Bill Tallis was not the obvious choice to head the Major Contractors Group, in that he had never worked in construction. So, what does the new director have in store?
It can’t be easy coming cold to construction after three decades in the petrochemical industry. And it definitely can’t be easy starting a new job when your CV shows 30 years with one company. In particular, it can’t be much fun when a journalist asks you to predict what you’ll be doing in the job in the 21st century.

So when Bill Tallis, the new director of the Major Contractors Group, responds to questions with several “no ideas” in a row, perhaps he can be forgiven on the grounds of beginner’s nerves. And looking on the bright side, at least it could be said that the former BP executive took up his post on 4 January with an entirely clean slate.

Safe ground is finally reached with two topics that, he is happy to declare, are at the top of the MCG’s agenda: the private finance initiative and benchmarking. As for other issues that might occupy his time, such as the euro or employment legislation, he declines to speculate. “I think we’re both just guessing now,” he reprimands.

Tallis has taken over as the mouthpiece of the industry’s 23 most powerful contractors, replacing former MCG director Jennie Price, who has moved to the role of chief executive of the entire Construction Confederation. Tallis also heads the National Contractors Federation and will be pressing the case of both groups with government departments, industry and client bodies, and unions.

Hopefully, he will have found more to say after a round of meetings with the industry’s top tier of chief executives and chairmen, scheduled to start at the end of this month, which he describes as “orange juice and sandwiches” working lunches. Tallis, 53, joins the industry’s lobbying effort after a successful career at BP, where he was latterly director responsible for engineering and projects with an annual spend of $500m-1bn. “I don’t have experience in construction itself, but engineering construction isn’t a million miles away,” he points out. He oversaw the design and construction of up to 10 plants at a time around the globe. “My children thought the Air Miles were great,” he laughs.

This was during a period when the engineering construction sector was going through a cathartic reinvention similar to the one construction is now experiencing. Before Latham and Egan, the oil and chemical industries ran quality and efficiency drives code-named CRINE and ACTIVE. However, Tallis believes that one major difference is the petrochemical industry’s greater reliance on partnering.

He left BP in July, when the company’s merger with Amoco brought the prospect of redundancy and the impetus to seek opportunities elsewhere. While still at BP, Tallis had developed a taste for lobbying work on behalf of the Chemical Industries Association, so he narrowed his search to similar roles.

He secured the joint MCG and NCF post from a field of about 80 candidates after impressing an interview panel headed by Kvaerner’s Keith Clarke and Carillion’s Sir Neville Simms. He is now looking forward to helping the industry lobby its way to a position of influence in government and European Union policy-making, although he predicts that Price will be “a hard act to follow”.

“I am interested in ensuring that the industry’s performance is enhanced, and not detracted from, by government policies,” he explains. “Government doesn’t set out to hold industry back, but it doesn’t always have the knowledge to put together regulations and legislation in a way that is constructive.”

Tallis will be concentrating on “helping the government to do better” on the PFI, where he welcomes the creation of co-ordinating body Partnerships UK. “The government has recognised that it needs a high level of expertise on the client side to get the best out of contractors,” he says.

He awaits the consultations with the MCG members to highlight other issues for his in-tray, but confidently predicts that the euro will not be one of them. “I’d be surprised if the euro is high up on anyone’s list. Why put a lot of work into lobbying on something you can’t affect?” he asks.

A realistic attitude, maybe, but one it is hard to imagine other professional lobby groups, such as the Confederation of British Industry, sharing. Or perhaps it’s just beginner’s nerves.

Personal effects

Who’s who in your family? I have been married to Jo for 30 years. We have two grown-up daughters and a son, and an Airedale terrier. Was your house built by a major contractor? No, it’s a 100-year-old Victorian house in Epsom – but it probably needs the attention of the members! But don’t put that or it will look like I’m asking. What do you do in your spare time? I’ve got a canal boat on the Grand Union Canal that we use for weekends and holidays, and I go hill walking and play badminton. Do you have any favourite or least favourite buildings? I’m impressed by the buildings of the 1990s. I do remember thinking in the 1970s how awful many of the buildings were. There’s been a sustained improvement in design and execution. What’s your new millennium resolution? To try harder. I make the same resolution every year.