MARCH 2010
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Cover story - DAWN OF A NEW DECADE

Cover Story

A recessionary end to the last decade may have muted the successes achieved by Murray & Roberts since 2000, but the Group has set its sights on even greater advances in the ten years that lie ahead.

History does not repeat itself, human nature does. This was a philosophy lesson learned by Murray & Roberts Group CE Brian Bruce from his school history master Brian Thiel. “I attended what was a government school in Port Elizabeth, but such was the quality of its reputation that it attracted the best teachers and staff, who sought to make a real difference to learners who were there to succeed.” The system created its own brand of success and continues to do so today, even under challenging circumstances. “Herein lies a lesson for Murray & Roberts and South Africa.”

History is full of key events, many of which occur at the turn of decades, centuries and millennia. While the global economic crisis and recession may be just such an event, it cannot be compared to the changes that occurred in the premillenium decade of the 1990s.

The new decade calls for a new generation of leaders whose primary goal is the development of young executives, “the real untapped opportunity in Murray & Roberts.”

These included the fall of the Berlin Wall and of course, apartheid, which heralded the release of Nelson “Madiba” Mandela 20 years ago after 27 years in prison. His was a personal sacrifice on behalf of all South Africans, but also for all humanity.

But it was also Tiananmen Square in 1990 that heralded the rise of China as a global economic giant and changes to the world in which we will live in the future. 2010 heralds a new decade of change for Murray & Roberts. “It is again time to put the past behind us and prepare for new challenges.

We’re challenged to shed unnecessary baggage, slim down and lighten our structures and so be fitter to take advantage of the opportunities ahead,” says Brian.

Untapped Potential

Achieving the transformation Brian seeks will require new styles of leadership that sees its primary role as unlocking rather than exploiting the developmental potential of the organisation.

Murray & Roberts has always prided itself on a culture of empowering young engineers, and Brian and his colleagues are examples of a generation of engineers who had significant opportunities thrust on them at an early stage. “We were given enormous responsibility, which we accepted not for personal benefit but for its value to ourselves and the organisation. Our own personal enhancement naturally followed without being the primary motivation.”

Can this be replicated with the current generation? Brian intends to ensure it is by putting in place leaders whose primary goal is the development of young executives, “the real untapped opportunity in Murray & Roberts.” However, he emphasises that age and a ‘developmental focus’ are not mutually incompatible: “One can be developmental without being young, of course, as critical to what we are looking for is an understanding of the importance of diversity of our workforce.” But, the decade Brian sees being ushered in for Murray & Roberts is one that places greater emphasis on inherent potential and experience than on age.

Entrepreneurial innovation

“We cannot wait for the market to come to us, or hope to win tenders by being cheaper than the opposition. We need entrepreneurial management ready to be innovative and prepared to seek out new business and methodologies. “This demands a developmental and innovative mindset rather than a tradition-bound one of doing things the way they have always been done.”

Breaking the mould comes at a cost. A new generation freed from the constraints of tradition also implies they may not feel bound by the history and values of Murray & Roberts. This creates challenges to the institutional memory and brand within the organisation. However, one thing that will not change is the overriding purpose of Murray & Roberts to serve the developmental needs of emerging societies and nations.

What can Murray & Roberts expect? Brian says a widely expressed and common fallacy now is that there is limited market opportunity in the post recession environment. “The world abounds with opportunity, but that opportunity may not be accessible in the conventional manner, so there is no point seeking it according to the old paradigms. It has to be flushed out by people prepared to do something different.”

IBM or Google?

Over the past three decades the computer industry experienced rapid growth, but simultaneously spawned massive competition and constant innovation. As a result, the large incumbents that had pioneered the sector had to fight existing and new competitors for their market. And what competitors these new entrants were: Intel, Microsoft and Google, for example. An innovative business model like Google can always succeed, even in a mature market, but only by creating new markets that incumbents find difficult to copy. The philosophical question is whether the future of Murray & Roberts is IBM or a Google.

New markets and innovations are unlikely to emanate from executives thoroughly immersed in the day-to-day running of historically structured operating entities or in the constant search for solutions to internal challenges. “It is a future-orientated focus that brings innovation and new markets,” says Brian. “Companies that prosper and create brand new markets are those that actively invest in exploration (oil & gas companies) or research and development (pharmaceutical companies). This is expensive both in resources and personnel, and a company like Murray & Roberts requires investment in training and personal development of people.”

Future opportunities

A future opportunity Brian sees for a new market focus is sustainability management in construction, power and mining.

“Health and safety are important issues which are key to ensuring our market acceptance. By creating a safe and healthy working environment we are creating a more sustainable future for ourselves, our society and our organisation.”

Another opportunity is to lead standardisation in the construction industry. “Construction is the last of the engineering industries where design and build are still separated. This is largely traditional and reinforces an expectation that all structures are unique.” Brian sees an opportunity in the convergence of design and build by offering an integrated solution, where uniqueness is possible but the focus is on common materials, systems and structural platforms.

Brian sees similar opportunities in the fields of power and energy, water and sanitation and in dealing with the impact of climate change. There is already evidence that current infrastructure is not withstanding the onslaught of even marginal short-term climatic changes in various parts of the world.

These concepts are gaining traction around the world, but to capitalise on them, it is necessary for Murray & Roberts to introduce and develop a new generation of leaders. Brian notes that at the recent inauguration of the Group’s new Graduate Development Program, a number of new engineers registered serious interest in participating in these initiatives.

“Leadership does not constitute management of the status quo. Rather it is the capability to see opportunity. Leadership is a vehicle by which to direct our business out of the current recession into new, better opportunities,” says Brian.

South Africa is a country which for 300 years has “punched above its weight” in global influence and innovation. It has over many decades developed leaders who strode the First World stage in politics, business and the professions.

But that forward focus seems to have been replaced by inward focus, and our country is losing its ranking among the foremost emerging markets of the world. Just a few years ago South Africa was regularly mentioned in the same breath as the BRIC counties of Brazil, Russia, India and China (originally BRICS), but has slipped beneath the radar and is now seen as part of the next wave alongside the likes of Turkey. When we choose to compete only with ourselves, we set a performance standard that is determined by our average past.

“South Africa stopped investing in its natural potential,” Brian notes following his recent visit to China. The reason for their ascent and our descent lies in that philosophical line, “History does not repeat itself, human nature does.” China has been a bear in hibernation. It may have been asleep, but it is still a bear. Now it is renewed and has awoken to claim its place on the world stage.

Along the same philosophical line, Brian states that “The only predictor of future performance is past performance.” There is no basis to believe that an individual, organisation or nation can deliver a different future without tangible and meaningful change. Organisational DNA is “like a self-fulfilling prophecy” writes Pakistani philosopher Gharajedachi.

Brian notes that Murray & Roberts has consolidated its strong growth profile in the current financial year and may face business decline unless it invests now in new opportunity and importantly, in a decade of people development.

Eamon Ryan & Brian Bruce


African decade? It has long been mooted that the decade of Africa is imminent, as we are currently experiencing the Chinese decade. Brian Bruce cites the philosophies referred to alongside as to why he feels the continent is not yet ready to achieve this on its own. “Despite all the development in China, its people still fight the revolution to achieve a better life for their future generations.”

In preparing for a recent visit to China, Brian researched the Africa story. His objective was to find a basis for strategic partnership that could offer a cooperative future to Murray & Roberts, Chinese enterprise and Africa south of the Sahara. He used the formidable performance platform developed within Murray & Roberts over the past decade and primarily focused on the global engineering and natural resources sector, as the catalyst for his engagement.

“Africa holds more than one third of all the world’s known natural resources,” says Brian. “It comprises 20% of the world’s land mass, has 15% of the population, but only generates 2% of global GDP.” A long list of specific natural resources shows Africa’s share ranging from between 50% and 98% of known reserves.

“I am confident that such a strategic partnership holds the potential to be a catalyst for Africa’s development,” says Brian. “But,” he warns, “this is about South Africa, not Murray & Roberts. China is a centralised economy where the state is in control. It is the government and people of South Africa that must seize this opportunity to fulfil their destiny in the future development of the continent of which they are such a critical part.”

Murray & Roberts is a committed and capable vehicle to serve this purpose. The Group has built a formidable performance platform that contains the best of what is both local and global.