Face to face: Jeremy Lester, Grocon
Grocon international head Jeremy Lester on the firm's role in the GCC
From founding advisor on the Burj Khalifa for Emaar to the Princess Tower, the chief executive of Grocon's international division Jeremy Lester tells CW how it has played a vital role in developing the region’s construction industry. By Gerhard Hope
Construction company Grocon originally entered the region as founding advisor to Emaar on the Burj Khalifa.
“It evolved from a plan to build a 600m tall tower in the Melbourne Docklands … The Melbourne authorities did not want a 600m-tall tower sticking out of the docklands, so our current CEO and his father came here and met [Emaar chairman] Mohamed Alabbar, and that became the germination of the idea around the Burj Khalifa. It is an amazing story,” says Lester.
Grocon’s involvement with that landmark project has since characterised its approach to the region’s construction industry, specialising in devising methodologies and approaches “to how you build something that complex; that came out of that original thinking.”
Grocon then initiated a long-term working relationship with main contractor Arabian Construction Company (ACC) on the 333m, 72-storey Rose Rayhaan by Rotana on Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai, “which I still think is one of the most remarkable buildings in Dubai.”
This had the distinction of being the tallest hotel in the world, but will be eclipsed by the JW Marriott Marquis Dubai when it opens at the end of the year.
“In terms of its height-to-base ratio and the complexity of that sort of building in that sort of location, Grocon played a key role in enabling ACC and others to achieve that,” says Lester.
He explains that Grocon is “really a structures company; we focus on structure, because that is where we can make the most difference and the biggest contribution. I take huge pride when we look at our finished buildings, and I think it is great to see the Rose Rayhaan by Rotana doing so well. It is popular and people like it.”
Grocon continued to work with ACC “on those projects where we could make a real difference, employing our best ideas and methodologies, particularly around safety, speed of construction, efficiency and value engineering.
First of all, Grocon’s strength and its insights come because we are a design-and-construct business down in Australia and so we understand intimately all of the component parts that go into construction.
What we had here was to a certain extent architects and structural engineers coming out with fantastically ambitious projects, which to a large extent were almost beyond the capability of the construction companies to build.”
There was a lag between capability and expertise, but this proved to be a niche where Grocon thrived, adding such projects as the 360m, 70-storey Almas Tower in JLT, and the the 414m, 101-storey Princess Tower and the 381m, 91-storey Elite Residence in Dubai Marina. Other projects included the five-tower Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi.
“We have worked on these sort of landmark, flagship projects that really stand out; buildings that are complex and difficult and challenging for a whole variety of different reasons.”
Lester says that Grocon’s aim in the region is “to leave a legacy of an industry that is more capable, that is safer, that is higher quality and ultimately is more efficient, so we are really focused on teaching and sharing. What I want to be able to do is move on into other countries and regions, leaving that legacy behind of a significant industry.”
This requires a mindset change in the traditionally conservative construction industry in the region. “I think the resistance to change is less so, especially as the architectural and structural engineering sectors are dragging the industry into new, more challenging areas.
I think you have got new challenges of construction companies around safety expectations, and the cost of labour is rising, so we need to find more efficient ways of doing things, as well as the whole question around sustainability.
“Grocon is recognised internationally for creating Pixel in Melbourne, which is the first carbon-neutral office building in the world. It is the highest-scoring building under both GreenStar and LEED ever, which is great, and it is just going through Breeam accreditation. It has been up for two years now. It is a great building,” says Lester.
Established in the region about eight years ago on the basis of its work with Emaar, Lester says the company then realised that there were significant opportunities in the region. “But we have not had an aspiration of being a construction company. Our view is that there are really good construction companies established locally and regionally, and our role is not to compete with them. Our role is really to enable them.
“So with Princess Tower and Elite Residence, for example, our role was with ACC on the structure, on the methodologies, and we actually put in senior project leadership onto both of those projects.
One of the guys is Bill Parker, he is still with ACC, he moved across to the company, and we were very pleased to see him wanting to move his career into the region. The other guy, Dean Corke, is actually now back with us in Melbourne, and he is now building the Westpac HQ in Melbourne for us,” says Lester.
Looking at Tameer’s Princess Tower in particular, recognised officially by Guinness World Records as the world’s tallest residential building, Lester says: “Again you have a challenging design, you have a challenging construction process, it is a very tight site as well, and some very sensitive buildings such as La Reve Dubai Marina close by.
“One of the things we did at Princess Tower was we had a trailing screen system, so not only were we driving the core up with our world-class Lubeca self-climbing jump formwork system. This is technology which we have owned for about 12 years, so it has evolved over that period.
One of those aspects is the ‘jump lift’, using the rails. As we build, we put the lift rails into the core; we then hang a lift motor off the jump formwork, so that we have got high-speed access for labour and for materials up through the existing levels. When the building is finished, we change out the cab and the motors, but obviously the lift rails stay. Above 60 floors, moving labour and materials up and down is critical.
“We actually had the screens around the building following on, so what we were creating was a totally enclosed environment for the teams, and the building sort of extruded itself out of the bottom of the screens.
“Our systems approach is designed foremost with safety in mind, because our belief in our project experience in Australia is you can create the safest, most conducive environment for our people as a big contribution to their efficiency and productivity and satisfaction in terms of their jobs.
Commenting on Grocon’s involvement with World One in Mumbai, India, Lester says: “It is 117 floors, in a city which is pretty much a 15- to 20-floor city. World One really is a true combination of international thinking, so you have got Pei Cobb as the architect, Lair is the structural engineer, you have Buro Happold, and you have got Grocon advising. Developer Lodha is really forward thinking in terms of its aspirations.
We are advising on construction methodology, we have done site logistics, because you can imagine in Mumbai that is a huge issue, just getting the materials together on-site quick enough to be able to work. We have got our jumpform systems both on World One and its sister tower World Crest. It is a big site; nevertheless access through Mumbai is really a very challenging issue.
In terms of the difference between the construction industry in the UAE and in India, Lester says: “At the end of the day, you are working with the same labour force that is working here. It may be less experienced; it is slightly more transient.
Methodologies, logistics and safety have been our big contributions; that is critical for us. What I think is great is that when I go to Mumbai, now that the building is out of the ground and you can begin to see it coming through, first of all our cycle times are like nothing they have seen in India. It does not sound fast for here, but we are working a six- to seven-day cycle time in a market that is running typically at 14 to 18 days, so that is a huge saving.
“And the industry is beginning to comment on the quality, speed and efficiency of the workmanship, the safety and the organisation of the site, and I think what we are contributing to is creating a new standard for good execution in India, and that is creating a significant amount of interest, which is really good. If I was honest, it has been slower than I expected.
I think the industry wants us to prove that what we are doing really works. It is an industry where up until recently only about 10% of projects used any sort of systemised formwork, so you can imagine guys with 1m by 1m aluminium panels, bamboo and poles. It is a very, very cheap way of working.
“I think we have made such a step forward, we have leapt a generation of evolution here, that in fairness the industry is still watching and waiting to understand how to adapt some of the principles more broadly.
There are increasingly more developers like Lodha who want to create new standards of excellence in the Indian market. And there are some great companies: Shapoorji Pallonji, Omkar and are great organisations, and some of them like Larson & Toubro are working here [in the GCC].
They struggled a bit to take some of the ideas back home, so their interest in a company like Grocon could be the catalyst again to really make the more modern methods and technologies stick.
Turning to Grocon’s regional involvement, Lester says it was the preferred contractor for the Qatar National Bank Tower, a project that has “unfortunately been deferred due to questions where that building is going to be sited. We like Qatar.
I think at the moment there is not the momentum that everyone expected in Qatar yet. They want to build on the experience of West Bay and do a better job, which is understandable.
“Qatar has done a phenomenally successful PR campaign and has attracted just about all the best construction companies from around the world. You have significant supply and overcapacity, and it is a pipeline that has not really got the momentum that everyone has been talking about.
Nevertheless I am absolutely convinced there will be selected landmark projects where Grocon can play a big role. I am confident of that. We are not a company that tries to broadcast its presence; we are selective about those projects where we can really make a difference.”
In terms of its potential involvement in the 2022 World Cup build-up, Lester points out that Grocon has experience in building stadia, such as the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
“To build a stadium, particularly the sort that Qatar is talking about, which can be dismantled and recycled, is a really interesting concept. With modern thinking around modular construction and prefabrication, insightful use of steel and different composite materials, the fashion and evolution of stadium construction is moving very fast.
You can probably get those sorts of stadia up in 28 to 36 months, so why would you start [too soon] … The last thing Qatar wants is stadia built to five-year historic standards, and then sitting there for three to four years waiting for something to happen. You have to preserve and maintain them, and then end up with stadia that are not state-of-the-art.
“For sure, some of the true infrastructure – roads, power stations, rail and metro networks, the port and airport – obviously these are long-term projects. But some of the other projects, the building contracts, we will not see them start that quickly, because there is not the capacity to utilise the hotels or the stadia either.
I think we will not see them start for a while, and I do not think we should see them start for a while, because the worse thing would be to build stuff which then stands empty and unused, and then when it does come to be used, is out of date.
Lester says that while Grocon is interested in Saudi Arabia as a potential market, “we just have not found the right project to get involved in. In Saudi Arabia we have got to find a project and a developer as partner that shares our aspirations for doing something different and helps the industry evolve.”
Could the super-tall Kingdom Tower in Jeddah be such a project? “We bid with Saudi Oger. The feedback we got was that our submission was the best thought-out and the most advanced. The Saudi BinLadin Group (SBG) then came and financed 25% of the project, with a number for the construction and a timescale …
[We were told] we like this, it is really good, how do we take your technical capability and match it against SBG, and we said: First of all, we do not believe the price and the time, and Saudi Oger is not prepared to be a financial partner in the project itself. We have done our best, and we are proud of that. It is just a different business.
SBG is an extraordinary company and it has done some fantastic things. I still do not understand, and I guess time will tell, how they can aspire to build such a complicated building in the sort of timescale and at that price. They know their business.
And if there was an opportunity to work with SBG in the future, we would be absolutely delighted to.” Looking at the main challenges facing the construction industry, Lester says: “There is no doubt a need across the region to catch up with what we call social infrastructure – hospitals, schools, affordable housing.
There is a big lag. I do not think there is a shortage of capacity to be honest. What we have seen is some really good ideas and aspirations in that area, but those projects are not being signed off quickly enough. There are some great projects, but there is a lag between what is being created here and still what is needed, and those projects need to get going.
“I think the challenge is that there is still huge overcapacity here, and some of the companies have been agile enough to convert their expertise into infrastructure projects, which is great, and I think others are still concerned kind of about what it is, what their future looks like, so I think we need some consolidation in the industry.
“And then the financing continues to be a struggle. I think financing for public-sector projects needs to be resolved. You know, most iconic landmark projects that you see in this part of the world are financed out of the private sector, so until we can get that resolved, we will not see that much activity in those sort of landmark developments. They will come, because there is still a huge appetite for those projects. The aspiration has not died down at all.”
From a broader economic perspective, Lester says the region “must be doing really well. The oil price is good; volumes through the ports have never been higher; passenger numbers through the airports are excellent; trade volumes using Dubai or the UAE as a hub into Saudi Arabia, Iraq and some of the other markets are high, so there must be some sort of recovery.
For sure, we still have some troubles to sort out in the region such as in Yemen and Syria, where the majority of the stuff that is going on is much-needed social infrastructure such as housing, schools and hospitals. But again I think there will be a point where that aspiration for landmark buildings will develop … that is really exciting.
“I think it is an industry driven by innovation. We are constantly innovating and trying to find new and better ways of doing things. I think it is an industry that does enable you to move from market to market. You can take those experiences and introduce them to India. We can then take those experiences from India and work in Indonesia.
“I was educated in the UK. My qualifications are actually in accounting and corporate finance … I have come very late into the construction industry. I have worked for four fantastic companies in my career: in the 1980s I was with British Airways, in the 1990s I was with Whitbread, from 2000 to 2010 I was with Jones Lang Lasalle. So I have been just over two years with Grocon.
“Those companies have been really good in teaching you a lot about themselves and their industries, as they are all leaders in their sectors. One of the attractions of Grocon was that it is a head-and-shoulders leader in its sector in Australia, doing some great things with strong ambition overseas as well, and that is really what attracted me.
“I have been in the region for about seven years. I came here to start the Jones Lang Lasalle business. Looking back on that, it has been hugely successful, going from nothing in a short time to become the peer leader in its sector and maintaining that position.
“I think [the upturn] will still take a while. You have some very capable companies undertaking projects – ACC, Arabtec, Besix, Al Futtaim Carillion – those are all high-quality, high-calibre organisations.
“What really spurred Dubai in the early days was the opening up of Saudi Arabia. People lived and worked in Saudi Arabia and used Dubai as a hub. What is going to happen when Libya resettles and that market opens up?
These are mega-population markets where international companies will want to trade, but which will struggle to justify putting local market teams in place, so I think Dubai will have a sort of secondary resurgence of volume, and that then will be a job-creating recovery, generating employment-based growth.
“The Australian market is good, but it will not be good forever. The opportunity to come and work in these different markets is something that is very exciting. We learn a lot, from our partners and from the markets.”