Robert Jewkes is the chief executive of Clough Engineering. In 1992 he was posted to Singapore as the group’s regional manager for South-East Asia and returned to Perth three-and-a-half years later as its chief operating officer. He has been CEO since 1998. He is a Fellow of AIM.
AIM: What are the biggest changes that you’ve seen in the industry in your 20 years with Clough?
Jewkes: The size and scope of the projects we’re tackling: the way our clients are packaging their work tends to be far bigger in scale and complexity.
It’s happening for all sorts of reasons: management interfaces, finance requirements, and the fact that our clients, far more frequently now, have not got a strong management team of their own, so they’re looking to their contractors and service providers. As a response to that, we have been building full-delivery capability for the past 10-15 years, so that we can look at a project from the concepts at the start and deliver all the way through to the nuts and bolts of the completion.
We are now effectively selling solutions to our clients rather than engineering or construction services. Twenty years ago, we’d be selling discrete portions. Now, it’s a full project solution. The other big change is in financing. The project’s financiers now look to back our ability to provide that solution.
AIM: Do you think Australia’s management skills are improving?
Jewkes: When I think back 20 years, there probably wasn’t a significant project that an Australian contractor would undertake without at least having an international as a joint-venture partner or perhaps as a main contractor. Nowadays, you just don’t see that. There certainly are lots of internationals still working in Australia, and there are lots of joint ventures, but they tend to be on a sharing resources basis rather than just a technical needs basis.
The capacity and the capability of Australian contractors has grown tremendously. One of the transitions we’ve seen as a result is reflected in the number of Australian contractors throughout the world, especially in Asia. Australian companies now hold their own around the world. Management has become a great export industry for Australia.
AIM: You have had extensive dealings with Asia. What are the key challenges there for Australian companies?
Jewkes: When you go to a foreign country – not just in Asia, but anywhere – you’ve got to bring some added value. We work in about 14 different countries around the world, each with a different culture, a different set of capabilities and approaches. But you’ve got to maintain your values.
If we go into a developing country where values are very different, we can’t go in and adopt their values. We would not be bringing much to the party if we did. So, whenever we go overseas, we’re looking for opportunities where the customer values what we bring and it’s probably different from what’s available for him in the local market.
AIM: Australian businesses are being urged to become more global. What are the biggest hurdles to them achieving this?
Jewkes: We’re very small. There are some big Australian businesses, but, except for the very biggest of them, they’re small on a global scale.
I think, too, that Australia is not really seen as a world financial driver, and projects are really driven by the source of finance. You have to get out there and develop your profile as someone that can add value and deliver.
I have to say, though, that Australian capability is welcomed everywhere. We have a reputation for taking a no-nonsense approach, for saying what we mean with no hidden agendas, and basically for getting on and getting the job done. But you’ve always got a bit of a hurdle, coming from a place that’s not connected with the global financial markets.