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Holden the line

Rob Holden takes over as chief executive of the 16bn Crossrail project on 1 April. NCE finds out what 12 years leading the High Speed 1 project have taught him about major project delivery.

As the current chief executive of London and Continental Railways (LCR) and the man who brought High Speed 1 (HS1) project in on time and to budget, Rob Holden was always a front runner for the Crossrail top job.

Now that his appointment as chief executive has been confirmed, Holden says that one of his first tasks will be to assemble the right team around him – both internally with the Crossrail project team and externally via the programme and project delivery partners. And that is likely to mean change and some tough decisions – not least because he is keen to gather a core of people who will see the project through the next eight years to completion in 2017. “There are a number of people here who are coming to the end of their careers who, although they won’t fully admit it, don’t see themselves being here through to the end,” he explains. “From time to time you have to lose people and bring some in afresh to challenge you and bring ideas.”

He highlights the fact that on the HS1 project there were a dozen or more people at a relatively senior level who saw the project through for over 20 years. “The immediate task [at Crossrail] is to assemble a core group of people who have every intension of seeing it through to a successful completion.” That said he is quick to emphasise that he was not looking to sweep away any vital knowledge or experience.

But of course it is clear that one of the key unanswered questions is around the role – if any – that current executive chairman Douglas Oakervee will have in the future. Right now Holden is keeping an open mind on the issue. “Doug has brought the project through to where it is and has a knowledge base which would be silly not to tap into and use as much as I can in these early weeks,” he says.

Holden refers to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review which highlighted the fact that the greatest failing of chief executives is to not suck as much information out of their predecessor as possible. But he adds: “Doug has some discussions and negotiations to take forward with the sponsors. He has a number of other interests and he has to work out how to balance those.”

Although Holden comes direct from the UK’s most recent and most successful major rail project, he is first to point out that Crossrail presents significant and different challenges. Crossrail is a bigger and more complex project than HS1 and will see Holden take on a much more hands on project role than he did at LCR. He will have the experience and counsel of recently appointed chairman Terry Morgan who will joins the project as soon as a successor is found for his current role of chief executive at Tube upgrade contractor Tube Lines. At the latest this will be in November but in reality it is likely to be sooner.

Their paths first crossed 20 years ago when Morgan was at British Aerospace and Holden was at Vickers shipyard. It was this point in his career that Holden says took him into the world of major project delivery. He started his working life in 1977 as an accountant with Arthur Young & Co which later became Ernst & Young. But even in his auditing days he was always involved with companies that carried out major projects. “I ended up in the shipyard in Barrow [with Vickers] and was involved in the Trident nuclear submarine programme as well as the Upholder [submarine] programme,” he explains. “They were big projects but the public didn’t really see what happened to those vessels after they were constructed.”

By contrast, when he left Vickers to move to LCR in 1996 as finance director, his work suddenly became very high profile and hugely political. After taking over as chief executive in 1999 Holden has weathered many a storm to bring the two sections of the 5.8bn HS1 project in on time and to budget. “I’m still taken aback and hugely pleased by the public reaction to HS1 particularly St Pancras Station,” he says. “It is amazing how many people from all over the country come in with their cameras and look around in awe. You can’t fail to get a kick from that.”

Crossrail is clearly the biggest project in town after HS1. And Holden has no doubts about its importance to London and to the whole of the UK. “I’m a Mancunian and I used to get very annoyed that all the attention and money went to the South East,” he says. “But if you sit back you see that the powerhouse behind the UK economy is here in the South East and around London. I’m not so sure that the man on the street recognises that but if London fails then the country fails – we can’t allow that to happen.”

Bringing it in on time and within the 16bn, mainly publicly financed budget, is vital and will mean transferring much HS1 learning to Crossrail. But he stresses that it will not be a case of simply rehashing the HS1 project delivery model. “I’m very concerned that people don’t think that I’m coming over here to replicate everything that we did on HS1. I’m actually determined not to do that,” he says. “This is a very different project. It has different stakeholders and will have different relationships and it operates in a different environment. Bringing a railway through the Garden of England has different challenges to a big tunnelling contract through the centre of London.”

But it is another major project and for that reason Holden admits that he had to think long and hard about whether he was ready to take it on. “I guess for some while I was juggling in my own mind whether I wanted another big project job to keep me going to retirement,” he explains. “It certainly helped that things moved in 2008 with Royal Assent and that funding got a lot more secure. The project has now got a lot of momentum to it.”

An announcement on the award of the programme and the project delivery partners is expected in the next week. Getting the right firms in place is critical to delivering the project. “These are big contracts and they are complex. I am a great believer in investing time up front – it pays huge dividends in the later stages,” says Holden. “Nobody can afford to get things wrong with these contracts so if it takes a bit longer [to let] than we might have hoped then perhaps that’s no bad thing.”

Holden has a few things to wrap up at LCR before he moves over full time to Crossrail but will be spending time getting to know the existing management team before then. He says that his style has changed over the course of his career from being a self confessed micro-manager to someone who is now able to delegate and trust his teams. He is also very aware that, given the current, heavily engineering-biased Crossrail management team there will inevitably be a difference in leadership style. “I am not an engineer but hopefully we will get onboard a programme director fairly soon who will be responsible for the engineering aspects of the job,” he explains. “I am a great believer in teamwork. The relative importance of any individual at any one time will depend on what the issues of the day are. But at the end of it each member will have played their part.”

Spending time early on getting the project set up correctly is critical for Holden and he is very keen to ensure that, particularly in the current difficult economic conditions, the project takes time to let contracts and procure in the right way. “Clearly there are a lot of firms out there hungry for the work. We need to guard against placing the work too soon,” he says, pointing to difficulties that the London 2012 project now faces having pre-ordered its steel last year to fix the price in an overheated market. “There are some lessons to learn. But I don’t think that anyone could have seen the rapid turnaround that we saw in 2008,” he says. “At the beginning of 2008 oil was $140 a barrel and I was one of those saying that it wouldn’t drop below $100 – of course its more like $40 now. It’s very difficult to judge.”

When it comes to lessons learnt, Holden is clear that the kind of partnerships formed on HS1 must be repeated at Crossrail. But he is under no illusions that this will be easy. “It is probably fair to say that some people in the construction industry have evolved and developed and work quite naturally in partnerships and there are others who have a different understanding of what partnerships are all about,” he says. “We will have to educate those people.”

ROB HOLDEN’S CV

  • 1977 Joins Arthur Young & Co as an accountant

  • 1983 Worked on Vickers’ Trident nuclear submarine programme and Upholder submarine programme. First meets Terry Morgan later to become Crossrail chairman

  • 1996 Joins High Speed 1 project client London & Continental Railways as finance director for the 5.8bn project

  • 1999 Becomes London & Continental Railways chief executive, responsible for ensuring High Speed 1 is delivered on time and to budget

  • 2009 Becomes chief executive of Crossrail

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