ROMCOM ROSS & the construction colossus
Anne Gibson finds Fletcher boss Ross Taylor is a romantic comedy fan
When Ross Taylor was shoulder-tapped in October 2017 to lead Fletcher Building, some observers suggested it was the toughest job in corporate New Zealand.
The wiry Australian was called in to repair the construction giant’s shattered frame after it lost nearly a $1 billion on big projects, including the International Convention Centre and Commercial Bay in Auckland.
Then, just when the business was looking like it was back on an even keel, along came Covid.
Most people know Taylor from his nononsense media conferences, where he’s had to deal with questions ranging from staff layoffs to wage subsidies to contract insurance.
But he also has a personal side and it’s interesting to discover what makes him tick.
The father of four and Manly/Parnell resident says he recently watched the Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet blockbuster The Holiday, but Notting Hill remains his favourite movie.
He concedes his family mocks him for being a fan of the films like The Holiday, a romantic comedy set in Los Angeles and England, about two women escaping hohum lives by exchanging homes, finding delightful and unexpected new romance along the way.
But Taylor, a civil engineer with firstclass honours from the University of Queensland, doesn’t care. He laughs and shrugs. Letters To Juliet, with Amanda Seyfried, is another favourite: “These are happily ever after. I get derided by my children.” From the top floor of Fletcher Building HQ , 810 Great South Rd, he heads a staff of around 16,000 here, in Australia and the Pacific and securely admits: “I love romcoms”.
Nancy and Harold Taylor raised Ross and Gary at Arana Hills, 12km outside Brisbane “and my father worked on irrigation dam sites as a driller so he was out in the country”. His parents split up early in his life.
“My mother worked in jobs when we were growing up because Dad left early on and had little to do with our childhood.
“Mum was amazing. She looked after the two of us and worked as a teacher aide during the day and for two nights a week worked the late shift in a bakery.”
In maths class at Mitchelton State High, he met wife-to-be Kathy, two years older than him.
“She admired my equations. I was very good at maths. She was one of the
10-pound Poms who came out to Australia from England. We dated at the end of school, split up for a year or two then bumped into each other again at a party. Love blossomed and in 1985, I was married at the age of 23.”
The couple have four children: Jessica,
31, lives in London; Lachlan, 29, is a social worker in the Northern Territories; Rachel is in her 20s and lives in Sydney; and Callum, also in his 20s, is about to leave Australia for London.
The Taylors are adventurous holidaymakers, touring Africa, South America and even Antarctica. He tells of he and Kathy “bribing” or “conning” the kids into holidaying with them by picking irresistible options including African safaris, skiing and walking in Patagonia and Chile.
A boat trip to the Antarctic saw them encountering seas swelling up to 15m, being physically lifted by the force while lying flat in beds, “cabin staff crawling down passageways to leave trays of food outside the door”.
After uni, Taylor’s first job was in Brisbane with design engineers John Wilson & Partners. He then joined Lend Lease as a site engineer from 1985 to 1987.
“If you asked me just out of uni, my ambition was to get a good job in Queensland and live happily ever after. When you move around the world a lot, you get a bit disconnected and you step back and ask where do you really want to live. I’m more connected with Sydney but in the State or Origin, I still go for Queensland.
“Sydney is great in terms of scale, amenity, a lot to offer, climate. Auckland is a bit similar and also in terms of culture and opportunity and what’s available. Where New Zealand pips Sydney or Australia is you don’t have to go far to get out of the city, to really, really beautiful country and walks.
When he and nurse/midwife Kathy decided to move to London in 1987, they flew to Zimbabwe then drove across the continent on safari, “rough living for six months”.
He worked for Nico Construction, then they returned to Sydney where he spent nearly 21 years with Lend Lease, rising to group chief operating officer, working in Melbourne, in Brisbane including developing Sunshine Plaza at Maroochydore and working in Singapore and London.
After joining unlisted engineering business Tenix in Sydney in 2009, he became its chief executive, then chief executive of ASX-listed international engineering and services company UGL (formerly United Group Ltd), taken over by the Spanish CIMIC in 2016.
Taylor certainly wasn’t intending to join Fletcher and definitely not move to Auckland, but the connection came via Kate Spargo, on UGL and Fletcher boards.
He then talked to chairman Sir Ralph Norris “and I thought I really want this job, you’ve got to be all-in”.
When he joined in 2017, he found a business left by ex-chief executive Mark Adamson in need of change, so from Sydney in the winter of 2018, he launched a five-year turnaround strategy, cutting staff and costs, enduring Covid lockdowns, selling less-profitable arms, streamlining operations, cutting dividends and exiting high-rise construction, where losses nearing $1b were recorded in two years.
Taylor’s strategy has succeeded to the point where in the latest half-year to December 31, 2020 the company exceeded its forecast by earning 47 per cent more operating profit than in the
2019 first-half, up from $219m to $323m. Taylor’s worst times with Fletcher were when workers died.
In 2018, a man in his 30s was killed at Fletcher Easysteel, Onehunga and
58-year-old Andrew d’Auriol died at Fletcher Reinforcing in Levin. Shortly after, in 2019, Higgins Contracting workers Dudley Sole Raroa, David Reginald Te Wira Eparaima and Haki Graham Hiha were killed on State Highway 2 near Matata¯ when their truck overturned after it was swiped by another vehicle. Higgins was fined $270,000.
“You have a lot of people working and you want to get them home safely every time,” says Taylor, who turns 60 in January.
He expects Covid will restrict the family to being at home in Sydney, though he had considered a trip to north-west Papua New Guinea.
Kathy Taylor is now a social worker who does charity work in Timor-Leste.
“If you think my diary is complicated, hers is even more so, in Timor-Leste, London, Auckland and Sydney so she’s very nomadic with a setup similar to me — wardrobes on both sides of the Tasman and our diary management has been very critical.”
She has recently taken up golf, joining him at Remuera and the couple are active, to the point where he recalls how they could not stay awake long enough to enjoy any more than the first course of a restaurant meal one evening after a long Blue Mountains walk.
His father Harold has died, but brother Gary is at Lend Lease in Sydney, so Taylor says it made sense for his mother to leave Brisbane for Sydney, where she is closer to the extended family.
He has no plans to leave Fletcher and reckons when the five-year strategy is completed in 2023, “that’s not the end”.
“If what you’re studying or working at aligns with what you like doing, it’s a lot easier.”