Li Shirong, the CIOB’s first woman president, takes up the post with an international outlook and a commitment to get members talking across the world

Just who is the new CIOB president, Professor Li Shirong? In the course of Construction Manager’s hour-long interview, she reveals quite a few personas. She’s a diplomatic door-opener operating at governmental level; a business development manager for her home city who’s never off duty. She’s a cheerleader for the achievements of the CIOB rank-and-file; a campaigner for a digital, web-enabled CIOB; and a crusader for making the term ‘construction manager’ as clear and comprehensible as that of architect or lawyer.

But most of all, the Reading University graduate and academic-turned-politician is a skilled communicator. It’s evident in her free-wheeling flow of information and opinions, in the way she uses her hands to elucidate and emphasise, in the smiles that accompany both commentary and criticism, and even the way she lights up for the photographer’s camera.

Her message, appropriately enough, is also about communication. First, that the CIOB needs to be transformed into an information exchange where members can communicate and share ideas – between China and the UK, or South Africa and the Middle East – by taking advantage of the latest IT and digital communications. Second, that it’s no longer enough for UK construction professionals and companies to communicate in their home market. Instead, they need to be receptive to opportunities and share their expertise with the developing economies of China and other countries.

‘It’s important to make our institute really international, to really make the members understand and communicate with each other, get information and talk to each other and share experiences. Through this platform, they get to know the wider market,’ says Li. ‘With this current financial crisis, people think they only have a small market to look at, they say “okay, no work”. But if they open up, maybe they can find some opportunities. We still have some great opportunities in China.’

Thanks to her enthusiasm and straight-talking, Li’s former Reading university tutor and one-time CIOB president Professor Roger Flanagan says her impact on the CIOB will be a ‘breath of fresh air’. ‘She can challenge conventional thinking, and say the unsayable,’ he says. ‘As an overseas president, she can make statements and other people won’t take offence. She’s got a good grounding in Western culture, and she can open doors at the highest level in the Chinese construction industry. It really will be East meets West on common ground.’

As Flanagan says, Li has a blend of Chinese and Western influences that make her an ideal link between the CIOB in the UK and its Chinese and overseas operations, as well as between the UK construction sector and market opportunities in China. After the tail end of the Cultural Revolution enforced a ‘gap year’ working on a rural farm, she was able to take up a place to study civil engineering at Chongqing University in 1977. Later, she won a scholarship to study at Delft University of Technology, then completed a PhD in construction management at Reading University.

An academic career in Chongqing followed, before she was asked to apply her theoretical knowledge to a highly practical task: as vice mayor of Chongqing’s Shapingba district, she led the team that delivered its new University Town project. In 2003, the site was farmland. By October 2008, there were 80,000 students studying at 10 relocated universities, with a further five in the planning stages. Li’s role included setting up the Shapingba Public Works Bureau, a roving multidisciplinary team with a remit to advise on all aspects of project procurement and delivery.

Li’s year as CIOB president will run in parallel with her day job as deputy director of the Chongqing Foreign Trade and Economic Relations Committee (CFTERC). Since taking up the role in 2007 she has used her bilingualism and biculturalism to broker relationships with overseas partners and investors. Li sees the two roles as entirely complementary. ‘I represent the CIOB, but everywhere I go I also talk about Chongqing and the opportunities there. So my presidency is also an opportunity.’

She can challenge conventional thinking and say the unsayable

Professor Roger Flanagan, Reading University

As the first woman to be elected president of the CIOB, and also the first non-British national in its 175-year history, she sees her selection (by the CIOB’s trustees) as confirmation that the CIOB is truly operating globally. ‘To select me, that shows it’s an international institute. So this is an opportunity to make the CIOB really international. You will find that CIOB members don’t know what’s going on in South Africa, for instance. This is why I think we should use the technology, the IT, to meet this urgent demand to share experiences.’

She hopes the CIOB can capitalise on the knowledge among its members by creating a virtual network where a construction manager in need of inspiration, ideas or recommendations can email a colleague with a similar profile or similar project working in another country or region. She draws on inspiration from a recent visit to Northern Ireland, part of her inaugural tour of UK regions.

‘I saw a CIOB member [Chris Carvill, managing director of the Carvill Group] he’s doing a wonderful job developing an eco-village in Lisburn, Northern Ireland. I think the CIOB should also let members know, to promote his project. The technology is there, but we need a strategy too. If you look at other industries and institutions, they are doing this,’ she says, in a gentle nudge to the CIOB.

Li speaks English fluently, but there are times when it’s hard to pinpoint the end of the sentence from the pile-up of phrases in the middle, and her points tend to emerge in a stream of enthusiasm rather than clear bullet points. Her conversation also reveals some typically Chinese thinking, quoting the aphorisms of Premier Wen, mind-boggling statistics such as the 1.6 million construction workers in Chongqing alone, or a love of auspicious numbers. ‘The CIOB has 20 years in China, and 175 years here. And China is 60 years from being established – these are very good figures!’ she says.

Li’s message on China – that CIOB members in the UK can contribute their ideas and expertise as a prelude to contracts and profits – is at least a refreshing antidote to the doom-and-gloom mongering that has defined the industry’s collective mood for the last six months. ‘The financial crisis has had an impact in China, but the degree is very different – that means we still have some great opportunities. Look at the GDP growth – in China in the first quarter it reached 6.1%, and in Chongqing [a region of 32 million people] we achieved 9%,’ she says, with a hearty laugh.

So how can UK construction firms become involved? Li describes how British experts – on sustainability, off-site construction or heritage projects – can start talking to their CIOB counterparts in China. These discussions will then lead to relationships, which will lead to invitations to submit ideas, which will then lead to possible contracts. She says other areas where British expertise is needed in China, as well as in other developing economies, include planned maintenance and facilities management.

As far as Chongqing is concerned, there is already a legal framework in place to facilitate these relationships. First, a letter of intent signed last September between the Chinese Department of Commerce and UK Trade and Investment promises co-operation on developing Chongqing as a sustainable city. Second, a Memorandum of Understanding between the CFTERC and UK regional development agency Yorkshire Forward outlines eight projects – including an eco-village, the city core and the regeneration of a former industrial area – where the two sides will seek partnerships.

But when the only business communications most people have with China is spam email, isn’t it all a bit impractical? And isn’t there a danger that these high-level bi-lateral agreements are never likely to filter down to contractors on the ground? Li disagrees. ‘Sometimes business people say, “oh, that is just a Memorandum of Understanding, just a document”. But in China, the government is really involved to make things happen. UK companies must understand our market in China. When we sign an MOU, we really mean it.’

This is an opportunity to make the CIOB really international

Li Shirong, CIOB president

She describes a specific project – to regenerate a former steel mill site in Chongqing – where CIOB Conservation Group chair John Edwards, who has experience of regenerating former Welsh steelworks, has met with representatives from the city. In June, CIOB vice president Peter Jacobs, currently working on the 2012 Athletes’ Village, will host workshops with Chinese visitors who worked on the Beijing games.

UK members agree that distance doesn’t dim China’s relevance to the construction sector. ‘China will have a bigger say on the world stage, in terms of funds, materials and sourcing,’ says Roger Flanagan. ‘We need to break down barriers and have more mutual respect – look at Beijing Terminal 5, twice the size of Heathrow T5 and built in half the time.’

Philip Hall, of Hall Construction, agrees. ‘It would be useful to share R&D on sustainability and new ideas. And it would be a great opportunity if we could export our standards and methodologies to China.’

Certainly, the designation ‘CIOB’ does seem to carry a cachet in China that UK members could use to their advantage. Asked about the prestige of CIOB status in China, Li describes the type of individual found among its 8,000-strong membership. ‘Senior people in China, like government ministers, and the provincial directors for the construction commission, the presidents of the big construction companies in China. And also the members do so many wonderful jobs, like the Olympic stadium, the World Finance Centre, the Maglev railway.’

But Li is concerned that the term ‘construction manager’ often gets lost in translation: when it can mean anything from a board-level director to a white-van man, anyone describing themselves as such risks devaluing their expertise or confusing their audience. When no such confusion afflicts lawyers, architects, or even journalists, Li believes it’s time for the profession and the CIOB to make more effort to clarify and communicate some brand values.

‘Sometimes people ask, what is the CIOB? Who are these people? We must be able to give a quick and clear definition,’ she argues. ‘The CIOB is related to construction management, but construction management needs a definition. It stands for the management process, at project, company and industry level. This is my personal view, but I would like to talk about it, let’s have a debate. We really need to talk, maybe to create a committee to have a good debate. Or maybe I am talking too much!’ she laughs.

But talking is clearly what Li is good at, and where she can make a difference in her year as CIOB president. She doesn’t come with a worked-up strategy for helping members respond to the recession, or an agenda to get the CIOB a place at the Whitehall discussion table, or even a campaign to increase membership. But as an outsider bringing a fresh perspective on what could be done differently, she will be able to use her communication skills to change the topics of conversation and say what others might find unsayable – and do so with a charming, disarming smile.