First, Ray O'Rourke worked for Tony Douglas, now it's the other way round. Both are very big personalities - in very different ways – but it's OK because they have a 'very special' relationship. Angela Monaghan wonders how it's all going to work …
Before interviewing him I asked a few of my close confidantes in the industry what they would like to know about the man who was in charge of Europe’s biggest construction project at T5, and who is now joining one of the largest, and most secretive contractors.
The most common response was: how would two people like Douglas and Ray O’Rourke, Laing O’Rourke’s chairman and chief executive, get along? Both of them are big personalities; Douglas very publicly, especially in his high profile role as chief executive of Heathrow Airport, and O’Rourke in a much more private way. O’Rourke has an inner circle comprising those he respects and trusts, and is not one to be seen at the various industry parties.
Douglas is a man who is proud of his achievements and not shy about talking about them. Speaking in his first interview since join Laing O’Rourke as chief operating officer, he told me: “I have been the CEO of the world’s largest airport, on Europe’s biggest construction project (T5). That equates to a FTSE 250 company in its own right.”
The number of references to how he was a “big co (company) guy” was astounding. In terms of his public persona, he is quite the opposite of O’Rourke, not least because he actually has one. He was comfortable being photographed, and is accustomed to meeting journalists.
But how will it work? Douglas was after all used to being the man in charge of the dynamic duo, he was O’Rourke’s client at T5. Now the relationship has flipped, and O’Rourke is his boss. Douglas says he has absolutely no problem with this. “It’s not a concern. I know this guy as well as anybody, and that relationship allows it work in a very special way.”
For me as a journalist it was a breath of fresh air, an insight into the UK’s largest private contractor, which has been steeped in mystery for a long time.
It looks like Douglas could well be the new face of Laing O’Rourke. Whether he is being groomed as O’Rourke’s successor is another matter. Douglas smiles at the question but gives nothing away: “Ray is not planning to retire tomorrow. He’s an ambitious person and so am I.”
But let’s face it, it would make sense. There is no one else lined up as successor and Douglas is young enough. Reading through the company’s annual report is also like looking at a quoted company’s accounts. It gives a huge amount of information which it is not required to reveal (including O’Rourke’s £609k salary and benefits package), demonstrating the levels of accountability that the Stock Exchange requires of quoted companies.
It is common policy at quoted companies to appoint a chief operating officer, who works closely with the chief executive and steps into his or her shoes when he or she retires. Douglas is COO at Laing O’Rourke, so that would be the obvious solution. But Laing O’Rourke has never been predictable.
When the company started directly employing its labour force, the industry was surprised, and alarmed. Douglas signals he and Ray have a lot more up their sleeves. They are hungry for innovation and have the energy and ambition to drive change through. Douglas grins broadly, relishing the warning: “We will surprise the hell out of everyone.” You've been warned …