Who was/were the biggest influences in your early career and what did they teach you?
My mum has been the biggest influence in my life. I grew up in a poor family in The Valleys in Wales. My father was a miner and my mother was incredibly quiet, but she was always fair and decisive.
My parents didn’t give me money and they couldn’t help me with my homework, because they both left school themselves at a very early age. Mum read a bit and dad wrote a bit and, between them, they got on well.
What they did teach me was the importance of good behaviour. I cannot stand bad behaviour and I hate injustice. If a decision is made that I feel is unjust, I have to intervene. My parents instilled that in me.
At 13 I had plans to become a professional soccer player, but I was deselected from the Welsh camp at about the age of 16. I then had to pass my exams very quickly. I got 10 O Levels and three A Levels, but my parents couldn’t afford to send me to university.
Instead, I wrote to 27 companies with the help of one of my early mentors, David Kelly, a teacher. He did Technical Drawing, which I loved. I was offered three scholarships to sponsor me through university and I accepted one from George Wimpey.
David Kelly saw something in me and said: “You’re great at Maths, Physics and Technical Drawing. I think you should go into engineering.”
He was the one who introduced me to the Careers Research Advice Council and that is why I went on to apply to all those companies. I wrote the letters, but he put me on my first step of the ladder.
When I was appointed Managing Director at John Mowlem by the Chairman David Evans, I would meet him each week at 11am on Monday for sherry and biscuits. He was really old-fashioned. At every board meeting, we would have a hot meal and red or white wine, but he knew people inside out.
He said to me: “Just remember, you can’t have “100% ‘100 percent-ers’. You have to accept that you will have some people who give just 50%, but as long as they’re on your side, keep them on the team.”
That was great advice and he was the person for me who really stabilised my position and allowed me to learn quickly.
What are the most important lessons you have learned over the years about managing people and strategic leadership?
I think that a lot of people might see me as a hard task master, but I genuinely believe that if you set tough objectives for people, they will achieve them.
People are motivated by “stretch”, but you need to guide them in such a way that you can identify any gaps in their training and avoid tipping them towards stress.
Every one of my Directors at Sisk has a coach. I set standards and objectives for them and they share them with their coach. I then get three-way feedback.
In terms of personal development and upskilling, how do you stay current in your sector?
I absolutely believe in strategic learning programmes. Strategising and writing business plans is a skill and people need to learn it. The model I use myself is simple and involves analytics, formulation and implementation.
Strategic leadership to me is about stealing ideas. I love stealing ideas from any great company out there.
What I love about Ireland is you can get close to government – you can actually speak to them and you can get to understand what their issues are.
In the UK, it would take me 12 months to get a meeting with one of the senior ministers. Here I can talk to them more easily and that allows us to formulate our strategy much more quickly as a company and to make sure that we have the necessary backstops.
There are some great networks in Ireland. In the UK, there are great networks, but they are based around cities. Here, you have networks spanning the country and that’s also great for us. I’m learning about the Irish market a lot, about how decisions are made here. I’ve learned, for example, that it takes longer to gain people’s trust here than it does in the UK.
We are in the process of delivering a three-stage training programme at Sisk for our executive leaders, middle and first line managers. We are saying to them “find out about yourself and what help you need. If you need coaching or buddying, ask for it.”
As part of that, all of our board members took part in a two-year training programme we started in July 2016.
We had about five or six two-day sessions and the aim has been to understand each other and how we can create a “high-performance” team with 11 members with different work styles.
Nobody comes to work to do a bad job, but you can create an environment in which they really don’t want to do a good job.
Creating the right environment is, I think, about combining elements of light or heavy change, “step-change” and continuous improvement, so that you really give them something to go for.
One of the big lessons I have learned is the importance of continuing to provide training no matter what and to bring young people into the company.
It’s so easy to stop both when times are hard, but they are the lifeblood of any business. If you are in trouble, taking costs down is sensible, but that can reduce productivity. You have to lead from the front.
I tend to want to communicate one-to-one. I like speaking to people and I think that’s really important. I write personal letters.
Email dominates our life too often, but in this business, you must never lose the detail or the contact with people. Otherwise you lose the business.
What are your hobbies outside of work? Do you have any tricks to switch off after a busy day?
I have twin daughters aged nine who play very high-level soccer for MK Dons, a professional association football club in Milton Keynes in the UK. They are succeeding where I didn’t and that generally helping them with soccer fills up my weekend.
I love playing vinyl records at home for the half hour before the family sits down to eat. There is nothing nicer than just sitting back and listening to music for 30 minutes.
I enjoy listening to George Michael and Rod Stewart. I was a massive fan of David Bowie when I was younger and I think Ed Sheeran is brilliant, as is George Ezra. If I really want to relax, I listen to Kate Bush
I have a classic car, which I like to drive on my own. I find it gives me some really valuable time to think about the business, but also to chill out.
I also play a bit of golf. I am a member of Royal Liverpool Golf Club in the UK and of Dún Laoghaire Golf Club in Dublin.
When you travel for pleasure, where do you go and why?
We spent our last two family holidays touring Ireland, because I want my family to really understand how lovely Ireland is in the same way that I find Wales beautiful.
We spent a week travelling from Kinsale in Co. Cork, on to Waterford and we plan to spend another week around Westport in Co. Mayo.
Friends of ours live in Sarasota in Florida, so we go there about once a year as well.
Do you enjoy reading? What’s the last great book you read?
I love non-fiction. The most recent book I read was “Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice” by Bill Browder.
Browder is an American financier and the book is about his experience running an investment fund in Russia, which led to the murder of his lawyer.
Another book I rate highly is “The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron”, written by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind.
It was just amazing to me to read about how many people can be fooled, and actually believe, that they are doing brilliantly when they are, in fact, standing on quicksand.