Bob Johnston was given the top job at Bovis and told to strengthen the bonds between parent and subsidiary. But that doesn't mean he's there to dispense group hugs. Angela Monaghan found out about his plans to double profits.

Few in UK construction knew who Bob Johnston was when he was named global chief executive at Bovis Lend Lease. But the company's Australian parent knows him very well - and that's why he's there. After years of rumours that the union between Bovis and its owner was at best strained and at worst heading for the rocks, an Australian with almost 20 years' service at Lend Lease was drafted in to repair the relationship.

Bob Johnston

Bob Johnston

Portrait by Tom Harford Thompson

Nearly a year after taking the helm of Bovis - a UK top-five contractor with a global turnover of £3.25bn - Johnston agreed to give Building his first interview. And in between discussing his plans to conquer the USA, deliver the London Olympics and expand the company's finances at a rapid rate, Johnston wants to make one thing crystal clear: Bovis and Lend Lease are firmly bound together. "I don't differentiate between Bovis and Lend Lease. We are Lend Lease," he says

If Johnston's comment seems almost aggressive, it's not surprising. He cannot be totally shielded from the speculation in the market that the relationship between Lend Lease and Bovis, which the former bought in October 1999, has soured. Not least because Bovis has been forced to take a £14m hit on two problem projects this year - the BBC's Broadcasting House and Bridgewater Place in Leeds.

One senior industry source suggested that Johnston, 45, had been brought in to be a no-nonsense boss: "He struck me as a bit of a blunt instrument. I think his job was to go into Bovis and sort it out. He's a bit of a tough cookie. You've had the old guard in there for ages and now he's come in to crack heads together."

Johnston might approve of the sentiment, although he doesn't express it in such blunt terms: "We need to work in an integrated fashion. It needs to be seamless. Historically, we have been separate but we want to bring them much closer together. Part of my role is to help that process in the UK."

Industry clients have also noticed the tensions between the two. As one UK employer comments: "His appointment shows the pressure from Sydney to make the relationship work." And if further proof is needed of the importance of the relationship, take a look at the numbers: Bovis comprises 8000 of Lend Lease's 10,000 worldwide workforce.

Johnston, a formal and focused man, is also charged with growing Bovis' business. His vision is simple: to double its profit in the next five to 10 years, from the £76.9m it made globally in the past financial year. Rather than just quoting a lofty and general target, Johnston is clear and specific on how he is going to achieve it.

He has set his sites on the USA, where he wants to "expand our geographic footprint". Bovis has a strong presence in the East and Midwest, but only a small presence on the West Coast in California. Correcting that imbalance might mean a purchase "if the right opportunity comes up".

I don’t differentiate between Bovis and Lend Lease. We are Lend Lease

Johnston is no stranger to acquisitions. When Lend Lease bought Bovis, the biggest overlap between the two businesses was in the Australian and Asia Pacific regions, which he was running at the time. "I probably had one of the more challenging roles after the acquisition, managing the integration process across 11 countries."

Bob Johnston

Bob Johnston

Portrait by Tom Harford Thompson

In his new job, Johnston has ambitions to build a Bovis engineering business in Australia. He has spent much of his career with Lend Lease in his home country.

He started at the bottom of the heap as a design engineer in 1987. Since then, he has run the company's US funds management business, which has now been sold, and its Singapore division as well as the Australia and Asia Pacific business.

As boss of Bovis Lend Lease, one of Johnston's biggest challenges is the London Olympics. The company is on the shortlist for the role of 2012 delivery partner - the winner is due to be announced in August. Johnston, who was appointed chief executive at Bovis a week after London beat Paris to line, has significant Olympic experience.

Not only did he work on the delivery of the Sydney Games, he also worked alongside David Higgins, who was once his boss at Lend Lease and is now chief executive of London's Olympic Delivery Authority.

"We are very keen to get the role," says Johnston, which given his drive must be an understatement. "If unsuccessful, we will look to the Olympics for other opportunities, but delivery partner is our preferred position."

The lessons he learned at Sydney 2000 all relate to issues currently being debated in London: leaving enough time to carry out construction and undertake adequate testing of facilities, and ensuring that long-term developments meet community needs. "David understands the issues," he says.

We need to work in an integrated fashion. Part of my role is to help that process in the UK

Turning to other matters in the UK, he is a big fan of the PFI, although healthcare work in particular has slowed down. "It will continue to be a growth engine for us. The healthcare pipeline has stalled but there is still a lot of opportunity there - particularly in the schools programme and the waste sector."

The plan is to take the PFI skills that Bovis has cultivated in the UK and to export them to countries such as Italy and Spain, where the company already has PFI projects under its belt, and finally to Australia.

One source of business that he does rule out for Bovis is nuclear power. This is despite the fact that Costain and Amec are gearing up to expand in the sector in the expectation that Tony Blair is about to give the green light to a new generation of nuclear power stations.

But it is not on Johnston's agenda: "In my current three-year plan, I have not contemplated nuclear," he says simply.

Throughout the interview, Johnston maintains a formal persona. As one client put it: "I've met him on informal occasions and he has always been very formal." He never appears ill at ease, even when talking about difficult jobs - "When we have issues I do get involved, like on Broadcasting House. I was part of the team that worked to achieve an outcome mutually agreeable to all parties". But he is not a relaxed man.

However, when the conversation turns to his personal life, Johnston smiles and there is a hint of a lighter side. He has not, he says, found it difficult to settle into the UK or to adapt to the pace of life in London.

"The main thing was my children settling in and they've made a lot of friends. We arrived in August and couldn't have picked a better time - apart from the fact we got thrashed in cricket."

With that, the atmosphere lightened, with relief all round that Bovis' chief executive has finally broken his silence.

Bovis at a glance

  • The company was founded in 1885 when Charles William Morris bought a small building business in London from Francis Saunders
  • The contractor reported a global turnover of £3.3bn and a profit of £77m for the year to June 2005
  • It operates in more than 40 countries, from the UK and France to Australia and New Zealand
  • Project highlights in recent years include the £350m Bluewater shopping complex in Kent, completed in 1999, and the £431m Scottish parliament, which opened its doors last year
  • Shipping group P&O sold Bovis to Australia’s Lend Lease Corporation for £285m in October 1999