Passing the torch

AS CEF Managing Director, John Armstrong, prepares to step down, NI Builder talks to the man who has led the Federation for almost 15 years...

John Armstrong has been Managing Director of the CEF since 2006.

Having been at the helm of CEF since 2006, Managing Director, John Armstrong, is preparing to retire at the end of October. Before he leaves, we sat down with John to look back on his time at the Federation and his hopes for the future.

Q: As the Federation reaches 75-years, how does it feel to be stepping down?

A: It’s hard to believe that the Federation is 75 years old. One of the things I’ve always believed that what separated us from other organisations is that from the outset the Federation represented not just the interests of the industry, but also those engaged within it. Initially that was through the provision of holiday pay for construction workers, which evolved over the years into the development of retirement benefits and eventually modern pensions, alongside schemes such as the Construction Skills Register and Safe-T-Cert, our health and safety management system.

For my own part, it has been a wonderful career here at the CEF, simply because of the variety of work and the people you get to work with. Construction is a fantastic and diverse industry. In Northern Ireland we have huge potential and construction is key to that not just in its own right but literally as the “foundation” of our future economic prosperity. I hope in some small way to have helped the industry generate prosperity during my time at the Federation.

Q: How did you join the CEF?

A: I joined the organisation in 1997, working in what was then the Construction Export Group. When that finished, I was fortunate enough to be invited to take on a marketing role within the Federation by my predecessor, Tony Doran. Tony (who sadly died at the start of the year) was a great mentor to me and I owe a lot to him.

Two or three years later, I was appointed a Deputy Director and then Managing Director in 2006 – the rest, as they say, is history!

Q: What have been the highlights of your time?

A: There have been a lot but one I am especially proud of is the Federation’s work in helping to improve health and safety in the industry. Twenty years ago, we experienced a lot of serious accidents and indeed fatalities, but through a number of initiatives such as the Safe-T-Cert (our health and safety management system) and the Construction Skills Register and in co-operation with industry partners, government departments and the Trade Unions we have seen dramatic improvements in our industries health and safety record. The construction industry in Northern Ireland produces some truly excellent work.

Another highlight of my time was starting and developing the Construction Excellence Awards with the aim of getting wider recognition for that excellence. Our first Awards evening at the Balmoral Conference Centre attracted an audience of about 100 people. Now the Awards (which celebrated their 20th anniversary last year) have grown beyond all recognition attracting huge interest and large audiences to the annual gala evening. The Awards have become the premier event in the local construction calendar with companies hugely enthusiastic to get involved and to showcase the excellence of their work.

The CEF Construction Excellence Awards celebrates its 20th anniversary last year.

Q: What still needs to be done?

A: There is always plenty to be done. Given the proportion of work for the industry that comes from the public sector, one of the great fears we have right now in the context of the Covid pandemic is that money already earmarked for infrastructure by government won’t be spent by the end of the current year and will have to be returned to the Treasury. It would be criminal if that was to happen and a huge embarrassment for both the NI Assembly and Executive.

Another thing we would love to see is a more streamlined planning system. Of course, any planning system has to be accountable, but at the same time, we have to be mindful that if an investor can get a much quicker planning decision in say the North East of England or Scotland, then where are they more likely to invest?

Another real danger we currently face for the future is that our housing supply needs are potentially being blocked because of capacity issues in our wastewater infrastructure. We have been working to support NI Water in making the case for additional funding as this issue is so critical to the economy and the entire community in Northern Ireland. What people need to understand is that it’s not just housing developments that will have to stop, it’s schools, hospitals, commercial developments and other infrastructure that simply cannot be built if the wastewater infrastructure isn’t there.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: Providing Covid allows, I’m hoping to do some travelling with my wife, Elsie. We’ve been married 27 years and now we’ve both retired, we’re looking forward to more trips away. I’m also an avid aviation enthusiast. I am a member of the Ulster Aviation Society and the proud owner of a dormant pilot’s license, so I’ll be reimmersing myself in that world and hope to get back to some flying if I can!

Q: Any advice for your successor, Mark Spence?
A: First of all I’m delighted that Mark is taking over and I wish him the very best for the future. We have always been very proud of the family ethos that is here at the Federation, and that’s something I hope that he will continue. I am sure Mark will do a fantastic job for the Federation and the industry.

As for advice, it’s about steadily chipping away with a consistent message. Very few issues will change seismically overnight, they evolve gradually and they change. But, by maintaining close contact with the influencers and decision makers in government and other client bodies and steadily pushing for progress on the issues, you gradually get the improvements we are looking for. In many ways the fact that the CEF is celebrating its 75th anniversary is a testament to that approach.