Rachel Clarke, President, MBCA

Rachel Clarke, President, MBCA, speaks with ROBBIE COUSINS about the challenges facing main contractors and the role that MBCA members have to play in getting the Irish economy back on its feet.

At the start of her tenure as President of the Master Builders & Contractors Association (MBCA), Rachel Clarke, Managing Director, MJ Clarke & Sons, says she had planned to engage with members in their own offices and on their sites to exchange views and foster the collaborative approach of addressing sectoral issues that has always been the hallmark of the MBCA. Unfortunately, Covid got in the way of that happening, and the MBCA Council’s virtual meetings that have been taking place not only had to address the typical sectoral issues that arise, but also tackle the challenges that have arisen as a result of the Covid pandemic.

Rachel Clarke’s inauguration as President was a proud day for the Clarke family. Her father, Michael Clarke, a former MBCA President, was in attendance at the event, which took place a few months before he passed away in June. Speaking about this event, Rachel Clarke says, “It was very special for me to receive the chain of office with my dad present. Dad was MBCA President in 1991, and he was very proud to see me presented with the same chain of office 29 years later.”

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Rachel Clarke, and her late father Michael J Clarke at her inauguration as MBCA President.

The family business

MJ Clarke & Sons is a medium-sized main contractor with a large building maintenance division. Since its establishment in 1961, it has built and fitted out many banks, offices, schools, shops and industrial units. Bank of Ireland has been a major client for the business over the years. More recently, it has carried out conservation works, including façade repairs at the Law Society in Dublin, as well as internal works on its protected buildings.

“We carried out restoration works to Christ Church in Taney, Dublin,” Rachel Clarke continues, “including stonework, cornices, replacement of floor finishes and fine-art redecoration. We also carry work in hospitals, including the Central Remedial Clinic, Clontarf; St Luke’s Hospital, Rathgar; St Patrick’s Hospital, James Street; and Royal Victoria Eye and Ear, Adelaide Road, where we have completed fit-outs and refurbishment works in occupied hospital environments.”

The building maintenance division started as an emergency call-out service provided to the company’s biggest client – the Bank of Ireland.

“I can remember my father being called out on Christmas Eve when we were children to attend to a break-in at the O’Connell Street branch. This was long before mobile phones, so the calls came in at home – day or night – and were attended to by my dad.

“When I re-joined the business in 2005, my initial focus was on growing the maintenance side of the company. It is a business that is based on providing our clients with top quality service and responsiveness, as well as employing top quality tradesmen for our clients. Our loyal client base depends on us to get them out of trouble, day or night, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “

Rachel Clarke is not the only member of the family involved in the business. Her two brothers, John Clarke and Vernon Clarke, are also directors.

Like all family businesses, the management team is thinking and acting on its feet at this challenging time. “Like all families, we don’t agree on everything,” Rachel Clarke explains. “But fundamentally, my two brothers, who work with me in the business, and I share a belief in doing what is right for the company to ensure its survival and success. The uncertainty about how the market will respond post- Covid is worrying, so we are evolving to ensure we deliver what the market demands, ensuring the health and safety of our clients and our own personnel. The company has a reputation for quality craftsmanship. Gerry Quinn, who is also a director, has been with the firm since completing his apprenticeship over 40 years ago and continuously drives this quality standard.”

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Conservation works at Christ Church, Taney, Dublin by MJ Clarke and Sons, including carpentry, fine-art decoration, flooring and protective screens.


Covid-19 challenges

Rachel Clarke says one silver lining of the Covid crisis has been how the construction industry has come together to address the challenges that arise.

“I am very proud of how the CIF dealt with the Covid 19 crisis and particularly how the MBCA has responded,” she comments. “We led the drive to get people safely back to work. The CIF safety committee worked tirelessly to produce on-line training for all construction staff. It produced the ‘Construction Sector C-19 Pandemic Standard Operating Procedure’, which was implemented for the re-opening of all construction sites.

“We have demonstrated to Government and all political parties that the sector takes this emergency seriously and has adapted its working programmes and methods and led the way into meeting the challenges that are arising.

“The Government has taken welcome action in trying to address industry concerns, such as introducing ex-gratia mechanisms and reducing the risk of contractors facing liquidated damages. However, our members believe that these measures did not go far enough in supporting an industry, which has suffered greatly through no fault of its own, and has been so careful to comply with Government guidelines and protect its employees and society at large. What we need is effective collaboration and engagement from contracting authorities to deal fairly with contractors on the recovery of unavoidable costs and time.”

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Lobby upgrade works by MJ Clarke and Sons at IADT Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin.

Maintaining margins

Maintaining margins has always been a challenge. But it has become an even greater issue in recent months, as the liquidity of companies has come under increased pressure. Rachel Clarke believes the most critical action that can be taken is for both public and private clients to collaborate with their contractors and find solutions that ensure that clients receive quality assets and that the construction supply chain is protected.

“Collaboration between clients and contractors will ensure that the construction sector will be a driver of economic recovery and help build the necessary infrastructure as part of the programme for Government, the NDP, and support FDI. This crisis has again demonstrated the need for contractual reform in the public sector and the dangers of creating bespoke contracts that only lead to an adversarial culture.”

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SEB Life, Dublin, reception upgrade by MJ Clarke and Sons.

Other challenges

She says that the industry now more than ever needs to have settled industrial relations.

“We have tough times ahead while we recover from the Covid crisis. There are lots of other ongoing issues – development of CIRI, equitable and balanced contracts, talent, training and skills, BIM, offsite construction, planning matters and waste management are all ongoing issues that need to be urgently addressed,” Rachel Clarke adds.

There is also the not so small challenge of Brexit.

“The real challenge of Brexit, particularly in the event of a no-deal, is in our supply chain and the certification and importation of materials from the UK. The industry needs to ensure that it has effective supply lines to enable it to deliver projects. If it is to continue to tender for work in the UK and Northern Ireland, the industry must prepare itself to deal with the risks.”


Rachel Clarke President, MBCA

Speaking about the MBCA and the role that it has to play at this time, Rachel Clarke encourages members to become more actively involved with the MBCA.

“The association promotes and protects members’ interests to Government departments, public and private sector clients and construction professionals. The MBCA particularly focuses on tendering and contractual issues where the promotion of best practice is to the fore. Members should ensure that their concerns are heard so that the MBCA can actively represent them in resolving them.

“Members of the MBCA contribute to several external committees, such as the Industry’s Liaison Committee, which agrees on the Code of Good Practice for tendering and contractual matters with the RIAI, SCSI, ACEI, and Engineers Ireland. It also represents the industry on the Construction Industry Council (CIC), which promotes industry-wide responses on matters affecting the built environment.”


The route to recovery

While Rachel Clarke has not been in a position to meet as many MBCA members in person as she would have liked to have met, she is determined to represent their interest for the remainder of her term and beyond.

“The MBCA wants to be a partner in Ireland’s economic recovery, but this has to involve reasonable working arrangements and fair pricing. The CIF submitted its prebudget submission calling for €15bn to be allocated by Government to the NDP to help bolster the pipeline of projects for industry. The multiplying effect of this spend will quickly inject much-needed income into local economies. The MBCA looks forward to how the new private-sector contract will be received in the industry next year. It will set a new standard in how best to manage construction projects and allocate risk in a more balanced and equitable manner,”

Rachel Clarke concludes by saying, “Being President of the Master Builders and Contractors Association is an incredible honour. The MBCA membership includes the longest established and most prestigious and successful building contractors from all across Ireland – companies that I admire for the structures we build as well as the employment we create and the contribution we make to the economy. For a managing director of a medium-sized contractor to be elected President reflects the value of the contribution from all sized member companies.”

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