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Liam Kenny, MD, John Paul Construction – A Baptism Of Fire

Liam Kenny, Construction Leaders, John Paul Construction

Liam Kenny, Managing Director, John Paul Construction

Liam Kenny, Managing Director, John Paul Construction, speaks with ROBBIE COUSINS about his hectic first few months heading up the company, and how the sector’s workers have responded, and CIF members cooperated in addressing Covid-19, gives him great confidence for its future.

Liam Kenny officially took up the role of Managing Director of John Paul Construction in January of this year, following a hugely successful year for the main contractor in 2019 when it had a turnover of €438m. Covid-19 has resulted in a baptism of fire for him, but he says that the crisis has shown him, as if he didn’t need to know, that construction is a resilient and innovative sector, populated by dedicated, hard-working people that have completely reinvented the way they work, and, in the process, made the industry safer and more efficient than it has ever been.

Looking back on 2019, he says that John Paul Construction scaled new heights in terms of its workload with turnover reaching €438m, of which €369m was generated through its Irish operations and the remainder through operations in the UK and the Middle East.

Irish projects

“Our sectoral and regional diversification strategy in Ireland gained further momentum, with major project wins in the industrial, civils, data, technology and life sciences sectors across the country,” he explains. “Our Ireland South team returned to Limerick in early 2019 to commence works for Regeneron in Raheen, where we have since completed a multi-storey car park. We continue to work there with PM Group, delivering additional administration and research buildings. In the second half of the year, we were delighted to be awarded a further contract in Limerick by Jacobs on the Edwards Life Sciences project in Plassey.”

After completing a substantial project for Bausch and Lomb in Waterford in 2017, it was a massive boost for the John Paul’s Ireland South team to win the next major capital investment project on their facility late last year.

“This proved to us that safely delivering a quality product through collaborative engagement is key to winning repeat business with world-class clients,” he continues.

“Working in a region where substantial construction projects are thin on the ground, it was great to see our Ireland West team complete projects for Abbott in Longford last year, and more recently in Donegal. In the past few weeks, the team has built on these successes after being awarded the new Radiation Oncology Building at University Hospital Galway, a much-needed facility in the region.”

Other projects underway outside of Dublin include a major technology manufacturing facility for Exyte, on which its building and civils teams have joined forces to deliver a fast-track infrastructure package. Liam Kenny says this is an example of how the technical and operational capability of its civils division has brought unique value to a major building project.

“This was also evidenced late last year when our civils division worked closely with their building colleagues to deliver a unique geotechnical solution to Lidl’s latest logistics hub in Newbridge, a 58,000 sq metre building and associated infrastructure.”

The greater Dublin area continued to contribute the major part of the contractor’s turnover.

“During this period, we handed over the new National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire, the SCAPE Student Accommodation Scheme on Aungier Street, and the Hard Rock Hotel on Parliament Street. We also completed the final phase of the Shelbourne Hotel Refurbishment and the Clancy Quay Residential Scheme, both for Kennedy Wilson, who continues to be a valued client for the company.

“As well as the more traditional type of project, John Paul Construction also completed a major data centre for one of the world’s leading cloud storage providers in south Dublin.”

He adds, “While successful project delivery for our clients is the public-facing result of our efforts, none of it could happen without all the support services and innovation that are brought to bear behind the scenes from all of the departments that make up the company.

“In 2019 we won several national awards, which reflect the high performance of our people across several areas, including the KPMG/Irish Independent ‘Contractor of the Year’, the ROSPA ‘Gold Medal’ award for safety and a number of Irish Construction Excellence awards.

“However, the standout achievement for me outside of project delivery in the past 12 months was the company becoming the first main contractor in Ireland to achieve BSI19650-accreditation for BIM management. This has been hugely beneficial as the uptake of BIM across all our projects increased significantly in the past 12 months. We have placed a big focus not only on the benefits of BIM for design coordination and clash detection but also on 4D modelling and visualisation as a tool to manage logistics, complex sequencing and phasing operations on projects. The use of drone technology has continued to evolve in the industry. We have embraced this across a range of projects, where we are combining weekly drone fly-around video footage with drone survey output, to assist in the quantification of earthworks operations and progress on projects. This is a powerful visual progress reporting tool at client meetings. The adoption of digital technology such as this is the future.”

Clancy Quay Residential Scheme, Dublin, for Kennedy Wilson.

Current works

In July of this year, John Paul Construction won the contract to construct a major project for one of the world’s leading cloud storage providers in Co Meath. Its civils division has just completed a 220kV substation with Gaeltec Utilities on the Dublin Meath border and is undertaking the design and construction of a turnkey 110kV substation in South Dublin. Both of these projects are facilitating hyperscale data centre projects.

He continues, “The PRS sector, which was extremely busy prior to the Covid-19 crisis, remains strong. We are currently constructing a 374-unit scheme in Finglas for Tribal Developments, and are in negotiation on two other PRS projects, which we expect will go to site within the next few months. In all cases, the developer’s success in getting these projects to construction stage is related to good locations with links to public transport, access to infrastructure and availability of local amenities.

“We remain confident of delivering a consistent level of turnover in the south and west of Ireland regions. We can point to several recent successes outside of Dublin to support that view. These include a new student accommodation scheme for Roundhill in Cork, the Radiation Oncology Centre in Galway, Kildare Village Phase 3, and our alliance with Gray Construction (USA) to deliver a new beverage concentrate plant in Newbridge.

“Whilst most of the company’s revenues traditionally come from the private sector, public work has always been central to the company’s strategic plan, contributing a significant percentage of turnover across the healthcare, civil engineering and public building sectors. In February of this year, we were delighted to be awarded the contract to construct the new Garda Security and Crime Operations Centre, a 10,000 sq metre office building located in Kilmainham, which is scheduled for completion in Q3 2022.

International markets

In 2011, when John Paul Construction started to look at the Middle East, Liam Kenny was the operations director charged with overseeing the establishment of John Paul Construction’s presence in that market. The company is now very active in several countries in the region and has a number of clients that it is carrying out work for in Ireland and the Middle East.

“We have had an active presence in the Middle East for the past nine years through our sister company Absal Paul in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and more recently the UAE,” Liam Kenny says. “We have successfully constructed projects for an array of ‘Fortune 500’ companies, as well as blue-chip local organisations, such as Aramco in Saudi Arabia. Some of our key ongoing projects include Bahrain International Airport – New Terminal Fitout, and the €70m refurbishment of the Saudi Arabian Central Bank in Riyadh. Our involvement in the business there has proved to us how small a place the world has become, given that we have delivered for several of the same clients both here in Ireland and the Middle East. Currently, we are delivering data centre projects for the same client in Ireland, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi.

Emerging markets

“Providing delivery excellence for our clients in different markets to the same exacting standards is a key part of our strategic plan,” he continues. “Aligning with that plan, the company has identified northern Europe as our next area of focus. A significant number of our existing clients have operations in this region, as well as several of our supply chain partners. We feel that our experience of delivering data centres, electrical substations, logistics and life sciences projects aligns with the current requirements of this marketplace, and we look forward to commencing operations there in 2021.”

Lidl Regional Distribution Centre, Newbridge, Co Kildare.

 

Covid-19 response

The Covid-19 crisis resulted in Liam Kenny having a baptism of fire, particularly when Covid-19 cases were diagnosed on one of the company’s sites in Dublin city centre.

“From a very stable position, when I assumed the managing director role in January, to one of crisis management in March, Covid-19 has been a major challenge for the company, but it has been much more so for our staff, and society at large,” he comments.

From the beginning, he says the only way he and his management team saw to get through the situation was to keep everyone they interact with, but most importantly our staff, informed in an honest and open style.

“We consistently kept our staff up to date on our plans and the procedures that needed to be implemented, in an ever-evolving situation. The dynamic changed considerably when the lockdown was introduced at the end of March, and we entered what was new territory for everyone. With only a small number of essential projects remaining operational, putting plans in place to ensure a significant portion of our staff could work productively from home at short notice was a challenge that was admirably met.

“A good example of this was our tendering and estimating department. During the lockdown, our team tendered and won over €100m worth of work. Another positive outcome was virtual meetings. If anything, our ability to communicate with staff has improved hugely as a result of this crisis. Bringing people from all over the country to Dublin for regular meetings is a thing of the past, as is non-essential travel abroad. While the dynamic of meeting face to face can never be replaced, virtual meetings are highly effective for a lot of what we do.”

Liam Kenny says a lot of credit must go to the CIF for ensuring that construction was one of the first sectors reopened on 18th May.

“The contribution of safety professionals from member organisations to the CIF ‘Construction Sector C-19 Pandemic Standard Operating Procedure’ document was a great example of the safety culture and flexibility in dealing with challenges that exist within the industry.

“As a company, we had our specific challenges to deal with,” he explains. “In July, we had an outbreak on our Townsend Street project in Dublin. When the initial case was identified, our number one concern was to ensure the health and safety of everyone working on the project, which we did through the guidance of the HSE.

“In line with our strategy in March, we communicated the situation openly and honestly. While not a situation that we wanted, it proved to me beyond any doubt the loyalty, support and resilience of staff across the company by their overwhelmingly positive response. The outbreak led to us to facilitating discussions between the CIF and the HSE personnel involved, which in turn resulted in the publication of sector-specific guidance in the event of an outbreak. This guidance continues to be used to manage Covid-19 cases on construction projects.”

Although this crisis is far from over, he firmly believes that there have been many lessons learned, particularly around communication and applying safety management processes to different challenges which will serve the industry well into the future.

John Paul Construction staff mark International Women’s Day on 6th March this year.

 

Diversity

Liam Kenny welcomes the increased focus on diversity and inclusion across the construction industry, and he says that the industry must strive to drive real progress in this area.

“There is no doubt in my mind that a workplace where people with varying skill sets across different cultures, genders and backgrounds can work together effectively is one which drives the greatest benefit for our company, our industry and our clients,” he comments. “We are signed up to the CIF Diversity and Inclusion charter, and we are on the journey to achieve ‘Investors in Diversity’ accreditation with The Irish Centre for Diversity.

“With the continued growth in our business and workforce over the past number of years, there is a real multi-cultural feel across our projects and in our head office, as we have welcomed colleagues from around the world to the business, and this is great to see.

“We are working hard to increase the gender balance in the organisation and have seen the number of women working across the organisation grow consistently over the past three years. It is now close to 20%. We hosted an event to celebrate International Women’s Day on Friday 6th March last, where over 50 of the John Paul Construction women, supported by many of their male colleagues, celebrated the contribution of women from across the organisation to the business.

“Notwithstanding all of this, we must do more to attract women into the sector as a whole, and we are looking at how we can do more in support of this.” He sees attracting, developing and retaining the best people as critical to the success of the company.

“We continue to invest heavily in training and development in support of our staff across all levels of the organisation and were delighted with the feedback from our engineering graduate programme and site manager development programme, which we launched last year.”

He adds, “In the current environment, wellbeing has never been more in focus. We have been working in conjunction with Laya to develop and roll out several initiatives to provide better awareness and a range of support measures to address the challenges and stresses that many are feeling at this time.”

Sustainability

The John Paul Construction ethos measures success not solely in financial results, but by how it conducts its business, aligned with the values and culture of the organisation that have stood the test of time over the last 71 years, according to Liam Kenny.

He says that John Paul Construction is committed to maintaining the highest standards of responsible corporate behaviour and improving the quality of life of local communities and society in general.

“We are acutely aware that our business activities bring us into close contact with many communities and business groups, and we are committed to minimising this impact. It also provides us with opportunities to give back to the communities we work in.

“We have a sustainability agenda, which is driven around three key areas. We are focused on a sustainable economic environment for our business and our supply chain. We are committed to minimising the impact of our operations on the environment, and we wish to enhance the communities in which we work.

Last year, John Paul Construction completed a new kitchen for the pupils at St. Audoen’s National School in the Liberties, Dublin, which was most rewarding and a very clear example of the positive impact that we can have in the communities in which we work.”

Fundamental concerns

Although cautiously optimistic on the outlook for the industry in the short to medium term based on secured work and visibility on its pipeline, Liam Kenny says it is still tough to read too far into the future.

“The hospitality sector has, for the past five years, been a very important sector for the company. Aside from projects underway pre-crisis, Covid-19 has effectively halted a lot of new project starts in this sector. Commercial office buildings are another sector where there is uncertainty, although this should become clearer as companies develop their return to work policies in the coming months. In the interim, tenders in these sectors will be significantly reduced.

“The Government has yet to demonstrate whether its strategy is investment or austerity when it comes to the construction and civil engineering sectors,” he notes. “The decisions they make here – as well as their approach to Brexit – will have a huge impact. A stable and decisive Government is crucial to bring some level of certainty back to the economy.”

 

Outlook

With nobody knowing for sure what the short to medium term impact of Covid-19 will be on the construction and property industries, Liam Kenny says the outlook for John Paul Construction is one of cautious optimism.

“While none of us can be sure what the outcome of Covid-19 will be and how it will specifically impact our industry, the only way we can assess the short term is by looking at our secured workload and opportunities pipeline. At the moment, this is reasonably positive. We see our regional and sectoral diversification strategy specifically as being central to mitigating some of the impacts that Covid-19 will ultimately have on the business.

“The impact on public spending is still the great unknown, and we will have to wait until budget publication to really understand if the Government strategy is to invest in much-needed public infrastructure, housing and healthcare, or return to an era of austerity,” he concludes.