Denise Kingsmill’s impressive CV got Ray O’Rourke hooked enough to hire her as head of his advisory group on human capital. Now she’s got to do some more bait-dangling to get industry bods on board. She spoke to us about fluff, grit and wrestling with salmon.

Ater she sruts into the office dressed in a black PVC jacket, power suit and chunky gold necklace, the last thing you expect Denise Kingsmill to reveal is that she is a champion fisherwoman: “Let me tell you, I was in Trout & Salmon once. This was my proudest moment. I caught a very large salmon in the River Naver. You try fighting a 16 lb salmon that doesn’t want to get caught.”

Kingsmill is full of surprises. The former deputy chair of the Competition Commission was a unexpected entrant to the construction industry last week when it was announced that Ray O’Rourke had appointed her to head an advisory forum to his ever-expanding empire. The press release announcing the appointment said Kingsmill would be looking at issues such as “human capital management” and “corporate reputation management”. Or, as one leading contractor put it: “That’s just a lot of PR.”

The contractor then thought about it more carefully. Laing O’Rourke is one of the industry’s fastest growing companies. People are being taken on at a staggering rate, because of Terminal 5 at Heathrow or the immense schemes it is building in Dubai. “Underneath all that PR there are some real issues to be dealt with,” said the contractor. “They must have incredible pressures on them, having grown the business so quickly.”

Kingsmill effectively says the same when she discusses her goal of helping Laing O’Rourke become a £5bn-plus turnover company.

She believes that this will be possible only if staff are fully engaged in the aims of the business. She says: “The issues of human capital management are quite familiar in other big industries, such as oil or national services, but they’re not being very much thought about in the construction sector.”

Does it still sound a bit fluffy? Well, O’Rourke clearly doesn’t think so. He was sufficiently impressed by Kingsmill’s Accounting for People report, published last year by the Competition Commission, that he got in contact with her. Since then, mobile phone addict O’Rourke has spent months talking at Kingsmill about her role.

Her report was a best practice guide on reporting human capital data. It provided the culmination of her six-year career at the commission, which included 22 monopoly and merger inquiries, several of which involved companies related to the construction industry, and The Kingsmill Review, which looked at women’s pay and employment rights.

Kingsmill decided to pursue a portfolio career, taking up a series of part-time roles, such as this one with O’Rourke. Yet she has often been linked in the past 12 months to artier positions, such as leading posts at Channel 4 and the BBC. Construction seems a bit gritty by comparison.

The 57-year-old rebuffs the suggestion. Take a look at her long career, she says: she has been taking on hard-hitting work all her life.

“I was a trade union lawyer early in my career, you can’t get much grittier than that.”

It was in this role that she first found herself involved with the construction sector. She would represent grieving widows, bereaved families and those injured in construction accidents. She estimates that in the early 1980s she visited about 100 sites across the country: “It’s the worst thing in the world to deal with that sort of thing, with fatalities on site.”

Awful though these experiences clearly were, they had their advantages. Although Kingsmill admits that she is no construction industry expert, she reckons she can spot a dodgy site a mile off: “You can just see instantly when you go on to a site that is excellent. I’ve been on sites where there’s no safety equipment – it’s available but nobody’s actually wearing it – you have sites where oil is lying around. Sites that are clean are often sites that are safe.”

Good site management seems to have been one of the reasons she joined the O’Rourke march to construction hegemony. Kingsmill says she was bowled over by T5, describing it as an “academy for the construction industry”. Still, it probably did not hurt that O’Rourke flew her over to Dubai to take a look at his other megaschemes.

The United Arab Emirates is unlikely to be Kingsmill’s first port of call in the job. Her first meetings will probably take place with senior management in Scotland, from where she will gradually work her way down the UK.

While meeting and greeting, she has to deal with the business of filling the seats at the advisory board’s table. Kingsmill has drawn up a list of candidates and has started preliminary talks with some of them. She is looking for four or five board members with expertise outside of construction, such as in environment and community relations.

The board will have a broad make-up: “I will certainly be focusing on diversity. I’m not so sure I’ll be focusing on gender, but I imagine for example, that the advisory board is unlikely to be all white British males. They will all be world-leading experts in their fields. I don’t think there’s any limit to what we can look at within Laing O’Rourke.”

There is a hint that the first issue the board will look at when it eventually convenes will be O’Rourke’s operations in India. Very practically, and quite reasonably Kingsmill argues that by ensuring the workers there are well fed, adequately housed and paid fairly, their productivity will improve.

It is this kind of business argument, she explains, that is at the heart of human capital management, a subject that she is currently writing a book about. The language starts to become less fluffy: “Ray and I have had a number of conversations over a period of time about my thoughts on productivity, managing people. And he’s been talking to me about growing the business into one of the major players in the construction industry, recognising the way of improving productivity is through managing people well.”

The extremely well-spoken Kingsmill and the boy made good from the west coast of Ireland make an unlikely meeting of minds, but then the concept of success is something that most of the human race can grasp.

Personal effects

What was your proudest achievement at the Competition Commission? My investigation into the car industry. Car prices dropped 10% as a result. If you bought a new car recently you can thank me for paying a lot less than you would have.

Your were born in New Zealand. You must like rugby? I’m a great supporter. The great dilemma for me is who to support when the All Blacks play the Welsh. My mother is Welsh and I was brought up in South Wales. Then there is the Irish – my father’s an Irish New Zealander.

Do you have a husband and kids? Yes, all that stuff. You don’t need to know all that. 

Okay, we’ll say you declined to comment. You’re being journalistic now. That’s a trick. I have two children. Both work in advertising and marketing.

Where do you go on holiday? I went walking in Peru last year and loved Pisco Sours [a brandy and lime-based cocktail]. Is that going to sound poncey to the construction industry?