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How China’s CCCI can help build a stronger Aecon

Joe Barr is CEO of John Holland.

Australia and Canada share many similarities, which is why I've been watching with interest some of the recent commentary on the proposed sale of Aecon Group Inc. to the Chinese state-owned CCCI.

Much of the concern over the deal is very emotive and doesn't reflect the experience of other international companies acquired by CCCI.

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How do I know that? I'm chief executive of John Holland, one of Australia's leading construction companies – a company much like Aecon – that was acquired by CCCI in 2015.

Similar to the Canadian reaction, the acquisition of John Holland was met with mixed views among Australians. John Holland is a proud Australian company with a long history behind nation-building projects such as Parliament House, major freeways, railways and iconic defence, arts and health infrastructure.

So, two years on, what does Chinese ownership of John Holland look like? How has the CCCI ownership affected the way we operate and our role in Australia?

Let's start with what hasn't changed. Before our acquisition by CCCI, all of the top management positions in the company were held by Australians. We're well into our second-year postacquisition and all of our executive leadership team is Australian. In fact, I joined the company as CEO after the CCCI acquisition because it was made crystal clear to me that our Chinese owners understood that the best people to run and operate the company are the people who understand and know the local market – Australians. They also made it clear that they weren't interested in micromanaging us. The relationship is one of empowerment. They set long-term growth goals for our team and it has been up to us to devise the strategies to meet them.

And grow we have. Our revenues have gone from $2.7-billion at the time of our acquisition and increased by almost $1-billion this year, and we're on track to double the size of our business (from 2015 levels) by 2020. In fact, we're hiring 100 new employees – 100 Australians – every month, and will be for the next 15 months.

Since our change of ownership, we've won major new infrastructure projects, such as a seven-year extension of our contract to operate Melbourne's trains, new rail tunnels under Sydney Harbour and a P3 project to build Australia's largest correctional facility. A key to this Australian expansion has been the access to capital that the CCCI relationship affords us. Without this access, we would not be able to compete against the large offshore multinationals bidding for infrastructure work in Australia – a competitive reality that is also pervasive in Canada. Our new owners have ensured we have the capacity and capital to bid on the very significant pipeline of work currently in Australia, ensuring that the high-paying, in-house engineering work that goes with these contracts can stay right here in Australia. We've also been able to win that work because we've kept the trust of our (mostly government) clients and our partners, including some of the largest construction firms in the world.

Our CCCI relationship has enabled us to begin expanding outside of Australia. We've established a Southeast Asia Regional Office focused on rail and tunnel projects throughout the region and we're part of a winning consortium to build a new rapid-transit line in Singapore. This has opened up exciting new opportunities for our Australian work force to travel and work overseas, then come back to Australia with new skills.

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Safety and governance are as big a focus for us as they were before the acquisition. Our work in the community and focus on the eventual end-users of our infrastructure has increased – we are the only major Australian contractor with a customer-experience division and the first construction company to join the Qantas Future Planet program.

Obviously, I can only speak from my own experience leading John Holland, but for us, our new ownership has taken the business in a stronger and more positive direction, which has been better for our employees, our clients and the communities where we're creating jobs and opportunities.

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