Reflection and Projection: T+T’s business leaders talk past, present and future

Reflection and Projection: T+T’s business leaders talk past, present and future

From a historical perspective, the last year of the Fifties could be considered a landmark of sorts. Che Guevara had helped Fidel Castro rise to power after the Cuban Revolution and Mao resigned after the disastrous failure of the Great Leap Forward. Closer to home and less dramatic, construction kicked off on the Sydney Opera House and Turners & Growers started to export the Chinese gooseberry under the new name of “kiwifruit”.

The air was charged with the prospect of change and great promise which was especially palpable in Auckland where the city was visibly transformed with the opening of the Harbour Bridge. For Ralph Tonkin and Don Taylor, two bright-eyed engineers who worked on its construction, it also heralded the transformation of another kind; it was the beginning of their partnership, soon formalised as Tonkin + Taylor Consulting Engineers.

The future for the fledgling partnership was indeed bright as the company history confirms.  Involvement in many major projects brought strong growth which itself was deeply rooted in the high calibre of T+T expertise and the adopted employee-ownership model. According to Don Taylor, the key to success was straightforward: “You need to understand your client and what they need and you have to work alongside people you can relate to.” Deceptively simple words that convey a very powerful and timeless message.

Fast forward sixty years to find out how T+T’s current s business leaders relate to the business in those early days. 

Strong relationships and trusted specialist advice

Grant Lovell, who heads the Land Sector, looks back with pride. “Given the substantial changes and challenges over the years, the company’s longevity seems even more special and unique with its essentially unchanged employee-owned structure,” he says. Moreover, Don Taylor’s winning formula has been further enhanced with a structure based on technical disciplines. This ensures a seamless integration of teams from various disciplines into client projects, depending on demand and regardless of sector.

All in all, in a business landscape punctuated by mergers and acquisitions, T+T is an outlier specialist technical firm – one that continues with the epitome of a flat structure and a family culture.

Needless to point out, this culture spills over into relationships with clients. Chris Purchas, Waste Sector Director says, “Over the years we’ve established a really strong reputation for good business advice, great engineering and policy advice. Several long-standing relationships in the waste sector, with clients that have been with us for 20 years and more, reflect that.” He says it explains the company’s leading role in highly engineered landfills which set new benchmarks with milestone projects in Redvale and Silverstream. Having joined the company from “the other side of the fence”, having been a former client himself, Chris was very mindful of all these factors. Indeed, they very much influenced his decision to join T+T.

Looking at the big picture

While client relationships built on trust are an important foundation, it’s not all about warm fuzzies. These relationships manifest in real value by way of unbiased advice that unapologetically seeks best outcomes overall. Glen Nicholson who guides the Energy and Industry sectors explains, “Trusted advice is at the very core of what we provide. Plenty of people can design something but there’s a bigger underlying issue of ‘do you need it?’ or ‘why do you need it?’… Making sure that the proposed solution is the best option overall requires deeper understanding and a relationship that goes beyond mere service provision.”

This sentiment reverberates across all sectors, as does the acknowledgment that it wouldn’t be possible without a good dose of technical confidence and mutual trust because, well, boundaries may get pushed. There might be instances when short-term project gains simply don’t stack up in the long run, but solid advice with a holistic perspective will identify this. Chris Purchas sums it up, “Ultimately, we can use our technical skills and our level of understanding to improve our clients’ businesses.”

This type of enhanced involvement, which is increasingly acknowledged and sought, adds a whole new layer of value. With time, the technical component can even slip into the background; it becomes a given of sorts and allows clients to focus on outcomes, knowing that technically their project is in safe hands.

About sharing and caring

For Richard Reinen-Hamill, who leads the Natural Hazards and Resilience Sector, this higher level involvement shows a natural progression for T+T’s skill set. It resonates in this space where experts can expand their horizon and provide a much broader understanding at a bigger scale. What’s more, they do it with a great level of care. “Our people have a very real desire to help communities,” he notes. “It makes their work tangible and relevant.” Richard refers to a host of legacy projects such as Taumanu Reserve in Onehunga or Oriental Bay in Wellington. These are immensely rewarding, perhaps also because of the enduring community benefits they provide. Of course there’s also the matter of sheer design cleverness that isn’t perceived as design. “Good design is so natural that people don’t even think about it” he quips, “it just works.”

But in the end, the human component is a crucial part of the equation. It’s a tremendous driver which, for instance, played out in the wake of the Canterbury earthquake sequence and saw T+T respond in inimitable fashion and with deep involvement: deploying a third of staff to civil defence and a further third to work for EQC – no questions asked. If ever you wanted an example of T+T’s culture of caring, look no further than this.

It culminated in the development of the award-winning Canterbury geotechnical database, a world-first; it also resonates with the culture of sharing information. This work, along with associated involvement in the earthquake damage assessment process, has benchmarked the industry and transformed business-as-usual.

 

Unbridled passion

It’s no small wonder then, that T+T’s values-based environment would harness unbridled professional passion. “It’s what differentiates us,” says Water Sector Director Clint Cantrell. Like his sector colleagues, he relishes the opportunity to pursue work that’s aligned with the interests among his team. “You have to be passionate about what you do,” he states unequivocally, the subtext being that the level of excitement drives quality of work and makes it a great experience for all involved.

When it comes to matters of culture, Transport Director Chris Perks has a thing or two to add. Not least, because the sector he directs is defined by several very successful alliances. He suggests that T+T’s culture is a critical factor. “The company has no egos to deal with, we just go about it and thrive,” he says. “Ultimately, this has produced great solutions that have changed the face of Auckland and Wellington … and changed the way people are living their lives.”

He cites the importance of “being human” which he connects with the philosophy of care. “We treat the business as a legacy and try to leave it in better shape than we found it,” he explains drawing parallels to the remarkable level of pride and excellence for which he credits the employee ownership model. “It’s evident across the business, from the print room to the board room.”  

So what does the future hold?

TRANSPORT: Adjust to change while remaining the same

After a recent past defined by extraordinary roading projects (by global standards) in alliances such as the North Canterbury Transport Infrastructure Recovery, Auckland’s Waterview Connection or Wellington’s Memorial Park Alliance, Chris is preparing for an interesting time ahead. He likens it to assembling a constantly changing jigsaw comprised of opportunities and challenges. Pieced together, it shows the way while offering several alternatives to address a host of eventualities.

With the government focus and investment discussions now revolving around the public transport sphere, he suggests that the service offering may change to reflect the altered landscape. The trick will be to retain the company culture within the changed environment.

 “Aside from that, being nimble and agile is a necessity. It will help us remain relevant and ahead of the curve where industry and governments are going.” Retaining our culture and recognised attributes of being thought leaders and innovative experts will be crucial.

He finds it difficult to be anything but upbeat about the prospect of being able to improve people’s lives with sustainable new transport options.

WATER: Understanding clients’ clients

Following its relatively recent entry in the Water Sector, T+T rapidly moved from the role of specialist sub-consultant to leading water-related infrastructure projects. Clint Cantrell credits the company’s solid expertise across science, engineering and planning which has resulted in thought leadership regarding many pressing current and future issues. The growing list includes freshwater and marine water quality, climate change resilience, coastal engineering, sea level rise, and the like – all major issues in their own right, faced by clients and governments.

“Climate change resilience is an obvious and major challenge with the prospect of droughts and concerns about water supply,” Clint says. “For many Councils, the vulnerabilities around limited water storages coupled with increased drought durations will become a major point of focus in the near future.”

The market in New Zealand is also facing big questions around Government plans to reform the way drinking water, waste and stormwater are managed. This 3-waters reform may change the client landscape if the decision is made to amalgamate the service delivery into larger entities and/or establish a national regulatory agency to manage oversight and compliance.

 “For us to be more effective in this scenario we need to make sure we understand our clients’ clients,” says Clint. His holistic strategy embraces a raft of specialists beyond engineering to assist in every step along the process, down to stakeholder alignment and consultation; it’s utterly crucial to ensure that clients’ clients are on board.

Operationally, he anticipates the need for agility and non-traditional engineering expertise to adapt to the rapid pace of change, be it the Internet of Things or social engagement strategies. Taking things a step further, he can even imagine a departure from selling “consulting hours” to selling “value”.

His motto: change or get left behind.

WASTE: Recovering new ideas

T+T’s Waste Sector is leveraging off a strong history in landfill engineering with innovative projects across New Zealand and Pacific nations and a growing reputation in Australia. “We’ve contributed to significantly improved standards, and contributed with engineering and policy advice,” says Chris Purchas.

He envisages strengthening the sector business by delivering value akin to that being realised by long-term clients. “It’s about improving the client’s business,” he explains. “It goes beyond the technical component and builds on a high level of contextual understanding and getting a big picture view.” And while there’s a focus to further develop the technical basis to enhance the strategic consulting services in the waste sector, he adds that good relationships will actually never go out of fashion.

Market challenges predictably revolve around recovered materials and the societal acceptance that sending waste offshore for recycling is not a sustainable solution. Where does it leave us? “With options for new technologies and facilities in New Zealand,” he retorts. “There are opportunities to be smarter in New Zealand … because we can move quickly.”

His recipe for the future includes having great people with the right expertise and investing in understanding client projects in order to deliver value. Basically it means fostering a potent mix of technical excellence and the right people.

NATURAL HAZARDS & RESILIENCE: Climate change points the way

Few issues engender as much public engagement as climate change which is at the core of the Natural Hazards & Resilience sector. It seems all-encompassing, not least in terms of the broad range of skills required to address it. The multi-discipline input is evident in enormously successful legacy projects, such as Wellington’s Oriental Bay Foreshore Development. Following intense ongoing involvement in the Canterbury earthquake work, the focus is shifting to the vast, and vastly important, matter of climate change.

“With so many of our communities, cities and assets located in coastal areas, we are susceptible to climate change,” says Richard Reinen-Hamill. There is a real need across the country to develop community resilience from the shocks and stresses that can occur and to plan strategically. The skills developed are transferable to other countries and have led to extensive work with Pacific Island nations where T+T advice is helping governments improve the resilience of their communities.

Richard envisages more pro-active work “on the top of the cliff”; advice and guidance around early warning systems and the likes of coastal hazards mapping to keep people and assets safe.

While work around climate change and how it influences hazards seems endless for the next few decades, there are plans afoot for interesting collaborations with organisations in unrelated industries such as banks or insurances which have experienced disruption and can benefit from T+T’s world-class expertise. “It promotes collaboration and typically results in the generation of good ideas,” says Richard.

He is confident. Combined with his knack for solving client needs and delivering the desired outcomes, his sector will no doubt continue to provide opportunities for exciting project involvement.

LAND: A nuanced approach

The Land Sector exemplifies how T+T responds to client needs. Originally based in Auckland, the company’s expansion was driven by discrete land sector projects across the country. This allows the service to grow organically as the need for major project support arises and it reflects T+T’s ‘natural state’ of working with clients who trust our technical ability.

However, with increasing breadth and depth of expertise along with better commercial understanding, the land sector has begun taking on a lead role. It culminated in the massive Canterbury rebuild which led to global innovations around geotechnical information sharing and liquefaction hazard analysis.

However, those challenging times of immense demand that saw Christchurch office staff numbers swelling from 20 to 85 in six months also confirmed something else altogether, namely that the distinct T+T culture can be retained in the wake of massive growth and upheaval. According to Grant Lovell, “It shows a well-founded confidence in ourselves, our culture and our people.”

He says that nuanced expertise which goes beyond the technical and addresses business issues, stakeholders and the environment, is important for the future. “We’ll continue to provide non-biased advice that gives clients the opportunity to determine what’s best for their business.”

He suggests that strong client relationships, understanding the client’s business and the ability to consider the big picture will be a critical success factor in the face of increasing commerciality.

ENERGY & INDUSTRY: Nimble and collaborative

The current expansion of the Ngāwhā Geothermal Power Station in New Zealand’s Far North echoes the firm’s industrial and energy pedigree that dates back to the early years. This exciting legacy project will produce safe, reliable and renewable energy for this remote area. The inherent sustainability of geothermal power also typifies the issues faced by the sector at large. “Given the growing energy deficit and the need for more power generation, the options are dwindling,” says Glen Nicholson. With oil and gas out of favour, and dams and wind generation facing compliance issues, the sector is at a fulcrum of sorts.

“We’re seeing great change with lots of ‘moving parts’, from solar power to electric vehicles and the potential discontinuation of the Tīwai smelter,” he explains. “While the emergence of a disruptive technology is feasible, the relentlessly growing demand for more power remains nonetheless and may even result in industry shifting from major cities.”

Glen’s service approach is nimble, open to unexpected opportunities and focused around collaborating with other consultants. This particular attribute of being “easy to work with” will be a vital strength for the future. He’s also mindful of nurturing strong relationships. “After all, they have served the company well over the past 60 years,” he states.

Change and excitement galore

Executive Leader - Clients, Simonne Eldridge, rounds off the musings with confidence and insight. She sees opportunities to choose exciting and interesting projects with clients T+T enjoys working with; and relationship-driven advice that gets to the core of the client business, as well as creative ways of adding value. “But we need to stay on top of our game and ahead of the latest developments,” she cautions. Change, including in service delivery, is quite simply pre-determined. It will demand a degree of agility to adapt to it.

And what won’t change?

“Doing cool stuff with clients and colleagues who are really good at doing it and enjoy it.”