With a history dating back to 1949, John Holland has become a household name in large scale, highly complex Australian construction projects. Built on the foundations of longstanding client relationships, a focus on safety and the endeavour to deliver high quality projects on time and on budget it is no surprise that John Holland sets the benchmark for Australian infrastructure, rail and buildings engineering.
The company has gone through three major phases of ownership, formed and run by Sir John Holland until 1991 when Janet Holmes à Court’s Heytesbury Pty Ltd acquired the firm, then in 2000 Leighton Holdings became the majority shareholder and the size of contracts John Holland could attract ballooned, signified by winning the AUS$2.5 billion EastLink rail project in Victoria. In 2015 John Holland was bought by China Communications Construction Company International Holding Limited (CCCI), a global construction giant and wholly-owned subsidiary of China Communications Construction Company Limited (CCCC).
Today John Holland has work in hand of $5.5 billion and can be delivering anywhere near 100 projects at any given time – it has become a leviathan in Australian construction.
John Holland CEO Joe Barr says the latest acquisition puts the construction firm in good stead to continue to deliver on Australia’s most significant infrastructure construction and engineering projects as the investors come with significant capital, a long term strategy and a cultural alignment.
“The culture of John Holland is a long and proud one and to me it makes a difference on how you deliver it. I’ve been really pleased with what I have seen in the company [CCCI],” Barr notes.
“It gives us an edge in terms of capital which is always handy but one area that is very pleasing is that the Chinese have a very long-term view and they are very culturally aligned with the John Holland brand even before [the acquisition].”
Although starting in Victoria, John Holland has gone on to deliver projects in every state and territory working in all environments from the arid deserts to the metropolitan urban centres. Under the new ownership Barr’s remit is to promote the brand internationally and build up the portfolio in Asia, focusing primarily on Singapore providing technical expertise on large rail expansion projects.
In order to maintain a customer focus, one of the company’s key values, each regional business unit is split into a self-sustaining profit/loss business. So each state manager in effect is running an individual business under the John Holland name. In addition the three key divisions; infrastructure, rail and building are run by executive general managers focused on reading the market and bringing in major project work.
Barr says this approach provides a unique ability to give the clients exactly what they need, “We’ve got an ability to be very client focused in those areas. The executive general manager’s primary task is to create work for the group and therefore they have to have a very good ability to connect with clients and understand what innovation we can bring to the table in those three areas.”
It is the focus on delivering the highest standards to the client which has resulted in Joh Holland going beyond the mere construction phase and becoming an ‘end-to-end’ service provider. The company website reads that John Holland offers a ‘total service solution, participating in every link of the project lifecycle from origination, financing and development to design and construction, operations and maintenance’.
In the case of the rail business a turnkey solution would see the company construct the rail infrastructure, lay the tracks, deliver the civil aspects such as the tunnelling ad underground work and then take on the operation and maintenance of the project after construction.
“What that gives us, and the value it adds to our clients, is that we are able to deliver the clients that use the service which in this case is the passengers.
“The more we understand what the client wants and what we need to build instead of just handing over to somebody who might lay the track or maintain it, the more we can understand the nuance of each different phase and vertically integrate them. It gives us more control from a delivery point of view.”
Barr stresses that a key factor in the end-to-end service is the reduction of risk through less players being involved in the project. John Holland has more control over the delivery and can manage each phase in-house and keep up a constant two-way dialogue with the client to ensure the final product meets the specification the client originally set out.
When you are working on projects of the size John Holland does, it is important for the client to know they are dealing with a responsible and highly qualified contractor. John Holland has longstanding relationships with state governments that have been bolstered by the continual delivery of projects on time and on budget which engender a sense of trust that company will do what it says it is going to.
“The advantage is we don’t have a vast array of clients, certainly with infrastructure and rail, and therefore we know their business stories well. It gives us certainty but more importantly it gives them certainty with who they are dealing with and the fact we know their business,” remarks Barr.
John Holland is currently working on the Mernda Rail Extension project in Melbourne for the Victoria state government. The $600 million contract entails the construction of nearly 8km of new rail line between South Morang station and Mernda, five grade separations and building new stations at Mernda, Marymede and Hawkstowe.
The project will facilitate significant population growth in North Melbourne thanks to the improved travel access and Barr says he’s proud the project will create hundreds of jobs in time. However, as well as delivering rail infrastructure there is also the requirements for the auxiliary construction around the stations, including car parks, walkways and cycling paths and Barr stresses how important it is to consider the community who will use the service when you are design a project of this scale.
“All these things are really important in terms of how you deal with the communities and how you build them. Your team is there to do a job but you have all the stakeholder interfaces, as all the physical buildings, which make the project more acceptable.”
Another major project John Holland has on its books is the redevelopment of the Old Royal Adelaide Hospital site in South Australia. The contract is worth over $1 billion dollars over the next eight to 10 years and it is part of a newly established Development & Investments Group.
“The development & investments is looking at large scale projects that we can use our development skills and the capital we have [from CCCI] to put into a project to create a new space,” explains Barr.
In partnership with the state government John Holland is creating a new development consisting of a hotel, mixed use buildings, residential space, a living precinct, gardens and an arts and cultural space surrounding the new hospital. For a development of this size the company has to consider the urban planning side in terms of how the buildings work with each other and how the community will use them once they are built, its more than simply putting the building blocks in place.
One element that is consistent in the contracts John Holland delivers, whether they are international in Singapore or more locally in Adelaide, is the use of local contractors and local teams.
Barr explains that it is crucial to partner with local experts who know the climate, the regulatory environment and the local community. Specifically on the rail project in Singapore while the company has the expertise in how to deliver the project on the engineering side, it will use a localised business which understands the labour market, the planning requirements and the health and safety regulations.
Talking about the Adelaide project Barr explains, “Although John Holland had done sizeable work before in Adelaide we still worked with a local developer who was respected in the community and used that network to tap into state government user groups.
“We worked through all these groups and as much as possible tried to understand [what they wanted] because there are the written requirements of what they want but also the nuance of understanding how we are going to deliver it as well.”
Creating work and jobs for local companies is at the fore on the contract for the WestConnex project in Sydney as well, a 7km extension of Sydney’s M4 freeway as part of a $2.7 billion contract over four years. The extension requires tunnels, bridges and new roads.
“There’s a lot of communities that we pass, we have to demolish houses and we take over complete areas so we need to have that stakeholder and community involvement,” Barr stresses.
“But as a general principle we know that to be successful we need to have the right engagement. Therefore, direct engagement with the communities and engagement with our clients is key and a big part of our brand.”
John Holland has been named the preferred bidder for a major $5 billion tunnels project to widen the West Gate Freeway in Melbourne from eight lanes to 12. The contract will be undertaken in a 50:50 joint venture with CPB contractors and Barr says the joint venture won the project due to the outcome it could provide for the community.
“Our solution features urban design with strong Indigenous elements, as well as high social and environmental value. Our leading edge use of intelligent transport technology will provide improved driver experience and operational effectiveness,” he said.
“We are looking forward to working with Transurban and the Victorian Government on this vital piece of infrastructure.”
As well as continuing to deliver on the contracts already in progress Barr has big targets for John Holland over the next year. The company is bidding on a number of mega-projects in Victoria and New South Wales. There is Melbourne Metro system, worth around $6 billion and Barr is hoping to win the contract for a $2.3 billion network of tunnels in Sydney. For the CEO the main focus of the next year will be to secure those contracts, despite heavy the competition from other big industry players, while efforts will also be made to grow the development and asset management arms of the business.
Particularly on the train networks Barr wants to embed the company with the operating and maintenance of commercial train networks – John Holland already manages the Country Rail Network in New South Wales and the MTM system in Melbourne (in a joint venture with MTR from Hong Kong).
“We want to be growing that area of our business, not only with relation to rail but water as a key area. We do a lot of work with Sydney Water and Melbourne Water and what we want to do as a business is manage those assets for the client too.”
With the backing from CCCI supported by the Chinese firm’s long term strategy for John Holland the company is primed to continue to win and deliver on the major infrastructure projects shaping Australia in the coming years.