Career 14: Billion dollar man - Fletcher's Mark Adamson

By Rebecca Barry Hill

Fletcher Building CEO Mark Adamson is the man who presides over his company’s role in the multi-billion dollar Christchurch rebuild. Rebecca Barry Hill meets a man who’s not afraid to make the hard decisions

Fletcher building CEO Mark Adamson (right) with Christchurch-based apprentice Luke Thomas. Photo / Ted Baghurst
Fletcher building CEO Mark Adamson (right) with Christchurch-based apprentice Luke Thomas. Photo / Ted Baghurst

Fletcher Building chief executive Mark Adamson has a simple rationale when it comes to making tough calls: emotion cannot enter into it.

"I loathe politics and I loathe egos. I'd hate to think I ever made a decision because
someone has pandered to my ego or it was for political reasons."

The British-born Adamson has now been in the top job for a year and four months. He says it's Fletcher's rare paternalistic qualities that convinced him to take on the role, in which he is running a restructuring programme, expected to bring benefits of $75 million to $100 million a year.

That said, he brings a harder-nosed approach, cultivated from 15 years working at senior management level in the private equity sector, and in place at his last role, running and subsequently turning around the fortunes of the Fletcher-owned Formica Group, from its headquarters in Cincinnati. It's a business philosophy that aggressively manages performance and aims to create a winning culture.

And yes, he can be "extremely challenging", he says, something he's become more mindful of since taking on the top job.

"I don't profess to bring motherhood and apple pie with me. If you succeed you will get rewarded, if you fail, you won't be here. So I think I'd like us to harden up a little bit, the essence of Fletcher without throwing the baby out with the bath water and retaining that family sense, that strong sense of ethics and a moral core."

Outside the board room, he's a husband to Hazel and father of teenagers Holly and George, has Newcastle United season tickets. He was born in Consett in County Durham, his Dad was the village bobby, his mum the dinner lady. He prefers to watch American football on ESPN (a hangover of living in Ohio), but he makes sure to catch all of the All Blacks and Bledisloe Cup games. He used to play for Durham City on the wing.

In some ways, running Fletcher, which generates revenue of $8.8 billion, requires the strategic mind, adaptability and endurance of an All Black. It's a hugely diverse role covering construction, product manufacture, distribution and global expansion, and includes the retail division Placemakers in New Zealand and bathroom specialists Tradelink in Australia.

A peek at his diary shows it's not all meetings, even if today he'll be talking with colleagues about growing sales and marketing, and meeting with the CEO of NZ Telecom for a chat. Recently he flew to XinXiang in China to organise a new laminate plant worth $100 million, returning to run a global management conference attended by Fletcher representatives from around the world.

His priorities, following a lot of expansion over recent years, are to reorganise and "unlock" the value already within the company, as well as recruiting experts from offshore. He's in the process of centralisation, enlisting a small team of less than 100 to run the senior operations, many of whom have international experience. The new head of PlaceMakers has come from Britain, and he's looking at recruiting a new head of the residential property development division, probably from Britain also.

The expectation is that they will go on to recruit locally, "and those people will learn so much because the guys that have just done it in the northern hemisphere for the last 10 years. It will be an accelerated learning process."

But perhaps Adamson's most public job so far has been managing the complex Christchurch rebuild, including infrastructure (roading, sewerage, etc), residential (Fletcher are just over halfway through the process of rebuilding 80,000 homes by Christmas next year), and the CBD (more plans are out for tender.)

The initial strategy was to ensure the right processes were in place, and an 850-strong team to help manage the 19,000 contractors working in the region. Next they made sure to establish safety protocols, a process that meant getting contractors up to speed on compliance, and maintaining the company's impeccable safety record.

Fletcher Building is also weighing into Auckland's housing crisis with plans to step up its game and increase the supply of new accommodation.

There has been no shortage of skilled tradespeople for these projects, says Adamson, but like many businesses, planning and project management skills have been harder to come by.

His own skills are the result of a broad career, largely at executive level.

After graduating from University of Northumbria, in Newcastle in 1994, Adamson has worked across the private and public sectors in a range of industries: digital and creative, finance and professional services, marketing, design, education and economic development. Learning how to lead has not necessarily come from watching his best bosses but from some of the "average" ones from earlier in his career.

"I've worked for some big blue-chip companies, GlaxoSmithKline, Deloitte, some of the private equity companies, big organisations, and I think there's a belief that the higher up an organisation you get, the more perfect you get. A lot of the time, the more fundamentally flawed you get... I've learned an awful lot by observing how not to do things."

Watching personal politics affect performance, for instance. Adamson's bottom line is, well, the bottom line. He has an "absolute faith" in capitalism. The reason he exists is to create wealth for the shareholder.

"This isn't all about big corporations. Every day I am extremely conscious I have a widowed mother, and she relies on her dividends to live. And I have to continue that dividend stream."

The apprentice

The 20-year-old is a year into a paid apprenticeship at Fletcher Construction, the start of a career he hopes will one day take him to management level.

When he was just 18 he managed a team of nine as they installed steel to strengthen the quake-damaged Pak n'Save.

"That's where I'm at my best," says Thomas. "I love having a team and bringing everyone together. We're all chipping away and there's that team spirit, where one guy finishes his job and the next guy steps up."

Thomas is now pursuing a career in construction, and with Fletcher committed to rebuilding the city, he's confident he won't be short of work while living in Christchurch. Still, he ended up at Fletcher almost by accident.

He finished high school at 16 in the Hokianga, helped his Dad kick-start a video communications company and after a few weeks of unemployment, applied to go on the benefit. That required that he either go on a course with Outward Bound or the Army. He chose the Army's six-week Limited Service Volunteer course, through which he was awarded for leadership by the Warrant Officer of the Army. Thomas was then set up with work experience at Fletcher Construction, where he soon discovered the physical demands of the job.

"You've got 60-year-old men doing more physical work than me, pushing 40kg around in barrows."

When he's not working on site, where his bosses have been keen to give him a broad taste of sites to work on, the other half of his 45-hour week is spent studying building and engineering theory. When he's not building structures, he's building relationships.

"That's what I've loved most - the culture of the site, the people, the personalities. Good banter gets thrown around. That playful thing goes on all day.

"I've got no limits but for now I want to focus on what I'm doing now, stick with the industry and develop that. I've got the potential to go to management side of things, so I'd rather do that. But I've always wanted to be in a social environment so I'll continue with Fletcher. There's 10 years in the rebuild, minimum. This company is a no-brainer to stick to."

PROFILES

Mark Adamson, 47, Fletcher Building CEO
• Born in County Durham England
• Fletcher Building are expected to generate operating revenue of $8.5 billion in 2014.
• Fletcher Building employs 18,600 people internationally in 50 businesses.

Luke Thomas, 20
• Based in Christchurch
• Left school at 16
• Pursuing a career in construction at Fletcher Building

Q & A

Luke Thomas: What were you doing at my age?
Mark Adamson: I was at university and worked in my holidays on a road crew surveying the highways. At the end of the summer I was made foreman - my first leadership role.

LT: Are you handy with a hammer?
MA: I love DIY and am a tool freak. I've lived on three continents in recent years and have three full toolkits in metric and imperial.

LT: Where were you when you heard about the Christchurch earthquake?
MA: I had just returned to Cincinnati, having been in New Zealand the previous week. It was late evening on February 21 and the earthquake got little coverage on US television so I followed events on the BBC website.

LT: Lots of builders are one-man bands. Why would you encourage me to stay with Fletcher Building?
MA: We intend to grow Fletchers into a truly global business which excels at key disciplines whether it be sales, manufacturing, construction, IT etc. The possibilities to develop a career are boundless and there is certainly nowhere else I'd rather be in the next five years.

LT: Fletcher Building is huge. How do you keep in touch with what's happening on the shop floor?
MA: I spend a lot of time traveling, visiting our sites and talking to our people. And being from a working class background, I consider I have a good radar for the mood of a business.

LT: What is your vision for the development of apprentices like me working in the construction industry?
MA: Fletchers has an enviable reputation for quality in products and construction that we intend to enhance. Apprenticeships are a key part of that. For the particularly ambitious and able, we will extend apprenticeships to cover not only basic construction skills but also management and finance, to provide ladders into leadership roles.

LT: What is a key piece of career advice you can give me?
MA: Never stop learning. No matter where you get to there is always the opportunity to improve yourself.

- NZ Herald

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