27.07.2023 / Main Category

The Purpose-Driven Construction Leader with Ger Ronayne

Ger Ronayne took on the top job at one of Ireland’s most recognisable construction brands over two years ago, after spending more than 25 years moving up through its ranks. At the time, the construction company was experiencing substantial growth, despite the broader challenges of Brexit, Covid-19 and an acute labour shortage across the industry.

As the company embarks on its eighth decade, what does 2023 look like?

“The business is doing really well” according to Ger. “Over the past five years we have delivered close to 7000 homes, student and hotel bedrooms, 13,000 school places, and 9 new third-level campus facilities, along with 17 healthcare facilities and 140,000m2 of commercial space. There are a massive amount of opportunities out there and we can’t tender for everything that is coming our way so, right now, it’s all about picking the right opportunities for the team. And that takes discipline.”

Knowing when to say ‘No’

Guided by the mission of the business, Ger and the team at JJ Rhatigan are committed to ‘building a better future’; this means a better future for the team, for the company, and for the communities it serves. While some of the areas of focus may have changed, his aspirations for the company have not changed. Ger has huge ambitions for the growth of the business, but not at any cost.

“By taking a more forward-looking approach, rather than fixating on the here and now, we find ourselves saying ‘no’ to some opportunities that might not serve us over the longer term,” Ger explains. “In construction today, we have to be more strategic and more disciplined about where we put our resources. We can only take on what we have capacity for in terms of management so it is not about taking advantage of all opportunities in the marketplace now, but rather getting our processes and systems for scaling in place, and of course the right people, so that we have the right foundations for long-term, sustainable growth.”

De-risking the delivery programme

Ger and the senior leadership team at JJ Rhatigan are striving towards a level of consistency that is uncommon across Ireland’s construction industry. This consistency applies to safety, to project delivery, to programmes, to cost and to quality. Leveraging the company’s seven decades of experience and expertise to create solid processes, he believes, is key to ensuring a superior level of service for clients and for employees into the future.

“We have put a lot of work into bringing that level of consistency and standardisation to our approach and methodologies in a way that guarantees success for clients and for the team,” Ger shares. Our bespoke Integrated Management System (IMS) has every process mapped out; we have flowcharts for every process and every activity. This is a critical resource and reference point for someone new to the organisation or for those moving into new roles. There is a defined route to follow for absolutely every activity, from buying a concrete block right through to the understanding of the quality required in order to provide the certificate of completion. This clarity is definitely de-risking all of our activities and de-risking our programme delivery. It ensures an absolute control on the cost, while guaranteeing the quality.”

Processes, coupled with innovation, is a strategy for scalable growth that has sustainability at its core:

“The principles of a circular economy – from design and choice of materials, right through to building performance – are supported through JJR’s innovation, our lean construction methods, our approach to ESG and sustainability and our use of technologies to cost, manage and deliver projects more efficiently all amounting to our operational excellence.”

JJ Rhatigan has been an early adopter and driver of modern methods of construction, or MMC. The team now embraces the increased adoption of MMC to ensure efficiencies across projects and in turn ensure increased capacity. According to Ger, the priority for JJR, as a main contractor, particularly working on design and build contracts, is to select the right construction systems and technologies for each project. The company is also a member of MMC Ireland, the industry representative body that is developing standards for the wide scale use of offsite and other modern methods of construction in Ireland, for both the public and private sectors.

People first, then processes and projects

Over the past two years, Ger has found his focus shifting from the “nuts and bolts of the operations” and towards leading the growing team. This involves spending more time sitting down with staff members and actively listening. At JJ Rhatigan, Ger maintains that the company’s people have long been its competitive edge at a project level and harnessing those insights is key to competitive advantage for the firm at a strategic level.

In fact, the company was one of the first contractors in Ireland to create the role of Chief People Officer, CPO, fortifying the increasingly robust senior leadership team.

“While JJ Rhatigan has a well-deserved reputation for nurturing talent and filling senior positions from within our own team, it is critical that we bring in new people from other sectors and industries – from early career stages right through to the C suite – to ensure diverse thinking.”

Uniquely for a contractor of this scale, each team member has a touch point at a director level.  The company and management structure ensures there is a Commercial Director and a Contracts Director directly responsible for every project. A pair of directors may be looking after one large project or two to three smaller projects at any given time. This structure allows both directors to be in touch, to have their finger on the pulse and know everything that is going on with those projects in order to fully support the team. This organisational connectedness feeds into the connectedness of the team. As Ger explains;

“We’ve got people who are coming to work, not just to do the job, they are coming to work with a sense of purpose. They want to achieve something; they are bringing others along with them, creating a shared sense of purpose. This shared purpose is at the heart of everything we do. With this in mind, I have a set of very clear objectives that I am working towards, primarily focused on our people, standards, health and safety, ESG, and achieving the financial targets that will ensure the success of the business.” 

JJR is an equal opportunities employer and demonstrably committed to ensuring a diverse and inclusive workforce, while the majority of the workforce is from Ireland and the UK, no fewer than 17 countries are represented within the team. The CEO emphasises the core belief that the company is only as good as our people, and this includes the entire supply chain. A key imperative is to ensure the success of the JJ Rhatigan supply chain. Again, to Ger, it is all about creating an environment in which they can be successful and thrive: “We want them to be successful, we need our trusted supply chain to grow alongside us”.

Investing in our people

For the team at JJ Rhatigan, career-mapping is vital for successful staff development at an individual level. Career pathing and mapping out is done in a methodical, deliberate way, involving the individuals and management to ensure personal fulfilment, while still meeting the needs of the organisation. This also helps in terms of succession planning for the business, ensuring a supply of ready talent at every level of the business.

Critically, Ger does not view training and development as a generational issue. The nature and business of construction is changing and people at every stage of their construction careers are dealing with this, from the most senior to the most junior.

“Learning and development takes a different shape for members of our team who have been in management positions for decades. At this senior level we are focused on communication, bringing a cadence to our performance, and management of a changing workforce. Being able to identify different types of people, with very different needs, and respond to those in a way that ensures success for the business requires a new kind of learning.”

This is a refreshing approach to management within an industry that has, in the past, adopted quite a different style of management. The industry at large is undoubtedly experiencing a cultural shift, one that requires a change in mindset and a change in the traditional approach to managing a diverse construction team. There is an awareness, and more importantly, an acceptance within JJ Rhatigan of the desire for greater work life balance amongst the current workforce.

Reflecting upon this generational shift, Ger acknowledges:

“It’s very important. This generation is not ‘living to work’ as previous generations did; nor are they happy to simply ‘work to live’, as might previously have been the case; they are driven by a greater sense of purpose and they measure success beyond just pay scales and titles. They want to be part of a team they can respect and admire, and to play a role in delivering great projects that will shape the towns and cities around Ireland for generations to come. This doesn’t necessarily fit the traditional business model of construction, but that just means that the industry has to change, and that’s a good thing. At JJ Rhatigan we are proud to be leading this industry change.”

Setting the strategy, trusting the team

Ger sees his own role evolving, his driving goal is to create the environment for people to succeed. While this might be a simplistic interpretation, in reality, it involves setting out clearly the strategic objectives of the business and then trusting the people, their training and processes to support this.

At the core:

“There has to be a major trust in the team. I see my role as making sure that we are all going in the same direction, working to the same agenda, supporting the same strategy. But then people have to be empowered and trusted to go and do their jobs. This is how we create the right environment for everyone to succeed”