have on the ground just now.
“BAM Ireland is delivering for customers who are ultimately delivering for the rest of society. We have a broad spread of customers, and we are delivering into many important areas from public sector infrastructure, public buildings, schools, hospitals, and housing to major commercial developments.
“The New Children’s Hospital, for example, is a particularly challenging project. But, when completed, this will be a state-of-the-art facility, which will be transformational for paediatric care in this country and be an exemplar for other countries.
“Elsewhere, in Cork, for instance, we are developing the Brewery Quarter, rejuvenating a part of the city and giving it a new purpose and growing the scale of the city centre at the same time.”
BAM Ireland also has a substantial roads portfolio, which he says is a complex issue from a sustainability perspective, but it is essential that Ireland has a modern, integrated road network.
“Roads projects are complex from a sustainability point of view. They are challenging on a carbon emissions basis. But we must consider that they are connecting communities within Ireland, and that’s why we are involved. You just can’t be one-dimensional about what sustainability means. You need to understand how to get the best things done for society. And connections and linking people are a vital part of our view on sustainability.
“I’m proud of the projects we’re delivering, and I am really proud of the teams that are delivering them, particularly when you realise how difficult construction can be, how challenging it is, the demands we make on our people and how well they respond and how committed they are to what we do.”
Henderson says the BAM Ireland team is a major contributor to overall Royal BAM operations.
“BAM Ireland is a local operating entity supporting the needs of local customers. But BAM Ireland is also part of the €7bn Royal BAM organisation. And the digital capability of the Irish operation is the best in the group. This expertise is exported to other parts of the group in a way that’s really productive for them and rewarding for the team in Ireland.
“Similarly, our UK team is probably our class leader in sustainability practice, and the Irish team can access this expertise when required. When we see developer clients whose funding streams are heavily dependent on having sustainability at the core of their operations, we have the solutions they need as we can draw them from our other group companies.
“Then, our Dutch operations have huge modular construction and marine engineering expertise that we can call on when needed.
For us, it’s all about how we meet our customers’ needs. We are a customer-driven organisation that aims to have long-term relationships with organisations who see value in what we create for them.”
Health, safety and wellbeing
Alasdair Henderson takes a holistic view on health, safety and wellbeing, viewing each as being vitally important to how the company operates.
“When I think about safety, I also think about health and wellbeing. I’ve been a long time in the business, much of it operational, and I have direct human contact with the consequences of workplace accidents and the damage that comes from accidents. When you’ve had experience of that, it is not something that leaves you but becomes even more of a direct personal focus on how you approach it. We all have to be obsessive about safety and care every moment of every day. As a senior executive, I am proactive; I take safety tours and explain personally how essential it is to have safe work practices.”
Construction has its own unique safety problems. Unfortunately, in too many cases, the time people think most about safety is immediately after an accident.
“When something goes wrong, it is not good enough to investigate what went wrong superficially, then fix it. We have to fix the root cause and then extend this across the business. BAM’s approach is rather than waiting for something to go wrong and blaming someone; we find opportunities to learn from good practice and embed these across our operations. There are still lessons to be learned, of course. When we plan and then execute a job, we look for ‘drift’ – possible deviations from the plan – and address these before they cause an incident. Sometimes the drift reveals a better way of doing a task, and we can adopt and replan the activity. Workforce involvement is a key component of this approach.
“Health is also an essential part of the mix. From an occupational perspective, we want to make sure that we are not doing things that have a long-term impact on people’s health in our business. A healthy workforce is likely to be a more productive and happier workforce. People that have healthy lifestyles are likely to live longer and have more fulfilling lives, which leads me to the third element of the mix, wellbeing.
“Almost every business has sickness absence. But this, in many cases, can be masking significant mental health issues where employees are dealing with stress and anxiety. As a good business person, I want to reduce unplanned absences. I want to run a business where people benefit from being at work, the structure that it gives and the companionship of their colleagues. All these things can help people deal with stress and anxiety in an industry that can be pressured and difficult.
Long-term Covid-19 impacts
Discussing the changes that have come about as a result of Covid-19, Alasdair Henderson says much has been changed due to the pandemic, but there are two key points on which he focuses.
“We had to deal with a crazy set of circumstances during 2020 and 2021. But there are a couple of interesting things that came out of that. The first point is that the industry is and remains very good at compliance-based working where we set the rules, and then people work within those rules, whether PPE or social distancing, for instance. That is why, as an industry, construction is resilient. We know how to do this better than most other industries because we understand day-to-day hazard and risk management.
“The second thing Covid-19 taught us is to challenge our preconceived ideas about where people had to be, where they had to work, and, particularly, the focus on the artisan approach to construction where people have to be on the construction project to be productive.
“We now know that flexibility enables people to be more indeed as an industry.”
He cites an example of how construction planners work: “If you tie a planner to one project where they have to be on one site all the time, even though they may be utilised only two-thirds of the time, this is hugely inefficient and can have a negative impact on the individual. If you are flexible about where and how they work, you can create a situation where two planners might cover three projects between them, with the individuals having more control over how they work. There is now more work being covered with the same scarce resource, and the individual planners are getting greater job satisfaction and opportunity.”
Diversity and inclusion
Alasdair Henderson comments that while a lot has been done in the diversity and inclusion sphere in recent years, there needs to be new thinking around the issue if the sector is to achieve a better gender balance.
“The introduction of gender pay gap reporting in Ireland is a fantastic thing, and every business should grab that and work with it.
“However, the challenge with diversity is to ensure that contractors are making the positions they are advertising accessible to a broader group of people. This is a business decision that people have to make, pure and simple. And it all centres around inclusion.
“We must change working practices and job design in our business so that work can be carried out by a broader range of people.
He references an example of recruiting a setting-out engineer: “Taking a traditional approach, if you are looking to recruit a setting out engineer, the first qualification required would be that they must be an engineer. So, straight away, our specification demands somebody with a civil engineering degree. This means the gender split of male to female based on current university programmes will be about 25% female, 75% male before we even assess individuals. “Next, the engineer needs to be on site full-time. So, you are adding further exclusions that will affect potential candidates who have caring responsibilities, both male and female, and can’t be on a project all of the time miles from home.
“By using this approach, many good candidates are being excluded from applying for this position.
“Approach this from a different perspective; you might first figure out that you don’t need an engineering qualification for this job. Candidates should be numerate and literate and have a good understanding of geometry. Additional skills such as instrument use can be taught through practical instruction on the project.
“Then, setting out is generally done in advance of work, either first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening. It’s not a task that has to be done continuously during the day. If you can plan when you’re setting out is done in advance of work, then it can be done in a very productive way on a non-full-time basis. This opens up the job to a much wider range of candidates.
“It is all about looking at the actual work that has to be done and leaving preconceptions out of the equation.”
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, construction is responsible for 38% of total global emissions. Alasdair Henderson says it is right that the construction sector is finally addressing its carbon footprint, but it needs to move more quickly.
“Reducing carbon emissions is within our control, and every business has an obligation to do something about it,” he explains. “Construction and the built environment are responsible for 38% of carbon emissions. A big chunk of that comes from the operation of the built environment. But 8% of anthropogenic carbon emissions come from steel and cement production. As an industry, we are absolutely addicted to concrete and steel. These are the principal materials we use in our construction. But this problem is not going to solve itself. It requires systematic change from procuring to designing, specifying, constructing and the operation and maintenance of buildings and structures.
“We also need to look at biodiversity and what we as builders can do to ensure the survival of native species and habitats. BAM aims to be biodiversity neutral, which means we aim for no net loss of biodiversity in any BAM project. We are planting and seeding on projects and creating new habitats if we have had to remove a habitat. We are also talking to customers about how projects become net neutral on biodiversity. It is a big topic. And those who aren’t thinking about this yet will need to get informed.
Royal BAM Group is at the forefront of digital construction technology development, and BAM’s Irish team is at the forefront of the organisation’s digital transformation.
“There are many productivity benefits from modern methods of construction, both in conventional offsite manufacture and in onsite, low volume, high productivity methods. BAM is using 3D printing concrete techniques on various projects across the Netherlands and, to some extent, in the UK & Ireland. We are developing alternative zero-carbon materials in the sustainability sphere through our research into bio-mineralisation. The Irish team is also providing expertise across the BAM organisation in terms of helping other parts of the group improve their digital construction expertise. “
Alasdair Henderson on BAM Ireland outlook
Despite the current inflationary economic climate, Alasdair Henderson is upbeat about the Irish construction market and BAM Ireland’s prospects in the short- to medium-term.
“I have come here with a particular mandate and a desire to work closely with our customers, ensuring that we can bring all the benefits of the modern health safety and wellbeing practices to our team and the efficiencies of modern construction technologies and project management expertise for our customers.
“From discussing issues with our customers, we can better understand their own business challenges and help address some of them. Ireland is a really positive market. It is very entrepreneurial. Customers have a very progressive attitude to new approaches. We also have highly skilled and digitally capable people on our team.
“Despite all that is happening in the economy, competition levels are still high. We’re one of the few PLCs in construction in Ireland. This means that we have very strong financial processes, and good balance sheet strength and resilience. Our new organisational structure means that BAM Ireland has never been in a stronger position to meet the needs of our customers, as well as ensuring that our teams have opportunities to learn and grow within their roles. And, I look forward to overseeing all of this in the coming years,” Alasdair Henderson concludes.
Brown says that mental health and wellbeing is a key strategic objective for Sisk.
“The wellbeing of our workers is not an afterthought or something we give lip service to. We absolutely recognise that without a positive culture of care, compassion and support, we won’t have people who feel genuinely valued, who feel supported and who are proud to work for Sisk. Our people are our number one asset.
“Appropriate investment is key. Poor mental health is the biggest cause of death in the construction industry. Two construction workers in Ireland and the UK die by suicide every working day. That is three times the national average for men. In Australia, a construction worker is six times more likely to die by suicide than in a workplace accident. This is an industry-wide problem and therefore requires CEOs and others at a leadership level to drive the change necessary to address these stark trends.
“There are many reasons for these figures in the construction industry – job insecurity, loneliness/isolation, high-risk working environments, to name a few. But one of the biggest challenges is that construction is a male-dominated industry, and we know men are more reluctant to talk about their feelings and seek help. This is driven by the stigma associated with poor mental health and the often macho culture that still exists within our industry.
“We, as CEOs and business leaders, can play a pivotal role in changing the culture by displaying the role modelling behaviours that are needed to reframe help-seeking and help-giving. We can do this by being compassionate and caring and speaking about mental health and wellbeing in an authentic and meaningful way. This would help to normalise perceptions of mental health and drive the change that we so badly need,” Paul Brown concludes.