In conversation with Carillion’s Tom Robinson

This week edie talks to Carillion's Tom Robinson about the transition towards local solutions in the construction and infrastructure sector and the challenges of being a sustainability professional.

What area will you be focusing on next in terms of sustainability?

The carbon challenge remains constant for us both with our own use of fuel and energy, but more importantly helping to address the same challenges for our customers. We are aiming to have a renewed big drive forward with our supply chain partners next.

What are the major changes you see happening in your industry?

I see moves towards more local solutions with our public sector customers and an increasing focus on community and social impacts. Add to this the continued move towards innovation through integrated systems and technology (e.g. Building Information Modelling).

What are the challenges for someone in your position?

The challenges are around getting everyone in our 42,000 strong organisation in 3 continents aligned with what we want to achieve and then all progressing forwards across a common set of goals and targets. It starts with commitment from the Chief Executive and a clear and regularly reinforced vision and strategy. With the strategy in place we have developed that into a plan with specific targets and measures that form part of people’s objectives to deliver. This is managed through performance review at both business and individual level. Beyond the management levels we have a host of different people engagement approaches to make sure that everyone understands what sustainability means to them and how they contribute – our Annual Sustainability Week and S Factor Awards are great examples of our engagement.

What motivates you?

Achievement and improvement motivates me. I get a real kick out of seeing the successes and outcomes of people’s efforts becoming reality. That’s why the production of our Annual Sustainability Report is so important to me as it allows us to reflect and gain renewed energy from the things we have achieved.

What’s the most exciting part of your job?

Meeting people with a real passion for sustainability and seeing the impact they have had is most rewarding. For example, at Carillion we have an annual S-Factor competition, which recognises achievements in sustainability throughout the business. We have just had our 2013 Annual Sustainability Week (it coincides with World Environment Day) and the quantity and quality of activity taking place across the group was inspiring. It was a motivating week for everyone involved and really captured a team spirit and shared ethos.

What green innovation do you think can revolutionise the economy?

I think it’s a tall order to identify a single innovation that will transform the economy – however, I do believe in the whole new green economy emerging around energy efficiency and retrofit in our existing building stock. Obviously we have made a strategic commitment to this and therefore have a vested interest in its success but the outcomes will be broad based and hopefully wipe-out fuel poverty and positively impact in many other socio economic ways. The pioneering Birmingham Energy Savers model is a great example of this in practice.

What’s the current big focus for the environment?

I think there is so much more to do around waste, efficient use of resources and the development (where reduction has been exhausted) of closed loop cycles to bring waste back into the chain for reprocessing.

What tips or advice would you give to newly appointed sustainability professionals?

Make sure there is a clear vision and that people understand what it means to them. Use the language of the audience (not sustainability jargon) so they understand. Listen to feedback and respond by helping. Do your best to magnify your influence by finding common ground with people – don’t preach. Be passionate and care about the outcomes.

What do you like most about your job?

The aspect that I like most about my job is that the outcomes I am seeking to achieve do not have a downside. It’s such a positive field in which to be operating – as long as we continue to push forward and improve we are making a big positive impact.

What’s the worst aspect of your job?

That it is necessary.

What do you think the future has in store for the green economy?

I think that social value will be on the rise. I think that western economies will find it hard to return to high growth and that will lead to a change in mindset which will drive the prioritisation of a reconnection with people and communities. If this transpires – it may also support more collaboration with the higher growth economies with a view to helping them learn from some of the wasteful growth mistakes that western economies made during the boom periods of the last century.

What period of time would you visit if you had access to a time machine?

Good grief – what a frightening thought. I certainly wouldn’t want to go backwards as I think we can learn without the need to personally experience it. I also think it is quite pessimistic going forwards in time when you haven’t yet finished your part in influencing the present. If we haven’t done our bit yet – what’s the point of looking at the future? What we can achieve in our lifetime may make the future a whole lot brighter than if we just fast forward there.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

There is lots to be proud of contained within our 2012 Annual Sustainability Report but I guess the achievement that makes me most proud is that from a standing start in 2012 the environmental initiatives that we commenced as a result of our strategy contributed a net £10m to our profit. For me this represents a profound endorsement of the business case for sustainability and also shows how the three pillars can be balanced to work in harmony.

If you could go back in time, who would you like to meet?

Charles Darwin.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Waste not want not.

Worst advice?

You can’t change the world.

What’s your top tip for employee engagement?

Engagement works best when communication with employees is accessible and relevant (e.g. whether it is spoken or written it needs to be jargon free and be something they can identify with). Better still if you can find the “feel-good factor” by making it fun or benefit something that the employee(s) care about.

What state do you see the planet in in 30 years?

I have to remain optimistic that we will have found global ways of working together within the constraints of our planet tackling poverty, population, food, water, energy etc.

What do you say to the climate change sceptics?

Even if you’re right – what’s the downside of supporting the actions of those who believe in climate change?

What’s been your biggest win (environmentally)?

I am pleased that we are successfully driving down waste both at the absolute level and diverting more of the waste we do produce from landfill at the same time. Globally in 2012 we diverted 86% of our waste away from landfill and we are pushing to achieve 100% by the end of 2015.

If there was one word you could remove from the English language what would it be?


Books or kindle?

It’s still books for me at the moment. I get the whole electronic paperless thing and instinctively support it – but I am not an early adopter of technology and I worry about the speed at which technology is becoming obsolete.

Tom Robinson is Carillion’s chief sustainability officer

Read last week’s interview ‘In conversation with Aviva’s Zelda Bentham’

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