The man who put Mowlem back in profit is stepping into Sir Martin Laing’s shoes as the new president of the Construction Confederation – but is he straight-talking enough for the job?

THE chief executive of Mowlem and new president of the Construction Confederation was evidently worried about being interviewed. After an hour-and-a-quarter of fending off Building’s questions with the help of notes, prerehearsed checklists and the reassuring presence of his chief executive Jennie Price, John Gains is visibly relieved to hear that the interview is over. “Is that it?” he asks. ”That was easy. I thought it would be a stinker!”

Gains will be acting as the contracting industry’s special envoy to a world that sees it as an unlovely throwback to the old economy. As president, it will be Gains’ job to bend the ear of ministers, apply his powers of persuasion to Treasury officials and forge better relationships with über-clients such as Railtrack, Tesco and the Ministry of Defence. When television or a national newspaper covers a construction story, it will be Gains providing the soundbites.

However, his anxiety over his communication skills must raise questions about how he will perform in his new role. It is hard to get a conversation going with someone whose eyes are glued to his notes, or who likes to backtrack whenever a phrase strikes him as open to misinterpretation. He is fond of pausing mid-sentence to insert explanatory notes in almost visible parentheses, and uses the word “constructive” like a verbal tic.

Even when he is enthusiastic about a topic, he expresses himself in the language of a habitual report-writer and his conversation is rarely coloured by humour, candour or even adjectives. On his primary task of developing relations with government, for instance, he says he hopes the confederation will “have the opportunity to state our case and to be constructive in creating constructive dialogue that allows us to create the right environment for the industry to operate properly”.

Discussing the industry’s overall image problem, Gains offers an explanation that could apply to himself. “The leaders are quite hands-on; we find it difficult to talk and project the industry. We’re not marketing men; we’re contractors.” One City analyst who has known Gains since he became chief executive of Mowlem in 1995 agrees that poor communication skills is a charge that could be levelled: “He is argumentative, but that’s just his way. Once you get under his skin, you realise he’s quite an open person. But he could listen more, and he can take things too personally.”

Gains’ term of office follows Sir Martin Laing’s three years as the confederation’s inaugural president. The selection procedure appears to have been modelled on papal elections, involving discreet soundings among the industry’s chief executives. Gains, perhaps looking for the next challenge after putting Mowlem back in profit, was happy to step up from his role on the council of the Major Contractors Group. “I decided it was a job I wanted to do, and that I could allocate the appropriate time to it,” he says.

He must now help the confederation’s 5000 members complete their reinvention from low-margin, adversarial juggernauts to the responsive, innovative service providers of the 21st century. He speaks of the privilege of representing his industry, but adds that he has not forgotten Mowlem. “The performance of the industry is also very important to my company, it can’t stand in isolation. If we can be more consistent, we can generate better profits, which benefits the shareholders.”

His duties as president are open to a degree of personal interpretation, and sound likely to take up more time than the one day a month Sir Martin devoted to the job. “I have an open brief to develop themes which we think are vital to the industry’s health. It’s a role I can flex to the demands as we see them. I’m not constrained by having to chair committees.” However, at the suggestion that this gives him room to stamp his personality on the confederation’s agenda, he shakes an admonishing finger at what he sees as a misquote in the making. “I said I will be listening to the members.”

The themes on his prerehearsed list are sketched out without much in the way of solidity or texture. The fashionable topic of sustainability is dispatched fairly quickly as “an issue Sir Martin Laing kickstarted and we feel it has a continuation thanks to his efforts”. On the private finance initiative, he says he will “support its continuity and expansion”.

For the bulk of the confederation’s members, the priority is “a better relationship with our clients, more development of a constructive arrangement to bring more efficiency into the construction process. There are too many interfaces, inefficient decision-making and often unclear briefs. We’re keen to take a full part in ensuring the process becomes more efficient and push our industry forward in an open-minded and constructive – and I underline constructive – way.”

When asked how he hopes to achieve this, given that the industry has reached saturation point on conferences, position papers and initiatives, it transpires that he is not so much talking about the industry pushing itself forward, as being pushed. “We’re not asking for opportunities on a plate, but we want consistency of opportunity so that we can develop long-term plans, invest in research and development, and so that we can provide opportunities for recruitment. Consistency allows us to recruit the best people available and if we do that, we can deliver the most efficient product.” Thus a virtuous cycle is completed, but one that seems to shift responsibility for the industry’s ills – recruitment, underinvestment and poor margins – to the client community.

On recruitment and the industry’s image, number two on his agenda, Gains speaks in a heartfelt way that seems to flow from a genuine emotional attachment to the industry. “There are careers to be had which those of us in the industry feel are hugely rewarding. We need to get that message out against a background of being a consistent industry. There’s a responsibility to project a message about the value of this industry and genuine career opportunities.”

There are one or two omissions from Gains’ list, such as health and safety, unhappily back in the headlines following the death of a City site worker two weeks ago. “Health and safety has to be a priority,” he says automatically. Then, after a pause, asks: “Was there another death last week? I didn’t pick that up.” Price spots the opportunity that Gains has missed. “Health and safety has shot up our agenda,” she says, referring to a confederation-funded research project with the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology and the University of Loughborough on the root cause of site accidents and how to prevent them.

It is clear that he has not yet familiarised himself with the full range of the confederation’s activities, and if asked for specific information tends to invite Price’s contribution. She also steps in to explain substantive points, such as how the confederation won’t be knocking solely at the DETR’s door. “We’re looking to broaden the level of consistent contact with government, and speak to the Department for Education and Employment, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Treasury.”

Gains is territorial about defending contractors, and not above taking a few potshots at the rest of the industry from his contracting bunker. “There’s clearly inefficiency in the construction process and not just in the contracting process” is one coded criticism. “Contractors bear their share of responsibility, but are absolutely not – and I will not have them treated as such – responsible for all that’s wrong in the industry.” When the Millennium Bridge is suggested as an example of a project that hasn’t helped the industry’s image, Gains pounces on it with pleasure. “How has that dented the image of the contracting industry?” he asks triumphantly.

Contractors will be pleased to have such a dyed-in-the-wool contractor as their spiritual champion but, as president, Gains will be spending most of his time not on internal morale-boosting but external relations. This means his steely determination needs a coating of tact and humour. His obvious preparation for this interview proves that Gains is prepared to do his homework. Perhaps he just needs to expand his curriculum.

Personal effects

Who’s who in your family? I’m a widower. I have a son who works in construction and a daughter who is a doctor. Where do you live? My main home is in a village near Newark in Nottinghamshire. What do you do in you spare time? I play golf, not very well, but I enjoy it. And I have a 45-year-old sports car, an Austin Healey. I just drive it, I don’t like tinkering under the bonnet. What was the last book you read? It was the latest John Grisham, The Testament. And I’m reading Charles Handy [the management guru], but that sounds a bit naff. What would be your dream construction project? Hopefully, Mowlem is involved in a consortium to build a 1500 km railway from Darwin to Alice Springs in Australia. It’s the sort of project that tests your stamina, your skills and resources. If I were a young man again, I’d like to work on a groundbreaking project like that.