CEDA member profile: McConnell Dowell



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Jim Frith, Managing Director, Australia, McConnell Dowell

Can you tell us a bit about McConnell Dowell?

The business formed over 50 years ago, in 1961. It was established by two young kiwis, Malcolm McConnell and Jim Dowell, who started out small and expanded their operations. It wasn’t before long they expanded their operations to Jakarta and Singapore – opening an independent company in Singapore – which when you think about this being the 1970s at that time, it's simply remarkable. They spread out rapidly and got a name for themselves; the 1980s and 1990s saw them reinforce the McConnell Dowell name, and they became seen as a serious international contractor, known for taking on projects that were of a challenging nature and delivering some of the most complex and demanding projects throughout Australia and Asia. It’s a great story.

One of the key differences that sets McConnell Dowell apart from others in our field is our geographic footprint; we operate in 23 locations throughout Australia, Asia, New Zealand, Pacific Islands and the Middle East. Our other key differentiating factor would have to be our extensive in-house technical and engineering capabilities. This means better value for customers, who can engage us early on and receive advice and expertise from the very early stages of their project. 

What are your top priorities for the coming year?

While McConnell Dowell operates across three geographic regions, my remit is Australia, so I would like to focus on this region. At the moment our focus is on large transport infrastructure, which is high on the agenda in Melbourne and Sydney with a number of projects in planning or underway.

It’s also my personal belief that the resources sector is showing some signs of recovery. Commodity prices are falling and in many instances, it’s getting to the point where our customers can’t afford not to spend as the infrastructure they already have is in need of maintenance. They need to invest in it in order for their infrastructure to appreciate.

We are also looking at renewables, which is exciting, and they are very topical at the moment. While it is still early days, we are looking at projects in solar and hydro, however, naturally the progression with these projects is dependent of government support and interest. With the recent blackouts in South Australia it’s interesting to see how the conversation has changed and there is now a discussion that the future may not be entirely green, and the discussion is now about our future energy mix. The base load energy may not be generated by coal, but there is a role for natural gas and perhaps other types of gas in the energy mix of the future.

The flipside of the investment in renewables is the cleaning-up of former energy stations and sources, such as the decommissioning of the Hazelwood Power Station, which will create a lot of new land restoration projects. This will also be a focus for McConnell Dowell in the future.

Have you noticed any current industry trends?

Speaking in a general industry sense, we are noticing customers – whether public or private – have a much higher sensitivity to community expectations. We see the raising of the bar for public expectations.  For instance, if we were building a bridge, in the past the focus may have just been on the fundamental specifications for the infrastructure, now it may include specifications about fitting-in with the “look and feel” of a community, or taking into account other impacts to the area it’s being built in. It needs to tick all the boxes. I think this could be seen as a wider societal trend as well, where the internet and social media have made knowledge more accessible to everyone and there is a greater accountability. For us this means our teams need to be diverse, have a diverse skillset, and to be able to consider other points of view.
In terms of our workforce, the younger generation also want more out of their employment than the generations that came before them. For my generation, all we wanted was to get a job using the skills we had trained to get at uni. With the generation now, the focus is a lot more on “work-life” balance, wanting challenging experience and fulfilment from their job; and why shouldn’t they? We certainly need to be aligned to this and to offer all these things, from an employer perspective. 

What do you expect to see happen across the sectors you work in?

With digital disruption, the future is very hard to predict. For example, with digital disruption the skills university students are learning now may be entirely different to the skills they will need in 10, or even five years. In that sense, it’s hard to predict what the future may hold. I think there will be an even greater focus on client expectations and projects being assessed on community and public satisfaction.

It can be frustrating in the industry because of the constantly changing political landscape; we see a lot of proposed projects get scrapped as quickly as they came about, and we need consistency and a strong future pipeline of projects. I hope the future will see commitment to long-term planning and stability in the project pipeline.

While there is uncertainty surrounding the changes digital disruption will bring for communities of the future, I’m a strong advocate for more investment in transport. The train and road transport projects that are underway in Melbourne – such as the Metro Tunnel Project, the Monash Freeway Upgrade and the West Gate Tunnel Project – will make a huge contribution and increase to the quality of life for Melburnians. 

What is your role with the company and when did you start there?

I’m Managing Director, Australia, and I have been working with McConnell Dowell for 28 years.

What have been key accomplishments in your career?

One of my highlights has definitely been winning the engineering excellence award for the Common User Facility (CUF) project in South Australia. The CUF project formed part of Techport Australia – the country’s premier naval industry hub developed at Osborne in South Australia. The facility supported the Australian Submarine Corporation in delivering the Royal Australian Navy’s next generation $8 billion Air Warfare Destroyers.

The project was one of the first early contract involvement contracts in South Australia with McConnell Dowell and Built Environs working in collaboration with our design and technology partners and DefenceSA to develop the final design. The project was completed on time and on budget.

The project was novel as low operating costs were an imperative, because the State Government receives only a very small revenue stream from the tenants. Whole-of-life costs influenced all engineering decisions. Additionally, the Port River was adjacent to the site, which meant operating under stringent environmental controls to ensure minimal impact on the river's ecology.

What are your personal current priorities for the company and your role? What do you hope will be your legacy?

One of my priorities has been to develop staff, and to give members of our team the opportunity to develop. Not everyone’s goal in life is to become a manager; I always say there are two types of people or two types of experts in this world – managers and masters. In developing staff, not everyone will follow the same career progression. Developing staff means guiding people through to realising their potential and helping them move up in the business. It’s incredibly rewarding. I may have mellowed in my years in the business, but seeing my team grow and excel does give me a buzz.

Have you had any mentors during your career?

Our former CEO, David Robinson, who retired in 2015 was a long-term mentor. He had been with the business some 37 years, and I always felt I could pick up the phone and ask his advice. We may not have always seen eye-to-eye on every occasion! But he provided a lot of guidance and support over the years. 

Can you take us through any highlights in your career?

In a sense, every year is highlight as every year is a year of learning. McConnell Dowell’s requirement to remain a chartered engineer means constantly learning and training, and constantly learning something new every week.

The job has also taken me all over Australia, a number of South East Asian countries and throughout the Middle East. I have been to many places, places I would probably never have visited if it weren’t for my job, so I have been very privileged.

How does CEDA help the company understand and meet the challenges and opportunities you or your clients face?

We appreciate and believe in the work CEDA does in thought-leadership. I never come away from a CEDA event thinking “that wasn’t worth my time” – there is always something valuable to take away. CEDA draws like-minded people to its events, who come in with an open mind and yearning to learn.