Let’s admit it shall we? There couldn’t have been many in the sector who really held out hope that a woman would be running the ship at a major contractor so soon could there? So the news that Anna Stewart has gone all the way to the top at Laing O’Rourke is worth marking big time, writes Denise Chevin.
In one way it might be surprising that the mould has been broken at the UK’s largest private contractor. But it shouldn’t be. Ray O’Rourke, who will remain executive chairman, doesn’t always want to shout about what he’s doing and therefore can appear rather traditional, but his firm has left its competitors trailing on many fronts. It’s embraced off-site construction and employment of direct labour and is at the vanguard of new technology, sponsoring professorships and research at top universities including Oxford and Cambridge and research in construction and engineering.
Stewart is not an outsider, of course, and earned her spurs at the £4.3bn contracting firm over many years. She started her career as a trainee quantity surveyor at Laing in 1982 having dropped out of a maths degree. And even before O’Rourke bought the contractor for £1 in 2001, Stewart’s card was marked for the top. Of late the 48-year-old Glaswegian has occupied the chief commercial and financial roles and has garnered a reputation for being a highly astute operator with a sharp antennae for containing costs and driving up margins.
She has the sort of safe pair of hands that any contractor would give their eye teeth for in this market. But sources say she’s also a moderniser too, a driving force in the firm’s harnessing of BIM and its move into new markets. Perhaps most importantly, compared with Tony Douglas, who was also being groomed for the top slot, she won’t be hogging the limelight either. “We won’t see a clash of egos,” as one observer put it.
So what can we expect with Stewart at the helm? Outwardly little change. We can still expect to see O’Rourke fronting up the firm with Stewart quietly getting on and delivering. Why now? Is the indefatigable Ray O’Rourke, now 65, looking to slow down? Shaping up to float when the market starts picking up? Or even preparing for the kind of audacious deal that got him into major contracting in the first place? At this stage one can only speculate.
Meanwhile, Stewart is unlikely to be an overt cheerleader for women in the sector. But the very fact she has landed such a high-profile role provides a much-needed visible role model for women coming through the ranks and very welcome reassurance that construction isn’t the boy’s club it once was.