Murray Coleman is not a man to mince his words, as Mark Leftly found when he trailed the new Bovis Lend Lease construction boss around one of the contractor’s more problematic PFI projects

The rain spits on the seemingly random scattering of construction sites and working buildings that comprise the £380m Manchester Joint Hospitals PFI scheme. Doctors rush to get out of the cold, while site workers sip tea, warming themselves in preparation for the day ahead of them. Building is here to go on a tour with Murray Coleman, the hard-nosed Australian who took over Bovis Lend Lease’s UK construction business in the wake of Jason Millett’s departure in June.

It is an appropriate venue for Coleman’s first UK interview. In April the contractor announced a £14.7m writedown in response to a series of difficult projects, and rumour has it that this Manchester job is one of the most problematic. The speculation is that the contingency budget is all but spent, and most of the facilities in the six-year build programme will be opening late.

As it turns out, some of this chatter is true, some of it exaggerated.

There is a degree of trepidation in meeting Coleman. He is an intimidating man, with his large frame and wild, unkempt hair. Those who know him say that he can be moody and withdrawn one day, and an ebullient “typical Australian” the next. Thankfully, he is the latter today, although even in this charismatic guise he is a frank, aggressive speaker. And this means that he is quite clear on how he wants to develop the UK’s most talked about construction firm.

The grand tour

Coleman has worked in the UK before. In 2000 he was based in London as chief operating officer for the global markets group, focusing on the pharmaceutical industry. After that he took over as head of Bovis’ safety programme. Which is why he is so annoyed about British quarantine laws …

It’s a strange gambit, but an endearing one. “My dog doesn’t get here for another month,” he huffs, going on to explain that the mutt’s plight nearly stopped him from taking the job. “Coco’s from Devon – English – but still has to have this rabies test and wait for six months to get here. That was nearly a show-stopper.”

Coco has followed Coleman around the globe over the past few years. Indeed, the gruff Aussie has picked up countless air miles in his 20 years at Lend Lease, most recently heading up the Asia Pacific business. And, he claims, Manchester hospitals is about as challenging a scheme as he has seen: “I’ve been to projects all around the world, and this is complicated.”

Coleman should know what he’s talking about: his father ran an M&E firm that specialised in hospital design. He is in his seventies now, but still works as an adviser to the World Health Organisation.

As the party begins its tour, it is clear that Coleman is right. Manchester hospitals covers a huge site, with 1,460 beds fitted into 1.5 million ft2 of accommodation. The facilities are being built over 20 phases, with existing units remaining open until their replacements are completed. “It’s like a game of chequers,” Coleman says. “You have to move one thing to get another thing in … It’s a 9.9 degree of difficulty – with a pike,” he adds, changing the sporting analogy.

And this is why there have been problems. Graham Hiley, Bovis Lend Lease’s project director at Manchester, gives the game away when he proudly declares that the 1,601-space car park was “handed over ahead of programme” – the unwitting implication being that this is unusual. In fact, few of the buildings have been completed on time since work started on site in January 2005, including the £36m heart and renal unit, around which Hiley is leading the tour group.

This unit, which was supposed to be ready in September, opened in the middle of December. Coleman counters that there will “always be a few ups and downs” on a six-year scheme, and that Bovis has been working closely with the trust to resolve technical and equipment issues.

However, looking over the diggers and workmen from a balcony, John Foster, the trust’s project director, is a little less sanguine. “From our point of view, date certainty is important – for example ambulance staff need to know when and where they are working. It’s a minor disappointment.”

Coleman has clearly taken the delays seriously, having refreshed the project’s management team by bringing over the aforementioned Hiley as soon as he had finished Bovis’ £261m Queen’s Hospital in Romford, Essex, four months ago. However, Coleman denies that contingency spending is anything like as high as has been suggested – which is anything upwards of £40m.

The heart and renal unit is certainly impressive, with much of the expensive dialysis equipment discreetly positioned above the beds to allow maximum working space for doctors and flexibility for any additional equipment that might one day be needed. Walking around the ultra-clean wards, there is little doubt that the trust is pleased with the build quality. “These are the kinds of projects that we can set our mark on – the complex ones,” says Coleman.

Culture clashes

Coleman clearly enjoys the camaraderie of being on a site. As the tour comes to an end, someone foolishly mentions the Ashes – this is the day before the start of the third test, during which England are fated to lose their grip on the four-inch urn – and Coleman can be heard laying into one of his legendary compatriots: “Shane Warne – I wouldn’t believe anything that came out of his mouth … Don’t write that, they won’t let me back in!”

After the tour group disperses, Coleman agrees to hang around and chat for 20 minutes, although he stays twice as long once he gets stuck into the big issues. “He’s very talkative,” says one industry player who is quite a fan. “Nearly too talkative – he can command quite a lot of time in a conversation.”

This is true, but there’s a real entertainment value to what he says. Take this gem: “The last thing I’m looking for [at Bovis] is a blame culture; that has existed in the past. Equally, I’m not for a no-blame culture where we hold hands, hug trees and sing Kum Ba Yah.”

Lend Lease bought Bovis in 2000, and since then there have certainly been culture clashes between Britain’s blue-blooded contractor and its Aussie parent. There have also been persistent rumours that Bovis is about to be sold off – and that its staff are frustrated that it helped prop up Lend Lease during some lean years earlier in the decade.

This year, though, things changed, thanks to that £14.7m writedown. This has largely been attributed to technical problems on the BBC’s £400m Broadcasting House scheme and further difficulties at the Bridgewater Place project in Leeds. Eventually, heads rolled. Jason Millett, the chief executive of the UK business, left in the summer after learning that Bob Johnston, the head of Bovis Lend Lease’s global construction division, had decided to break up his empire into PFI and contracting arms. When Millett refused to look after only contracting, Coleman was offered the job. Johnston himself would take over the PFI side.

“When asked in late June whether I’d be interested, to be honest I didn’t hesitate,” grins Coleman. “There were some fantastic projects in the UK, it has an impeccable history, and an unimpeachable reputation. I wouldn’t have admitted this when I ran the Asia Pacific business, but I was very jealous of the relationship it had with clients like Stanhope and British Land.”

But with Johnston based in the UK, he was another Aussie imposed on the British operation. Coleman insists that he “doesn’t get” this talk of a fractious relationship between parent and subsidiary, and thinks that the acquisition happened so long ago that the two should, by now, be fully accepting of each other. It seems unlikely given the constant turning of the rumour mill, but it is certainly true that Johnston is considered by many Bovis staff – Millett aside, presumably – as the most conciliatory and impressive of the Australians who have flown over and parachuted in.

Challenging his staff

Coleman is no less impressive. He speaks with the obvious intelligence and authority of someone who holds a first-class honours degree – Coleman graduated in building from the University of Melbourne.

He’s been using that big brain to bring what he believes will be a more effective structure to the UK business. He has ripped out layers of management, such as the chief operating officer’s role, and has arranged for business unit heads to report directly to him, as he did in the Asia Pacific division.

The argument is that a more horizontal management structure will get the best people to the top more quickly. Unfortunately, Coleman lapses into management speak here, saying his four focuses are “performance, people, incidents and sustainability”. He breezes over more tangible ambitions, such as getting Bovis to focus more on residential work in the wake of its bid for the £4bn Stratford City scheme in east London – which includes the Olympic village – and hopes to grow its 2,250-strong workforce by 500 over the next two or three years.

Just recently he has agreed a set of performance measures for his senior staff, with specific financial and human resources targets. This is when he states that he is no Kum Ba Yah singer, and conveys the impression that he does not have a problem with a blame culture if he feels it’s justified.

This certainly comes to the fore with safety, where he is keen that Bovis “grows accountability” – he was the man who introduced a global risk and injury-free strategy for the company in 2002.

Then comes sustainability. Often a word simply name-checked by executives, Coleman seems to have bought into the meaning behind those six syllables. So much so that he gets his 12-year-old (“going on 25-year-old”) daughter Jessica to give lectures to his staff on the environment.

Jessica is obviously a chip off the old block. She gave an introduction to 120 staff last month when Coleman put on a screening of Al Gore’s film on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth. “She asked them, how did they get there? By car? Warning that they are contributing to global warming, and how it will affect her generation. It’s a mind-blowing film. You see this stuff and you just say ‘Fuck’.”

This is not a one-off. Coleman is putting in place a system whereby senior managers will have mentors from within the company who have just graduated, the theory being that they are more interested in and knowledgeable of the issue.

There is something almost Maoist about this younger generation challenging the perceived wisdoms of their elders. It is as if Coleman wants to put in place his own Cultural Revolution. The thing with the Cultural Revolution, though, was that people suffered. It is difficult to escape the impression that Coleman’s attempts to change Bovis will ruffle the feathers of the British contingent. One thing is for sure: this typical Australian is very much the man in charge and will not be willing to just sit down, hold hands and hug a tree with anyone not matching his standards.