It’s not just bricks and mortar — construction is a people’s business, says Gammon chief

Gammon Construction’s chief executive Thomas Ho has been named as winner of the Executive Award at the DHL/SCMP Hong Kong Business Awards for 2016.

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 November, 2016, 3:32pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 November, 2016, 6:22pm

Other winners from this year's DHL/SCMP Hong Kong Business Awards will be profiled in the week following the awards dinner on December 1.

From Central Hong Kong's Three Pacific Place to Cathy Pacific's airport terminal, Gammon Construction has left a permanent mark all over the city.

But surprisingly, its chief executive in the city Thomas Ho, first got into the construction industry almost by accident.

He stumbled upon Hong Kong Polytechnic's Building Technology and Management course, and admits he knew little about the industry – but thought it sounded interesting.

It was the start of Ho's career in Hong Kong's ongoing, and still rapid construction industry – beginning as an on-site engineer with local contractor Hsin Chong in 1978, before moving to Gammon in 1997, and then becoming chief executive in 2005.

His first boss Geoffrey Yeh, who he describes as a “visionary and passionate about training graduates”, made sure all its trainees spent as much time on-site as possible, to give them as full an understanding as possible of the processes.

But maybe more importantly, it gave Ho hands-on experience, of what was a highly competitive market in the time.

Nowadays, though, his working life is a far cry from any building site.

From his Quarry Bay office, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, he can actually see some of the company’s developments in Kwun Tong, an area of the city where huge skyscrapers jut out surrounding land above Victoria Harbour.

The room is packed with Chinese treasures, including a calligraphy painting that reads “safety is most important” and framed pictures of Gammon completed projects.

But Ho is still passionate about taking care of Gammon's 16,000 frontline workers and sub-contractors and, just as his calligraphy suggests, safety is his priority.

“If you are a parent, would you be sending your child to an industry that is going to kill you? That is not going to work. This is exactly why we put a huge effort into it. It’s a mental issue.”

The company has led numerous industry forums to discuss safety practises, and holds company-wide meetings for staff to share safety experiences.

He considers his persuading of the industry to push for steel instead of bamboo scaffolding as a major career success – but he and the highly progressive firm have pushed through other reforms too.

“No matter how big you are, you need to share your resources with others from the industry. In terms of safety, we definitely need to improve, on an industry-wide basis, rather than work alone.”

Hong Kong's construction sector’s ageing workforce has been another priority on his ‘to do’ list, he adds, with more than 41.45 per cent of the city’s 400,000 construction workers over 50 years old, and almost 14 per cent over 60, according to Construction Industry Council figures.

“Construction industry costs remain so high in Hong Kong, too, because of inefficiency and its ageing demographic.”

No matter how big you are, you need to share your resources with others from the industry. In terms of safety, we definitely need to improve, on an industry-wide basis, rather than work alone
Thomas Ho, chief executive of Gammon Construction

The answer to filling the gap, he adds, includes using the most popular developments possible, such as robotic arms and exoskeletons, that can help support the backs of workers.

“It’s not replacing them – you will still need workers on-site. But you do it smartly by helping them do things much easier.”

Of course, in such a vibrant market, over so many years, technology has had a strong impact on impact on the city’s industry.

As its buildings get smarter, greener and more intelligent, he adds, the construction industry’s technical know-how is still changing pretty slowly compared to the rest of the world.

“In Hong Kong we are still playing catch up. We try our upmost to monitor what’s going on globally, to see what we can do better.”

He calls this “mindful leadership”, and claims it gives the firm a strong edge over competitors.

“This is the secret of being successful: planning to always be ahead of the market.”

During his 11 years as chief executive, he has tried his utmost, he adds, to ensure he has the right people in the right job.

Over the next five years, he sees higher construction costs and a shrinking labour shortage as the main challenges, but he considers Hong Kong is still in what he calls “a golden era for construction”, he said.

“No matter who becomes the next chief executive [of Hong Kong], the city will suffer from a lack of land, and housing.”

Gammon has been “vigorously” considering whether it can grow into other regions, he says.

Whoever becomes the next chief executive [of Hong Kong], the city will suffer from a lack of land, and housing
Thomas Ho, chief executive of Gammon Construction

Its first project in Hong Kong was a new runway for the now unused Kai Tak Airport in 1955 and since it has completed hundreds of projects in China, and others in Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines.

But he adds he wants Gammon wants to be bigger, not just on its home turf.

“It has always been our vision to be a leader in Southeast Asia. But we have to ensure we don’t grow too fast.”

Safety is still his main priority: “it needs to be number one. You just cannot do it on your own – you have to have your whole team working together to make your company strong and big,” he said. “All companies should take care of their employee’s happiness.”

There have been numerous high-profile projects added to its resume during his time in charge, but Ho’s proudest moment is not a bridge, hotel or mall, but the development of its own people, he adds.

“It’s not just the big, big projects, but a project where we hand over to the customer and the customer says ‘thank you Thomas, thank you Gammon, you’re really adding value to us’,” he says, highligting the Gammon-built The Papillons in Tseung Kwan O, as a recent example as most of the flats were sold.

“This really is the thing I value most, however, is not just the size of the building or piece of infrastructure but that the customer is investing in what we do – as a contractor it’s value added that makes the customers happy.”