Sisk Is Not Frightened by Size, Complexity or Geography
Steve Bowcott, Chief Executive Officer, John Sisk & Son, talks to Barry McCall about the challenge of leadership in a rapidly changing construction sector.
Steve Bowcott could have been in the Royal Air Force, but, fortunately for the Irish construction industry, he chose a career in civil engineering. It wasn’t necessarily a love for the builder’s dust that influenced this decision. The Welshman freely admits that the identity of the individual making the civil engineering offer – a former Wales and Lions rugby captain – had more than a little to do with it.
That chance encounter led to a stellar career at the very top of the UK construction industry with two decades spent at the Mowlam Group. This was followed by a number of years as Chief Operating Officer of the multi-billion pound Kier Group. Three years ago, he moved to Ireland to take the helm at Sisk.
“I decided to retire from the board of Kier in 2015, having worked for PLCs for 40 years and I joined Sisk after that. It was very interesting moving from PLC life and joining a private company with a great history with great family ownership.
“It was a hell of a change moving from a top four UK contractor to the number one in Ireland,” he adds. “I had to understand the difference in managing the two types of companies. In a PLC, you spend a huge amount of time on compliance and governance, as well as managing the business. In Sisk, on the other hand, it’s great to be able to run a privately-owned construction company, where compliance is important, and, as the number one in Ireland, we are involved in some major projects, which are shaping the built environment.”
It wasn’t only the attraction of getting closer to the mortar face that drew him to Sisk. “Being a Celt, I’ve always had an affinity for Ireland,” he notes. “I was involved in the acquisition of Irishenco during the 1990s during my time with Mowlam.
“I was very impressed with Sisk and its shareholders – a highly respected family who have been in the business more than 150 years and want to see it last for at least another 150. I’m delighted to be here.”
The ownership structure of Sisk wasn’t the only difference. “I was a bit surprised about how ambitious the company was about taking on major complex projects,” he recalls.
“Sisk is not frightened by size, complexity or geography. We are capable of taking on projects up to half a billion euros and right down to €100,000. That’s enormous flexibility. The ability of people in the company to take on massive challenges is unique. Maybe that’s not unique to the Irish industry, but it’s not common in the UK. Irish people are capable of taking six or seven steps up if they need to. They’re not afraid to stretch themselves and take on challenges. However, that ambition is matched by competence and capability. They manage to keep them in parallel.”
This does not mean that things cannot be further improved.
“We are learning to de-risk a lot of stuff,” he says. “One thing we’ve done in the past few years is to understand risk better. It’s all about continually doing better. We need to get to a position where we are consistently achieving a 3% to 4% profit. We are not greedy about this; we want to keep that going for the next 10 to 15 years. Our employees, shareholders, suppliers, and customers understand that. Our customers understand the need for margin. It is not just about the tender price; it’s about the true end cost if you want to get value out of a project.”
Steve Bowcott disagrees with the current focus of many in the industry on rising costs. “It’s a productivity issue really,” he contends. “Sadly, we lost many people from the industry during the recession, but, many of them are coming back now. However, it’s taking them a while to get up to speed with new ways of working, new technologies and so on. It really is a productivity issue, and we are very focused on that.”
Attracting people into the industry is a challenge, however.
“It is vital that we get more apprentices into the industry,” says Steve Bowcott. “We are going to get the top contractors together to push that agenda. We have our own training centre, and we are right behind The National Construction Training Centre at Mount Lucas, Co Offaly. However, we have to do more of that as an industry.”
“We run scenarios in terms of a hard or a sensible Brexit. It will impact on the supply chain and labour availability, of course. We have to get our UK customers to accept the risks of Brexit.”
Brexit will be another challenge.
“Seventy per cent of our business is in Ireland, and 30% is in the UK and Europe. The balance depends on where our clients want us to be. We will continue to do between €700m and €800m in Ireland,” Steve Bowcott adds. “We run scenarios in terms of a hard or a sensible Brexit. It will impact on the supply chain and labour availability, of course. We have to get our UK customers to accept the risks of Brexit. Our clients are buying forward. We don’t need the uncertainty, but we can manage it.”
Housing is a challenge not just for the industry, but society, Steve Bowcott contends. “Sisk has a proud tradition of building social housing that stretches back to the 1960s when we built fast-track affordable homes primarily in the Cork and Dublin regions,” Steve says. “This continued through the 2000s. Sisk Living was set up as a specialist housing delivery division of the company in mid-2016.
“From a standing start, we have now completed two social housing projects – one in Dun Laoghaire, and one in South Dublin, where we built 76 houses in 35 weeks. We are combining our house building tradition and heritage with the latest technologies and methodologies. We are focused on putting the Sisk brand on great quality social housing, and we know we can build them at sensible costs and deliver a real value for money proposition.”
Steve Bowcott sees bright prospects for Sisk and the industry in the future.
“We have a strong strategy, and the people in our business are working hard to deliver it,” he says. “Our business is in a good place. We are far more flexible, agile and nimble. We have proven that we can do complex projects like Luas Cross-City and complete them on time. Geography doesn’t scare our people or us. Irish people are great at adapting to new places and ways of working. We are prepared to move where our clients want us to be provided the risk is right. We have super young people coming into the industry. We have a great graduate scheme and a great apprenticeship scheme here. It’s really exciting.”
One thing that Steve Bowcott would change about the industry is its the lack of diversity. “We need more STEM subjects taught to young girls. We need serious Government help to drive the number of females in the industry upwards. A more diverse workforce makes for better companies.”
Steve Bowcott is in no doubt that if there were more women on sites and in the boardrooms, there would be better outcomes overall.
“Women tend to think more deeply about decisions than men. Men tend to say ‘I have 10% of the information so I can make a decision’. Ethnic and gender diversity makes for better decisions and reduces risk.”
He believes fundamental changes are required on the part of the industry to address this issue. “The industry is placing unreasonable demands on people who want to get to the top. We’ve got to get down to 45-hour weeks for our people. Work/life balance is important for everyone. More flexibility at work will allow us to attract more women into the industry. Equality means getting the work-life balance right and letting everyone know what we’re doing.”
Health & Wellbeing
Steve Bowcott concludes by making an impassioned plea regarding the health and well-being of construction workers.
“Construction workers have six times more of a chance of dying by suicide than being killed on site,” he points out. “One in four construction workers under the age of 30 are suffering from some form of mental health issue. We have sponsored health and wellbeing events, and I am delighted to see other positives out there with helplines being set up and a much greater awareness of the warning signs among safety officers and so on. We have safety in a good place and now need to look at wellness and mental health in particular.”