The federal budget announcement a couple of weeks back created a monster of an infrastructure investment right around Australia for the foreseeable future as a way to help lift Australia out of recession.

On this episode, we chat to Gerry Doyle, CEO of Tonkin about how this has affected their business, how people work for people, and what the future could look like in industries that have been shaken up by Covid-19.

The federal budget announcement a couple of weeks back created a monster of an infrastructure investment right around Australia for the foreseeable future as a way to help lift Australia out of recession. Sparked a super deep interest in infrastructure and the infrastructure world in general around the TALK office, and so we wanted to talk to someone in that space, managed to tee-up a quick discussion with Gerry Doyle. Jerry’s the CEO of Tonkin, an engineering firm based in Adelaide down in the south.

He’s as sharp as a tack operator, really knows his stuff, has a long history in engineering and infrastructure. And to boot, he is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever spoken to. It was the time really flew. So if you’re in engineering or if you want to understand the some of the massive challenges and unique circumstances that the engineering world is facing, it’s definitely worth a listen. I hope you get plenty of value.

Welcome back to another episode of talks with TALK Agency, and today we’re speaking with Jerry Doyle.

Jerry is the CEO of Tonkin, based in Adelaide and a huge welcome. Thank you for coming on board for this episode.

 

Thank you for having me.

 

 

I guess first and foremost, we really like to just get an understanding directly from you around what you what you do as an organisation, like what is your core mission statement and what you’re doing in the marketplace, as well as what a CEO like, what your role is and what your core objectives and your role specifically should look at.

Our mission statement reads as trying to put the human touch into crafting engineering solutions. We are an engineering business, a consultancy that designs infrastructure work for a range of clients. And where we’re trying to be different is that our approach is very human centric. It’s about the people that are involved on the project, the people who are building and the people who are using it after it’s done, and trying to bring that mindset into how we go about doing everything that we do as an engineering consultancy.

That’s Tonkin. Me – I’m a civil engineer by training. I have been our CEO for a little over nine years and my job is to pretty much plug all the gaps that other people don’t do. I’m the head cheerleader. I’m the occasionally the fixer. I’m responsible for the strategy and the culture and the people that we have in the organisation. But I see myself playing the role of trying to make everyone else in this business be as successful as I possibly can.

Yeah, absolutely. The quintessential CEO.

The quintessential CEO of an SME.

And I can definitely relate to that, engineering by my lineage of engineering in my family. I’m certainly no engineer myself but my grandfather was one of the chief engineers, Warragamba Dam back in the day.

 

Really interesting brand position to be taking a human centric approach to something that is typically so numbers based and so outcomes based in its materials and its infrastructure and things like that. What’s the core thinking behind that?

That the core thinking behind that is that we’re all people, too, and yeah, [inaudible] have a stereotype that goes with it. And I really enjoyed Dilbert. I think it’s hilarious and I can relate very, very strongly. But everything about it is people we work with, people we work for, people we have, people build what we design. We have people we use what we design. People are an integral part of everything. And the moment we try and pull the people out and just go, it’s about the numbers and the calcs and the plans and producing all of that so that it sits together and works.

We actually forget why we’re doing it, because we’re doing it to make someone’s life better.

And if we’re not, why are we doing it? Let’s work that out and understand that so that we know what we’re doing. It is weird. And I’m an engineer. I’m an introvert. I did very well in maths and science at school. I can still do mathematical questions in my head without a pen, paper or a calculator – really annoys my children. But I’ve learned that the best outcomes that we ever have on projects are where there is a connection that is built between our people and the team that we’re working with, and the people that are going to use it at the end of the day.

And that ability to build that connection is not something that engineers are good at, but it’s something that when we get right, it really, really works.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. The same goes people buy from people. People build for people. It’s very it’s true. And it’s sort of interesting coming from my and being in the digital game. Everyone is trying to automate things and digitize things. But at the end of the day, that’s all happening to serve the human being, know humans are not going to stop existing.

No, and it’s interesting, there’s a lot of stuff that I read about what artificial intelligence will do and what the jobs of the future will be. But it comes back to people do buy from people. I don’t know if someone will buy an engineering service from a computer just yet. They might at one point in the future. But I don’t think they will just yet. And there is that whole education piece of what is it that we do and what is it that’s important to various people and users, and the outcomes that we get.

And it’s all about – we’re all people. We’re not going away.

Yeah. One hundred percent.

 

And how have your people and I guess people in your industry as a as a broader sense dealt with this year – that the year of covid-19, has it been as it provided a tailwind to business? Has it shut business down? Like what sort of conditions have you been faced with?

It’s done both and it really depends on where you are. So for our business, we do work for all levels of government and we do work for private organisations. What we found was that the state and federal layers of government, they keep going. And if anything, like when I put more work out to try and stimulate the economy and try and get things going.

Yeah

Local government was a really mixed bag. You had some that shut up shop and when nope, we’re not doing anything and had others that put more work out into the market.

And it was overall for us. We saw a small tail off, but not a big one. The private sector, the large privates, the really big corporations, they kept going. It didn’t phase them. The small privates. They stopped dead overnight. And so for us in our business, we were lucky that we have a fair chunk of our work that comes out of the state government space. And what we saw was, particularly in South Australia, the state government responded quickly and I put work out into the market to get people doing things because getting projects out to construction is really good for stimulating an economy that’s struggling. We did have what I’ll call a reshaping of our organisation where we had to take people that normally do projects for private stuff and try and move them onto doing other types of projects. And that’s difficult because it’s a different mindset, it’s a different set of behaviours and it’s a different group of people that you’re dealing with.

In the private sector they’re risk takers – saying, I want someone who understands what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. Government – they’re not risk takers. They want the safest option known to man, so for our approach of trying to match people with people, it wasn’t the smoothest transition.

I could imagine the complexity of navigating that.

Yeah, but all up –  our business is one of the lucky ones.

We employ the same number of people today that we did in February of this year.

We have managed to keep people in employment. We’ve managed to keep the doors open. Work coming through. And as I said, there are parts of our business that are going gangbusters and doing really, really well. While there are others that are struggling. For other engineering businesses like ours, it depend on how well geared they were to each part of those organizations. Those that geared heavily towards the state government infrastructure projects, I suspect they’re having brilliant years.

For those that are geared to the smaller private players, some of them might shut up shop.

So it’s really a mixed bag and I think we were definitely in the lucky end. And it’ll be really interesting, sort of the budget announcements of last week. I’ve been working on the basis that they would be a cliff sometime in 2021. I think budget has pushed that cliff out a little bit. I think we can breathe a little bit easier going, OK, we’ve got a bit longer, but at some point the private sector stuff has to start to come back on. And what is going to drive the confidence around that?

This has tested the way that we work. Our office spaces in metropolitan centres are actually going to be something that we get there. How we do that.

Yeah, there’s more and more question to sort of get it sort of uncovered as the weeks and months go on through this this epidemic. We’ve had some discussions in our business about working from home vs working from the office vs hybrid. We’ve got a team in Brazil who are facing a whole different set of circumstances. And I really don’t think there’s a business anywhere in the world that’s not grappling with really significant fundamental questions that could have the ability to really positively or really negatively affect their overall business performance, but not really having a clear roadmap for how to answer some of those questions.

Yeah, and I don’t know. It’s – for us, we’re lucky all of our people are in Australia. We don’t have to worry about that. What’s happening in all the other countries, all of that type of thing.

And it’s one of the challenges I’m really glad that I don’t have to deal with. To just be able to go, OK, no, I’m focusing on keeping people in Australia, working on doing what they’re doing and taking them forward. It’s been hard enough managing the rules in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, the Northern Territory and South Australia are. Keeping my head around all I can do this here, but I can’t do this there.

And for us, we have a workforce that actually has wanted to come back to the office, but wanted to be in the office as soon as they could. And so how does that work? So while we haven’t had the challenge of what’s happening in Brazil or what’s happening in the Philippines or Indonesia or anywhere else, we’ve had the challenge of, well, how do we actually make this safe for what everyone else wants to do and how do we make this so that we’re actually supporting our people, giving them the best opportunity, doing all of those sorts of things.

So I’m really glad that I haven’t had to face that flag.

 

So, yeah, you’ve had enough challenges on your plate. And in terms of the I guess obviously being so involved in, you know, as an engineering firm, being so involved in the infrastructure of Australia, what are your… probably got a two part question. Firstly, what are your views on the huge push behind getting infrastructure projects off the ground? Now, that must be a significant tailwind for you guys. And as an aside to that, I’ve heard so much in the marketplace about the CBD dying and people like spreading to the different sort of communities all around the country, rural communities and suburban communities.

How do you think that infrastructure as a concept as a whole is going to shape in the future?

Now that’s the million dollar question.

Well, the billion dollar question.

We have the multi billion dollar question, I, I don’t know.

I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s one of the things that makes my job really interesting at the moment, because before we were dealing with Covis, we were dealing with, well, what’s going to happen with autonomous vehicles? And how is that going to change what we’re doing? How do we change for the last decade we’ve been dealing with from a water infrastructure perspective, water utilities who sell water actively discouraging people from using it?

So you’ve got all of these different things.

Yes, the infrastructure spending that has been announced is a massive tailwind for our business for the next few years. It gives us surity to be able to turn around and go. We know what’s going to happen for the next few years until the government starts to get to the point where we a bit nervous about this debt position and deficits and all these sorts of things – we’re OK, we will have a cliff, there will be the point in time where they stop and when they stop, how we respond and what we do, that’s going to be the challenge.

What does the infrastructure of the future look like? I’ve seen some really cool things that I hope it looks like that, but I don’t know. There is some really cool things around what you can do with autonomous vehicles and road user charging and water supply and how we manage our homes, our cars. Will my children actually own a car in 20 years time? I don’t think they will.

I think they’ll have an app and an autonomous vehicle will pick them up when they want them, drop them where they want and go off and take someone else. I don’t think public transport will have the same usage because all of these autonomous vehicles can drive so close together. It completely changes everything and yeah, it might sound really futuristic and far out there, but the technology exists to make it happen more about the legislative environment and the policies to make it happen.

And will people be comfortable with that? I have mates who love driving. I’m not one of them. I, I quite happily have someone drive me everywhere. Yeah, fine by me. But they don’t want to stop driving, they don’t want to get into a situation where they get into a vehicle and can sit there and work on the computer while someone….

That’s the last thing they want

The last thing they want. They want to feel – they complain about the number of automatic cars and the fact that the kids start learning to drive a manual anymore.

Yeah.

So how people respond to what infrastructure can do is actually going to be the really interesting thing.

Yeah, the advancements in infrastructure are enormous and what we could be doing in 10 or 20 years time is phenomenal.

But what are people going to want us to be doing?

 

Absolutely, absolutely couldn’t agree more. And I guess there’s sort of a sort of a parting question, technology as a whole. How in your sort of career, how have you seen it affect your core business and affect infrastructure and engineering in general? And how do you see affecting the future?

When I when I started, you did a lot more actual hand calculations and using spreadsheets to work things, work things out. You don’t these days you don’t need to. There are software packages and computer models that can do a lot of the stuff that we used to try and do by hand. And I started after cab drafting and all of those sorts of things had come in. So there was a whole advancement that went on before that. And the thing that I haven’t seen it change a lot in is what actually gets built out in society.

We’re still building roads the same way. We’re still building more water treatment plants the same way. When is that going to change? When is that actually going to start to come into how we do the things we do? A lot of the projects that were announced in the budget last week are projects that are based on how we operate today as a society. So I think the advancements that will come are the advancements about how we actually utilize some of the technology that already exists, into changing the way we live as a society.

Covid’s been a really good experiment in how people can go working from home and who wants to and who doesn’t. What’s the next big experiment that we’re going to have happen in the world? Who will change what we do?

And the outcome might be that all the office blocks in CBD’s, we don’t need anymore – or we need a whole lot less than what we’ve already got.

And that’s so like that concept I’ve thought about that is so breathtaking because think about the billions of trillions of dollars of pension and superannuation money tied up in those things worldwide. Oh, man.

Absolutely.

And if you turn around and you use the autonomous vehicles as an example, Well our road capacity under an autonomous vehicle operating system. Can cope with far more traffic than our road capacity under current environments. All of these additional lanes that are being contemplated in 10 years time, are they going to be needed?

Probably not.

And that that’s where it ought to. Possibly, possibly not.Because the technology is there for them not to be needed. But will we embrace it and use it? And that’s the that’s the part of where the human aspect comes into it all.

I was about to say that’s the human cap end.

It is the human beings going, are we actually going to want that and be comfortable with it?

That’s a very nice sort of wrapping up of the package of the present, it really sort of pays homage to your brand and sort of how you position your brand is at the end of the day, without humans – what is infrastructure?

Absolutely.

We don’t need infrastructure without humans.

That’s right. Absolutely. Jerry, thank you. Thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation. We understand that time is very hard to come by. So really appreciate it. And we’re really looking forward to keeping in touch.

Thank you for your time. I’ve enjoyed it.