Dominic Lavery is a seasoned construction stalwart, but he took up his biggest challenge to date as managing director of giant Farrans, in the middle of a pandemic. In his first interview since taking over at the helm, he speaks to John Mulgrew about the major schemes it’s working on, what impact Covid will have on office demands, a golden opportunity to leverage the ‘best of both’ with Brexit, and focusing on infrastructure to rebuild our economy
“People have said ‘you could have wished for better times taking over as managing director”, Dominic Lavery tells me.
“To be honest, in construction, we’re used to dealing with curveballs.”
Dominic now heads up Farrans – one of Northern Ireland’s largest construction firms boasting a team of more than 500 and turnover of around £300m.
It’s worked, and is working, on some of the highest profile developments both here, and in GB. That includes the 17-storey, £75m City Quays 3 office scheme, along with The Third River Crossing in Great Yarmouth and Gull Wing project in Lowestoft, which have a combined value of £246m. Farrans is also working on the new Game of Thrones exhibition in Banbridge.
“The demographic of our staff has changed in last 10 years,” he says. “It tended to be more NI centric – with staff flying over (for work in GB). But we are now recruiting a lot more from local areas.”
Farrans, based in outside Belfast in Dunmurry, has a strong presence in a range of markets, including Cambridge, London and Edinburgh.
Some of its largest schemes include major civil engineering developments in GB – including the two bridges – along with the extension of the Edinburgh trams scheme, road projects elsewhere in Sctoland, as well as working on a number of Irish Water plans.
Closer to home it’s continuing to build Belfast’s tallest office development – City Quays 3 at Belfast Harbour, as well as two large student accommodation schemes here.
“(City Quays) has been a very successful scheme on progress,” Dominic says. “The concrete core for the 17 storeys was completed in seven weeks – that was a great feat and it has been very important for us.”
In London, it has worked on a series of high-profile developments, including high-end nursing homes, along with the new quadrangle at King’s College.
Dominic started out in the industry in 1987, as a young student. His first scheme was CastleCourt as a young site engineer. Following that he transferred to quantity surveying, spending a year out with the Department of Health.
His first long-term post was with Co Down’s Graham, before moving on to fit-out firm Mivan – working on projects such as the Hilton and Waterfront in Belfast.
But the market has changed of late. More people are working from home and there’s a push to a ‘hybrid’ model – a mixture of home and being physically at work – for many firms in the long term.
So, does Dominic see the office market, especially new developments, drying up as demands continue to shift?
“We see big opportunity down the line in the infrastructure market in England,” he says. “We are setting ourselves up for that to increase turnover in that sector.”
Dominic says it’s also making significant inroads within water infrastructure in the Republic – another key area which requires continual investment and is largely immune to economic impact or a crisis like Covid-19.
“If you asked me six months ago (there may have been) a rethink on offices. There still will be a requirement for offices, albeit, whether it’s wanting everyone in one office, or people to share with other companies in satellite offices based across Northern Ireland.
“The number of people coming in to offices will decrease, but it won’t be the same impact which we think it will be. There will be a huge number of people who need to be in an office.
“That’s one part of the thinking. Because of the great macro economic windfall, Brexit has brought up, we have a golden opportunity in Northern Ireland to access the UK and European markets. Why wouldn’t we leverage that to try and attract people into Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland?”
For Farrans during the pandemic, Dominic says it used the downtime at the beginning to bring in its Covid operating procedures.
That included a new working group. According to Dominic, Farrans has introduced a range of on-site measures, including temperature testing stage, adding more washing areas, increasing the size of canteens and making face masks compulsory for workers – especially important for staff working in close proximity on schemes such as City Quays.
“People have gotten used to it,” he says. “They have accepted it. It’s for the good and helping to maintain the work and delivering for our clients.”
Looking ahead to recovery, Dominic says: “Certainly, to restart the economy, governments are all taking about investing in capital projects.
“There is a clear recognition that spending in capital projects has been a good kick start to lagging economies to try and jump-start them back to life. Infrastructure, good drinking water, schools and homes – those are the areas in which there will be investment in.
“Let us rethink our strategy… it’s a good opportunity to reset our targets and set out our stall here. It’s exciting, the potential, to really reverse the damage done in the past… we can refocus all our attentions on making life much more sustainable for us all.”