The chairman of MJ Gleeson may look like he's sitting pretty as he takes over the hot seat at the Major Contractors Group. But the question everybody's asking is, can he stop its members from leaving?
Dermot Gleeson is characterised by his contradictions. He spends his days in the mucky world of bricks and mortar, but he ponders the nature of consciousness and can reel off quotes in Italian. He is a one-nation Tory who gets on well with New Labour. He's the boss of an old-fashioned family firm who represents Britain's biggest construction companies as the new chairman of the Major Contractors Group.

He's jumping into the deep end in his new role, with an ambitious revamp to boost membership. The MCG's recent history has been blighted by departures. Last month, Amec and Mowlem said they had outgrown the group, and Willmott Dixon has given formal notice to quit.

Gleeson admits that members are unhappy. "There's a feeling on the part of people who only attend occasional MCG meetings that our lobbying isn't as systematic and as precisely targeted as it could be." But he isn't downhearted. "I do believe the MCG is an organisation that brings commercial benefit to the industry," he says. "No individual contractor has more than 2% of the UK market, and I truly believe that we large contractors can have more impact on government if we act together rather than individually."

An executive committee will be set up "to ensure our lobby activities are properly prioritised, sharply focused and vigorously executed". One key area of "sharp focus" will be the PFI market: the MCG will set up a working party to establish close relationships with big facilities management and support services companies working on PFI schemes.

This is because PFI is an increasing concern for major contractors, according to Gleeson. "We have concerns about whether the government has the ability to deliver its PFI spending programme within its timetable," he says. "We feel very strongly that if the government's laudable ambitions are to be achieved, the process needs to be improved." This would involve a substantial and predictable flow of deals, and greater standardisation within each PFI sector – housing, education, healthcare, prisons – to help bring costs down. "It's absurd that the wheel is having to be reinvented for projects that are in many key respects very similar."

Gleeson is also pushing for more construction knowledge within government, through secondment and advisory roles. "If the government is to deliver this PFI programme, it needs at every level people with appropriate skills, understanding and expertise. The MCG has offered to help the government find people with project skills from industry."

Political lobbying is the MCG's principal role, and Gleeson's experience in public life makes him a safe pair of hands. His career began with a stint in the Conservatives' research department under Chris Patten. He wasn't interested in the family construction business, preferring the cut and thrust of politics, until he took on the job of European Commission representative for the Midland Bank. "In Brussels I realised commercial life was a great deal more interesting than I'd initially expected," he says. "I then began to scrutinise my attitudes to the family business and decided that maybe I would be interested in coming into it after all."

He became MJ Gleeson's managing director in 1988, aged 39, later taking on the role of chairman when his uncle died. He became executive chairman in 1998.

Our lobbying isn’t as systematic and targeted as it might be. But large contractors have more impact on government together than individually

He has spent a good deal of time in what he calls "quango land", serving on the boards of the Housing Corporation and the CITB, and he's currently a governor of the BBC. All this helped him win the MCG chairmanship, he believes: "My background in politics and 'quango land' means I have a reasonably good understanding of the political process, how Whitehall works, and the interface between government and the private sector."

Assured and courteous, with a lively intellect, Gleeson's personality reflects his company's "caring-sharing" philosophy.

"We're a publicly quoted company but the Gleeson family and staff own well over 40% of the business, which gives us considerable influence," he says. "We've always taken the long-term view. We want a company that's built to last, so we've always believed in spreading risk by having a broad range of related but distinct business operations. We've always felt the company should be primarily seen not as a collection of financial assets, or a legal entity. It should be seen as a human community embedded in a network of other communities to which it has obligations."

This ethical stance has won the company much praise. The Sunday Times placed the firm 53rd in its 2002 list of the best UK companies to work for, above any other construction company. They're also included in the FTSE4Good index of ethically managed publicly quoted companies.

Personal effects

Who’s in your family? My wife Rosalind and our children: Kate, 21, who’s just taken her last exam at Cambridge, and Patrick, 18, who’s just left school.

Where do you live? Just outside Guildford in a little village. Our bit of Surrey is not quite the countryside, but it’s very nice.

What’s the last book you read? I’ve become interested in reasonably accessible philosophy and popular science. I’ve just finished The Illusion of the Human Will by a Harvard professor who argues that our conscious thoughts have little effect on our actions – consciousness just enables us to observe what we do.

Where was your last holiday? We have a little cottage in the Outer Hebrides. Rosalind and I have a shared enthusiasm for remote Celtic islands.

What would you order at the bar? In a pub, a pint of Guinness. In a wine bar, a glass of house red.