A decade after the acquisition of Laing Construction, Ray O’Rourke explains why he has ‘no regrets’ and sets out some of his proudest achievements at the helm of Laing O’Rourke.
In an interview published in Laing O’Rourke’s in-house magazine Infoworks, Mr O’Rourke sets out what drove him to bring together his 24-year-old R O’Rourke & Son business with Laing Construction 10 years ago.
Ray, how did the acquisition of Laing Construction in 2001 come about?
I’d always had an ambition for the business to be able to deliver the entire project for a client – end to end.
But no matter how hard we tried, we could not break into that space. We just didn’t have the track record of delivering big projects. And, because we were so successful, the market confused our ambition and drive for arrogance; this misconception was working against us.
We had already started to pursue a smaller acquisition target, when the Laing Construction business came into serious financial difficulties in 2000.
Stimulated by a London Business School senior executive programme, I knew we could use debt to fund growth and possibly accelerate the goals we had for the R O’Rourke & Son business.
I recall it was suggested that we should take a look at Laing, the “blue blood” of the construction industry. We moved quickly to develop a proposal to pursue it, eventually got the banks on side to take the bid seriously, and the rest, as they say, is history.
What have been your proudest achievements in the 10 years since?
It is very difficult to single out one thing. I was particularly proud of the pace with which the new senior team got on board with our ambitious plans, and actually started to enjoy the cut and thrust of our approach.
It helped dispel the myth that we were an arrogant bunch, opening people’s eyes to the fact that very ambitious people create lots of tension and energy just by dint of the stretching goals they set themselves.
Allied to that, hitting the £5 billion revenue target in five years was also a major feat. There was no big magical calculation behind it – the number just flowed in terms of the projects already under way where more could be achieved, and the opportunities I could see in front of us.
How should the industry adapt and change to the current economic challenges? What role does innovation play?
The way our industry organises itself is not conducive to innovation. It is very fragmented, promoting conservatism and self-interest.
There is a lot of “treacle”, with the complex collection of parties and array of interfaces between the promoters of projects and the actual deliverers. It becomes a vicious circle as the more complex the project structure, the more demand there is for these skill sets.
I think this has to fundamentally change.
Society can no longer afford the cost and waste that goes on in our industry. If you couple this with the more sophisticated way of life people are choosing to lead, then it is hardly surprising that few young people are interested in going into an environment that promotes back-breaking manual work.
But therein lies the opportunity.
Society demands state-of-the-art infrastructure in which to live and work. This demand will only increase, as will the requirements placed upon the built environment. We need to rethink how we design and deliver it.
Our Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) agenda is our own strategic plan to deliver greater value to society by driving up the quality, safety and sustainability of our client solutions, while reducing the cost and time it takes to deliver them.
This is, in my view, the only way the industry will be successful going forward.
On a personal note, what drives you on?
I am as fascinated with the industry today as I was when I first entered it as a young man. This stems from the extraordinary people who I’m privileged daily to work alongside, and the wonderful outcomes we are able to achieve.
Within Laing O’Rourke, I’ve worked hard to create a culture that’s never stale, where this restless pursuit for finding or following a better way inculcates every corner of the organisation.
Where else would you be invited to participate in delivering some of the world’s most amazing projects like Terminal 5 at Heathrow, The Atlantis Hotel in Dubai and the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Park? Or be part of ambitious growth plans in our Australian business, work in the heart of Hong Kong, build a C$2.1 billion hospital in Canada? The list speaks for itself.
Every day is different and exciting. It is an absolute pleasure to be part of it, as well as great fun.
How important is it for Laing O’Rourke to continue investing in people?
The Laing O’Rourke shareholders are committed to being a standout company for the right reasons. You could say I’m on a bit of a crusade to ensure Laing O’Rourke becomes the natural home for the very best talent in this industry – or any other for that matter.
Young people need to understand that, while careers are not an entitlement but a privilege, if they’re prepared to work hard and take on new challenges, it’s a no-brainer. We must back them and invest in them, because the payback will be phenomenal.
With the ten-year anniversary since the acquisition, I think it is important to mark the event. I think we are now truly at the end of Laing O’Rourke’s beginning phase.
It is time for all employees to come together and understand the strategic intent behind this business. We don’t want to be an also-ran; we want to be one of the world’s great Engineering Enterprises, respected for exemplary performance.
The next ten years need to be even more dynamic and successful than those we are now celebrating.