Big Interview: Michael Conway - The head of the family

09/01/2020
Dominic Browne

As FM Conway closes in on its 60th birthday, Dominic Browne speaks to the man at the top, Michael Conway, about life in the hot seat, growing a family business and standing up for the sector.

The FM Conway headquarters in Sevenoaks is an impressive building. Two wings of glass sweep round to announce the company’s logo and motto on a proud frontage – ‘great people, great work’.

The firm does exactly what it says on the brickwork.

The company website tells how it all began in 1961 when Francis (Frank) Michael Conway ‘took the bold decision to replace his family car with a lorry’.

Raised in poverty in Northern Ireland, Frank came to Britain in 1943 and worked repairing airfields during the war. Afterwards, he worked on the roads with big contractors before taking the risk and setting up on his own. He started with four people. The company now has around 3,300 staff.

When the business was passed down to Frank’s son, Michael Conway, in 1981 it increased turnover to £1,000,000 in just four years. Although Mr Conway admits he had a bumpy start.

‘We took on a job that was completely outside our comfort zone putting in a subway in Waltham Forest. When you are a family business you expect to jump in. I was not born to be a civil engineer; I was a mechanical engineer. I never went to university, I went to college. When we had this job in Waltham Forest I had to jump in and learn things. We got through it all. And that really got me into the industry. Probably a baptism of fire. It addressed things very early on in my life. One thing I learned was that taking huge risks was not the way to run a business. Not in London anyway.’

A sensible approach to expansion while maintaining a much faster pace to innovation has been the strategy ever since – something which could make another motto for the company – along with a commitment to self-delivery.

‘Self-delivery is the hard road. It’s far easier to send a tender out to sub-contractors and pass the risk on to them but then you are giving away margin. I always felt at our level with what we were providing to councils the margin wasn’t there to give away and that is not what the council wanted. They wanted a situation where they know me and the foreman and the plant driver. So, communication is quite flat. I learned at an early age that if you can keep that communication flat and talk to people directly it can have a big influence. That model has not really changed. We just have got bigger and better at it.’

Mr Conway has a manner to suit this approach – equally at ease in the boardroom as getting his boots muddy on site. He has a friendly, down-to-earth persona that belies a sharp mind. As it is the festive season, you could picture Mr Conway being given some modern gadget for Christmas and wondering what on earth it is, then a moment later mastering it, then a moment after that using it to play a prank on the rest of the family.

As a shrewd businessman, Mr Conway keeps an eye on margins and only expands where and when it is possible to keep them. There is much to be admired in this strategy in the post-Carillion infrastructure market. Two good examples of the FM Conway approach can be found in asphalt production and recycling.

‘We started with no asphalt plants 10 years ago; we now have seven. There is no reason to think we won’t own more but I would like to grow organically so we identify the work and put an asphalt plant there.’

While the company has drainage and traffic management teams that work in the supply chain all over the country, when FM Conway operates as a Tier One client the work is in part linked to the asphalt plants.

‘To some extent, we work within areas around the plants but we also identify opportunities and gaps in the market,’ he says.

For instance, it has a strong base in the South East, particularly London – it has held the maintenance contract in Merton for some 40 years – and Mr Conway admits he would be unlikely to take work in the North of Scotland. However, the firm has won a place on Highways England frameworks in the West and East regions.

Another area of sensible expansion and fast innovation is recycling.

‘We import our bitumen and we do a huge amount of recycling. We don’t send much to landfill at all. We put our first recycling plant in about 18 years ago. We do aggregate recycling, so we take the “white” off – paving, kerbs, slabs and sub-base – and we will crush it and wash it and it will either go into type A, or aggregates for concrete.

‘Or, we use RAP (reclaimed asphalt pavement) which goes back into the asphalt. When we started doing that 10 years ago we had so much we didn’t know what to do with it. Now it’s a commodity. Our quarry is linear. We walk on it every day.

‘Our asphalt plants have twin drums instead of a single drum. So we have a drum to heat the RAP and a drum to beat the virgin aggregate; that’s what allows us to get the 80% RAP in the asphalt.’

When it comes to using rubber or plastic in roads, Mr Conway has looked at this but is happy to let others ‘cut their teeth on it’ and besides has enough to work on with RAP.

‘We have enough trying to put 50% RAP in. We did a job in Westminster where we put 80% in.’

FM Conway also did a job for Transport for London – which is thought to be the first time the transport authority used large quantities of RAP – laying an asphalt surface course containing 50% high PSV recycled aggregate, resurfacing over 20,000 metres on the A40 in west London.

On top of this FM Conway did a trial of 50% RAP on the M25 – thought to be the highest level in the strategic road network.

FM Conway’s safety record is also impressive, with the CONWAY AECOM joint venture enjoying three years without a reporting of injuries, diseases and dangerous occurrences regulations (RIDDOR) incident. A secret to this success is training as well as one of Mr Conway’s central pieces of advice to staff: ‘Get out on-site, talk to the people on the frontline and if they are not happy to get it sorted.’

Away from the frontline, Mr Conway is outspoken in his efforts to stand up for the sector. So, in no particular order:

  • Permit schemes are a ‘disaster’, and should not treat contractors the same as utilities, and could hold up the roll-out of fibre-optic broadband.
  • The reverse VAT changes coming in on 1 October 2020 [see Highways Aug/Sept, Legal – p56-57 and October, Legal – p62-64] will hit the supply chain hard and could see firms go bust.
  • The IR35 single status employee changes coming in next April run the risk of putting firms in financial trouble as well. If a self-employed worker only has jobs at one firm they could be deemed to not be self-employed and ‘because there is a shortage of staff, some people will take the risk and carry on employing these consultants etc. but the revenue will come to the employer for the back tax’.
  • The continued hits of the Apprenticeship Levy, the Construction Industry Training Board levy and the Aggregates Levy place an unfair burden on infrastructure that no other sector faces and it is disappointing the sector has taken this lying down
  • Set to come into force in 2021, the proposed immigration restriction of a minimum-salary requirement of £30,000 a year is a bad idea and could jeopardise the major infrastructure plans the country has.

After a short absence recently, it is good to have Mr Conway back in fighting form and in the highway sector’s corner. Any signs of retirement should be banished from your thoughts. ‘It’s a great business. I am happy with my lot. Right now, when I get up in the morning I want to come to work.’

Highways jobs

Surface Water Engineer

Essex County Council
£30001.0 - £35350 per annum
At Essex County Council, we're passionate about helping deliver economic growth, the best starts in life and the chance to age well for people in the England, Essex, Chelmsford
Recruiter: Essex County Council

Highways Operations Manager

Swindon Borough Council
Salary up to £41,494 p.a.
In this key role, you will plan, organise, co-ordinate and control the workforce Swindon, Wiltshire
Recruiter: Swindon Borough Council

Senior Engineer (Highways Maintenance Design)

Kirklees Metropolitan Council
£22,462 - £29,636
Are you looking for an opportunity to work as a Senior Engineer, whilst still being able to develop your career and have a good work-life balance? Kirklees, West Yorkshire
Recruiter: Kirklees Metropolitan Council

Highways Projects Engineer

Cambridgeshire County Council
£33,153 - £35,755
Looking for strong team players interested in working with a variety of professional and community partners across Cambridgeshire and... Cambridgeshire
Recruiter: Cambridgeshire County Council

Senior Heating Engineer

London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and London Borough of Wandsworth
Up to £48,692 per annum
Looking for a Senior Heating Engineer who will work as part of one of the small professional teams. London (Greater)
Recruiter: London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and London Borough of Wandsworth

Senior Traffic Management and Parking Engineer

North Yorkshire County Council
£34,788 to £42,683
Are your skills and experiences suited to a traffic and parking engineer position? Is project work something you enjoy doing? Northallerton, North Yorkshire
Recruiter: North Yorkshire County Council

Lead Practitioner (Infrastructure)

Newark & Sherwood District Council
£33,799 to £35,934 per annum
Newark and Sherwood is looking to recruit to its newly created post of Lead Practitioner for Infrastructure. Newark, Nottinghamshire
Recruiter: Newark & Sherwood District Council

Senior Parking Manager

Brent Council
£55,638 - £58,779 p.a. inc.
As Senior Parking Manager, you will be responsible for the effective management of the Council’s Parking Services contract Brentford (City/Town), London (Greater)
Recruiter: Brent Council

Highways Inspector

Hackney London Borough Council
£28,752 - £32,577
We are seeking an experienced Highways Inspector to join the Highways Team. Hackney, London (Greater)
Recruiter: Hackney London Borough Council

School Crossing Patrol

Brent Council
£21,591 - £22,377 p.a. inc. pro rata. (£11.50 per hour)
A school crossing patrol officer is responsible for assisting children to cross the road safely on their way to and from school. Brent, London (Greater)
Recruiter: Brent Council

Assistant Director - Environment

Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council
£82k per annum
Our Assistant Director – Environment will ensure clean, safe and attractive communities. Redcar, North Yorkshire
Recruiter: Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council

Traffic Engineering Team Leader

Telford & Wrekin Council
£39,782 - £42,683
This is an exciting opportunity to join Telford & Wrekin Council’s Network Management Team Telford, Shropshire
Recruiter: Telford & Wrekin Council

Street Lighting Client Officer

Enfield London Borough Council
£37,842 – £40,728
As a Street Lighting Client Officer, you will assist the Streetlighting Client Manager in managing the Council’s Street lighting Service Provider Enfield (City/Town), London (Greater)
Recruiter: Enfield London Borough Council

Pest Control Officer

Brent Council
£26,745 - £28,725 p.a. inc.
Brent Council's Pest Control and Hygiene service continues to see a growing demand in its pest control services. Brentford (City/Town), London (Greater)
Recruiter: Brent Council

PCN Appeals Officer

Brent Council
£26,745 - £30,711 p.a. inc.
We are looking for an experienced parking professional to join the Notice Processing Team Brentford (City/Town), London (Greater)
Recruiter: Brent Council

Citizen & Consumer Protection Team Manager - Trading Standards

Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council
Band H, SCP 38-43 (£40,760 - £45,591 per annum) (£21.13 - £23.63 per hour)
We have an exciting opportunity to recruit to the position of Citizen & Consumer Protection Team Manager Sandwell, West Midlands
Recruiter: Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council

Key Route Network Manager

Liverpool City Region
£63,753 - £71,747
An exciting new opportunity has arisen within the Integrated Transport Directorate of the LCR Combined Authority Liverpool, Merseyside
Recruiter: Liverpool City Region

Community and Environmental Support Officer

Kirklees Metropolitan Council
£19,554 - £21,166
Community and Environmental Support Officers have one of two main focuses; Community Safety or Environmental. Kirklees, West Yorkshire
Recruiter: Kirklees Metropolitan Council

Assistant Director

Hammersmith & Fulham London Borough Council
£92,826 - £111,231
This is an ideal opportunity for an expert waste management professional to make a real impact and to lead the service to outstanding. Fulham, London (Greater)
Recruiter: Hammersmith & Fulham London Borough Council

Partnership Director (Fixed Term for 2 years)

Tactran
£79,165 - £83,020
An exciting opportunity has arisen for the post of Partnership Director for the Tayside & Central Scotland Transport Partnership (Tactran). Perth, Perth and Kinross
Recruiter: Tactran

Highways on Fridays

Register now!

Latest Issue

latest magazine issue

Valuing our roads: What is a network worth?

Also inside:

Traffex review 

Diary of a flood.

Beautiful roads

Live Labs exclusive briefing 

View the latest issue

Latest Video