From the John and Mike show to the InfraSol way - 10 years in the making

To celebrate 10 years of InfraSol this week, we sat down with our founding directors John Barrow and Mike Flynn to talk about their experiences in the industry and the company, how InfraSol came about and their hopes for its future.

Where did you meet? What were your first impressions of each other?

JB: Mike and I met as first year civil engineering undergraduates at Adelaide University in 1973. After getting to know him, Mike seemed to me an easy-going, knockabout bloke from the country who enjoyed a beer. It was a long time ago!


MF: True. First year however was a large mix of new people for me as lectures in some subjects were a mix of faculties with purely Engineering components bringing us together several times a week. Living in a university college was ‘home away from home’ so I don’t really recall meeting John until second year- practical’s, survey camp and the like. 


JB: We attended the same lectures, concrete laboratories and other three-hour ‘prac’ sessions where we would have, worked together.


MF: Through that second year I sat up the back of the lecture theatre whereas he was paying attention at the front.


JB: I’m not sure that statement is correct, it was much more towards the middle. I wasn't THAT conscientious.


MF: Let’s just say he performed well in results, me not so. Accordingly, I left Adelaide Uni in 1975 and transferred to the University of SA in northern Adelaide. I did however keep in close social contact with my year group and that was actually when I recall meeting John. He was linked up with some of my closer friends. 


JB: After Uni, our careers diverged and we both 'emigrated' from South Australia to eventually find ourselves in Sydney where we socialized again with a group of Adelaide 'expatriates' and began to work together professionally.


MF: By that point it was the late 80s. John came across to me then as professional, considered and far more widely experienced than I. More sophisticated – into ‘developments’ where as I was into ‘delivery’.

How did you get your first position out of university?

JB: When I completed my degree at the end of 1976 there was a recession in Australia, so my first job was as a works supervisor for the SA government’s (Don Dunstan’s) unemployment relief scheme – my team of labourers and I installed fairly basic recreational facilities in schools. Then, in early 1977, I was offered a temporary position at Adelaide Uni as a tutor for two terms. One day in August 1977, I walked into Coffey and Partners’ Adelaide office at Mile End and was interviewed by the Adelaide manager. He phoned his counterpart in Sydney and the following Monday I was on a plane to Sydney where I commenced my first professional job. I was away!


MF: I went home to Mount Gambier for 4 months and worked for a fencing contractor. I returned to Adelaide to hunt for work, with little idea on what I wanted to do. Through an uncle who worked in the front bar of the Marion Hotel I was introduced to Jack Coulter, the Earthworks Superintendent for Baulderstone Crawford JV, who were contracted to deliver 232km of the 800km Tarcoola to Alice Springs railway, the current day Ghan Railway. Interview went like this:


Can you take levels? Yes. 


Can you buy a pint? Er, yes. 


Be at the airport at 6am Monday; I was hired!

What made you want to start your own company? How did it come about that you and Mike decided to start one together?

JB: I obtained my MBA in 1983 and worked for large professional services firms for many years. I needed a change and decided I wanted greater flexibility and control over my career but also my life more generally. I resigned my employment at the end of 2004 with no clear plan – which I don’t recommend – and took some time off (my accrued long service leave) to consider my options.


MF: I had been working for major contracting firms for over twenty years and had done a wide range of projects in some great parts of Australia. By 1998 I had had enough of being in the ‘service industry’, with little control on your destiny so, together with my wife Gloria we established our own company FES. Over the next 3 years as a salaried officer of the NSW Government and through a series of individual contracts with FES, I crossed paths with Robert Rust, another university friend and John many times.


JB: By that point I had started my own business providing professional project management services for quite some time. When Mike’s and my paths crossed on a couple of those major projects, we decided that there would be synergies in teaming up. It also gets a bit lonely on your own and it is great to have someone to talk with and to share challenges and opportunities.


MF: Collectively with Rob, we felt that combined we could offer a range of services at more economical rates for clients; and three collectively is more efficient and effective that three individuals. Together, we had a wide set of connections and could offer clients a set of complementary skills. John did a lot of the leg work and Gloria established the financial framework. In the end Robert left after 6 weeks to establish NSW Health Infrastructure - a 5 year contract in the days of the GFC – so in the end InfraSol effectively was only ever the John and Mike show.

What were the most important things to you when starting InfraSol? What kind of company did you want it to be?

MF: I think establishing shared values and an identity. I wanted to get more into project planning and procurement, leveraging off significant prior experiences and to influence outcomes with clients. And in fact, that is identified in our tag line Achieving Outcomes. Some years later we introduced Sustainable. 


JB: The most important thing? Survival I guess – to justify my decision. However, at no time did I doubt my decision and my memories are positive ones – I think we had a good time and the adrenalin was flowing with the challenges of winning and doing work. Mike and I spent a lot of time commuting and working in Brisbane and travelling interstate more generally in order to find work.


I didn’t have any real end plan for the business except to see where fate would take us. The main thing was to work hard and enjoy the challenges of building the business.


MF: I wanted to continue getting involved with high profile public infrastructure projects; projects of importance, so we were not a ‘services orientated company’. Rather, ours was a group that engaged people, delivered frank and fearless advice, publicly supported the client and informed them when and how we could change the baton and move on.


JB: I do recall saying to Mike that I didn’t want InfraSol to become too big (i.e. a Lendlease). There was little chance of that as Mike and I were in our early 50s when we started the business. I do, however, have great admiration for people who have the skills to build large businesses from scratch.


MF: Our vision of the Company has always been one with flexibility for its participants, nimble in responding to opportunities, based on collaboration and retaining integrity all the way through our relationships.

How have you seen the industry change? How have you adapted?

JB: I think the industry is basically the same as when we established the company but in the current economic climate I can see some subtle and not so subtle changes or threats.


MF: Agreed. The major industry changes have been driven by the various State economies with NSW being in the doldrums through to 2011, with the occasional burst whilst Queensland was pumping. We commuted to Brisbane and worked hard and were rarely without commission. That stopped rapidly with the January 2011 SE Queensland floods but NSW had really started to pick up for us and we got heavily into North West Rail Link and other Sydney based projects


From 2011 we converted the company into an employee based organisation and over the following years to 2014 progressively transfered to being primarily employees and limited contractors.


JB: Another thing we’ve seen is the small to medium business part of the industry there is now this almost continuous cycle of creation and absorption/destruction. So, there will be opportunities as the industry participants in the advisory part of the industry change.


MF: When it comes to the public sector, reform has been an opportunity and a disaster. The leadership has become more process driven thus indecisive and less market wise. The response to the loss of the ‘knowledge base’ has been one of ‘bums on seats’. InfraSol did not ever set out to be a body hire organisation, rather quality staff with professionalism before quantity and ‘clipping the ticket’ just to make money. Whilst our current structure is too ‘top heavy’, driven by a plan to diversify service offerings, we are now looking to grow the lower levels to bring us back to a sustainable balance.


JB: That said, I believe quality people and the strategic advisory sector – where I like to think InfraSol has its focus – will always find opportunities, in particular in the economic bust which will inevitably come. But it will be ‘happy days’ for a while yet.

What has been your most memorable experience in the last 10 years?

MF: Our collective response to the January 2011 Brisbane floods. David Griffin was immediately seconded out of Cross River Rail to work for the Director General, David Stewart and we had John backfilling to continue to support that project for the next 18months. John became a strong advocate, staying through to the close down directed by Premier Newman.


JB: My most memorable and satisfying project with InfraSol was the New Entrance and Indigenous Galleries Project at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. A good and appreciative client, a good team of people, focused and dedicated to quality outcomes and, of course, the great end product achieved. If you haven’t been there, you should visit this wonderful gallery.


MF: Publicly, our memorable projects as a company are Barangaroo Headland Park business case and procurements (2010-12), the launching of the North West Metro project (2011-14) and ‘rescuing’ the expansion of National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (2010).

What are you most proud of?

MF: Our capacity to manage and respond to change, and that includes within ourselves as the founding Directors. We have steadily embarked on change of InfraSol by getting others into the ownership and giving them a seat at the decision table. A significant participant has been John McKay in this whole process commencing as our NED and board chairman in 2012. I am confident that the emerging leadership group, along with the minor shareholding employees, have the capacity to lift InfraSol to a new level. I am also proud of those that have worked with us and subsequently moved to their own new ventures.


JB: Yes, it’s been gratifying to see the new Directors who have joined the company in the last few years take the company forward from the base that Mike, Gloria and I established. I am confident they will continue to grow the company with quality people and realise its full potential.

How do you envision the next 10 years of InfraSol? What are you looking forward to?

JB: As I will be retiring from InfraSol in the not too distant future, I am looking forward to witnessing the growth and evolution of the company. I am delighted the company will remain in good hands and know it will go from strength to strength, especially in the current economic climate in NSW.


MF: Within that climate, I would expect the next phase of InfraSol will be far more closely aligned to the technological world than what we currently are. Our emerging leaders and participants have an appetite and hunger to be agile and effective. I look forward over the next few years to passing on all batons, supporting the leaders as they interchange roles and responsibilities and most importantly seeing a continuation of collaboration, transparency and integrity; the values that underpin our Company.


JB: Absolutely. I leave InfraSol with no regrets, knowing that what Mike and I have achieved has exceeded our expectations when we started the company 10 years ago.