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Lovell MD: 'Construction industry has forgotten how to trade'

Lovell managing director Jonathan Goring reveals what attracted him to Morgan Sindall as he seeks to unearth the right partnerships and unleash the public sector’s potential.

At Morgan Sindall’s office near Oxford Circus, the floor is open plan. The glass separating the scattered meeting rooms is transparent, and not altogether soundproof.

The idea, presumably, is that everything is out in the open. Certainly if a shouting match were to break out in the room next door, the whole floor would be able to hear every word.

It’s a good thing, then, that Lovell managing director Jonathan Goring says working for the Morgan Sindall group is a collaborative affair, where corporate largesse is left at the door. He says it’s “refreshing” to be working for a business that “trusts people and ethically feels right”.

Refreshing corporate culture

Mr Goring greets me at the London office with a smile, and straight away admits he never saw himself here, just two years after departing Capita in 2014.

“It was something I didn’t think I’d do, going back into a big company again,” he admits when I ask what made him want to move to John Morgan’s £2.4bn-turnover firm, where he leads the housing business.

“Companies have become bigger and I have become frustrated by the industry’s inability to do what it’s meant to do, which is to deliver homes, new buildings, regeneration”

“That was mainly because of the way I perceive the corporate culture to be out there. Companies have become bigger and I have become frustrated by the industry’s inability to do what it’s meant to do, which is to deliver homes, new buildings, regeneration.”

The struggle with the corporate culture was, he says, at the heart of his departure from Capita in 2014, after he successfully led the outsourcing giant’s bid to become the Defence Infrastructure Organisation’s strategic partner, with URS and PA Consulting.

“I felt my job was done and (former Capita CEO) Paul Pinder left – he was my sponsor in the organisation and I had come to the end of the road. We had become too corporate for my tastes.”

Lovell Loftus Garden Village Newport

Lovell Loftus Garden Village Newport

Lovell built more than 2,000 new homes in 2016

The years following his departure from Capita have been a whirlwind. In just two years he has successfully project managed Sir Ben Ainslie’s spectacular Portsmouth racing HQ, had a brief stint at Laing O’Rourke and is now settled into a role leading a housing development firm.

Last year he replaced Stewart Davenport, who retired after 21 years with the company. But if he felt out of place in the sector, or returning to another big company, it isn’t obvious as he talks passionately about housing.

Challenging role

Mr Goring is currently engaged in a big data project. The public sector, he says, needs to start challenging its own assumptions around what it should do with both its estate and the land it wants to sell off.

To that end, Lovell is gathering intelligence on available land using various sources including the Land Registry, central government – including large estate owners such as the DIO and NHS – and local authority data.

“The industry struggles because of the way we compete for too low margins and the way companies are structured in a hierarchical way, it slows stuff down. 

“I think we’ve forgotten how to trade. We get wrapped up in procurement too often”

“We haven’t tackled the disruptive bit, as an industry. The government has, for a long time, tried to accelerate the housing market and investment in government property by effectively looking at redundant stock and selling it.

“I think there is now space for us to look at the data, produce a value heatmap… and then we tell them where the opportunities are.”

This will mean Lovell proactively trying to convince public sector clients to part with land, which traditionally they may have wanted to hold onto “just in case”.

“No one is heatmapping this at the moment. The private sector is waiting for the tender, waiting for the council to say, ‘This is our available portfolio for partnering or disposal,’ rather than being proactive.

Lovell The Mill Canton Cardiff

Lovell The Mill Canton Cardiff

South Wales is a particular area of activity for the firm

“I think we’ve forgotten how to trade. We get wrapped up in procurement too often. It would be nice to say without expectation that we could go to our friends in, for example, [housing associations] Clarion or Hyde and say, ‘This is where we see the value, I suggest you go and speak to the DIO’.”

I suggest to Mr Goring that this all sounds rather altruistic. Is Lovell really putting its resources into this research, only to happily offer what could be a treasure trove of opportunities to other firms, seeking nothing in response?

“We get very bound up on the financial deal to be done; we forget about the fact that by helping someone out from time to time, in two years’ time when it’s your turn, they’ll help you out.

“These are organisations who are natural partners [for Lovell]; when they have a bit of land that needs Morgan Sindall or Lovell expertise then hopefully we’ll have a discussion.”

Mapping out opportunities

Several times during our interview, he refers to the industry “letting down” the public sector. It’s clear that he sees an opportunity for a private sector organisation like Lovell to do some of the heavy lifting in identifying new regeneration opportunities for public-private partnerships.

“We tend to lean on central government too much. They were right to make £2bn available for accelerated construction and billions to support regeneration. It’s up to the private sector to write the business case that unlocks that money – someone has to prove they’re entitled to it.

“The bigger issue is they have to be more receptive to public-private sector approaches on strategic land. If we have that heatmap and know where the value lies, just because someone in some government department says,‘It’s absolutely critical to operational requirement’, we shouldn’t take that for granted.”

Jonathan Goring on…

Laing O’Rourke: “I met Anna Stewart and Cathal O’Rourke, both of whom I think are great… [but] when I arrived it had become a different organisation. Ray [O’Rourke] and I got on great. He’s built the most amazing organisation and he’s incredibly passionate, like I am, about everything from digital engineering to offsite manufacture. But with him taking hold of the reins, there wasn’t the space for me to do what I wanted to do.”

Ben Ainslie Racing HQ: “I can honestly say we negotiated pretty much everything, overlapped design and construction and achieved great results. People felt challenged, but not threatened – that’s a big issue in construction.”

London: When John Morgan says we’re pulling away from London, he’s talking about high-rise, trophy, demanding jobs in the centre. He’s not talking about sensible developments in zone 3 and outwards. Anyone who didn’t see the bottom dropping out of the high-end resi market has to be bonkers.”

Housing association mergers: “It’s a good thing as it means a consolidation of their balance sheets. We think there’s a situation where we can get together with them and bid for public sector land. We would have the delivery capability, they would have the balance sheet and we’d have the skills.”

Lovell built more than 2,000 new homes in 2016. It is working on high-profile public-private partnerships in London with the boroughs of Greenwich and Woolwich, building hundreds of homes in partnership with King’s Lynn council in Norfolk and retains a strong heritage in the North-west and Midlands.

“The industry struggles because of the way we compete for too low margins and the way companies are structured in a hierarchical way, it slows stuff down”

The work is varied, and for a man who passionately believes in a partnership approach to contracting and construction, it’s clear he’s trusted by Morgan Sindall’s chief executive John Morgan to find new and varied ways to make Lovell an effective public sector partner.

“More mature developers like U+I, Argent and us, our whole ethos is much more about community and regeneration. We tend to manage those situations better than a housebuilder, someone who will buy some land and bang a few houses up, to be blunt and stick 20 [affordable] units in a corner somewhere – that’s not regeneration.

Lovell_Trinity Walk_Woolwich

Lovell_Trinity Walk_Woolwich

Lovell’s work at Woolwich is one of several high-profile public-private partnerships

“We’re better now at understanding what makes a good mix.

“Take Argent’s development at King’s Cross for example: the University of the Arts becoming an anchor tenant would have been unheard of 20 years ago; it would have been a Marks and Spencer or something. There’s a better understanding there of what’s required to make a mixed community.”

Feeling at home

As for his own future, Mr Goring speaks of John Morgan fondly, his presence being a dominant factor in the attraction to come and work at Morgan Sindall.

But would he be interested in moving up, were his boss to take a step back in the near future?

“I’ve got a lot of admiration for him, Morgan Sindall and the way we do things here.

“My tendency is to be an opportunist, I’m not a great planner in terms of my own future. It’s all pretty much just happened… I don’t think any of the executive team here feels the need to position ourselves [to be next in line].”

While he’s not ruling anything out in terms of the future, Mr Goring is clear about the type of company he wants to work for and the role he can play in regenerating communities. It appears in Lovell, he has found a new home.

“Whenever I see John Morgan, the first question he asks is, ‘Are you having fun?’ And I am you know, it’s great.”

Q&A:

Name someone outside of Morgan Sindall you admire: Sir David Higgins. He has an amazing track record of success, for cutting through the crap and getting things done.

A project you would have loved to work on? Can I say something outside construction? My daughter is a biomedical scientist. I would love to work on one of the great genome or stem cell projects. The applications of biomedical science are incredible. Those kind of things fascinate me.

Someone outside of construction you admire: Sir Ben Ainslie.

Brexit – an opportunity or a disaster? [Laughs] Are they the only two options I get? It’s an opportunity.

The last memorable concert you’ve been to: I saw the Stones at the O2. They were superb.

If you weren’t in construction, what would you be doing? I love working with my hands. I was never academic enough to have been a doctor but I would have loved to have been a surgeon.

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