Emma-Jane Houghton, the commercial delivery director for Heathrow’s expansion programme, is passionate about championing a different commercial response for 21st century infrastructure investment. She spoke to Andy Walker about her plans.
Straight-talking Emma-Jane Houghton is passionate about her job and someone determined to make a difference to the way that major projects are procured in the UK. As the person leading the commercial delivery of the Heathrow expansion programme, she is in pole position to pioneer a different approach to commercial strategy and procurement and to champion it.
“We are really engaging with the market to inform our commercial strategies, asking for input where expertise exists to inform how we should approach this and where the commercial risk sits,” says Houghton. “We are discarding hierarchical supply chain thinking and evaluating supplier networks so that we get the very best of suppliers and advisors to respond to the delivery complexities and risks that we have,” she explains.
Houghton has a steely determination to do things differently for the benefit of everyone who works on the Heathrow project. Collaboration is key to the approach she and her team will adopt. “We are approaching this as a capable owner where we will have different types of commercial models to reflect the delivery risk and complexities from one package to another, so it’s not a ‘one size fits all’ approach,” she says. The project will also embrace digital, putting it at the heart of everything and invest time and energy in monitoring and measuring suppliers to ensure that the project really does realise important regional benefits for the UK. “We are going to track data so that we can see that we have involvement from SMEs and we will streamline procurement in a way that is meaningful for both us and for our future potential suppliers and partners,” Houghton says.
"We are approaching this as a capable owner where we will have different types of commercial models to reflect the delivery risk and complexities from one package to another, so it's not a 'one size fits all' approach."
Emma-Jane Houghton, commercial delivery director, Heathrow expansion programme
It is clear that Houghton’s untypical background - she has a music degree rather than a construction degree - is relevant to the collaborative approach she is pioneering. “When I worked at T5 as my first job in the industry, I was surrounded by construction professionals in a team and I was so lucky that I was invested in left right and centre. It was wonderful and because of that good start and those wonderful people, from contractors, sub-contractors as well as from client organisations, it built confidence in me that I had something to add and I have always felt that I want to give something back to this brilliant sector that I care about so much,” she tells me.
As someone who has worked in a range of roles in the industry – as sub-contractor, contractor, QS, and latterly doing big four consulting work advising infrastructure boards – Houghton believes she has the experience to understand procurement from different levels. “Now, as a client, I can draw on all of that experience. I’m in charge of designing a fit for purpose model and that’s what I am on a crusade to do,” she says.
Houghton’s passion and enthusiasm shines through during our conversation and she is crystal clear about why she is taking such a pioneering approach. “Because I know it’s what will work,” she says. “I’m excited by the challenge that I see at Heathrow expansion and I know that it is absolutely necessary if we are to meet all of our delivery challenges and deliver on our broader socio-economic objectives. It is the commercial model and the market and supplier engagement that makes all of this happen. We can say all the aspirational stuff we want, but if we don’t engage with our partners and suppliers in the right way and incentivise the performance around the risk that we have got, then none of it ever happens.”
So far, the reaction from those partners and suppliers has been very positive. “I have done some market engagement with ACE and CECA and we’re building a very big network of all of the trade associations to get access to suppliers in the right way. We have had fantastic feedback and the market is excited about bringing their innovation and investment to collaboratively look at the delivery challenges that we have,” says Houghton.
According to Houghton, suppliers on Heathrow expansion will be working on a project that will enable them to do what they do best and one that will eschew the tried and failed methods of the past. “Typically, the industry has had contracts where a lot of risk has been placed on the contractor and it’s been their problem to sort it out when it shouldn’t be. In the past, we’ve engaged them late in the process, they can’t really help us design what we should be buying and they end up inheriting something that is not really fit for purpose - and so in part they have to build into the way that they deliver, mitigating and managing that mess. What I am doing is creating the right environment so that partners and suppliers can bring the best of what they do to bear on this programme, be truly successful and gain a legacy from that,” says Houghton.
"I am determined to champion that there is a different way of designing a commercial response to infrastructure investment. We can do this in a much smarter way."
It’s a strong message and if Houghton’s passion, desire and enthusiasm are any guide, then you sense that she will succeed in her aims to transform procurement. “I am determined to champion that there is a different way of designing a commercial response to infrastructure investment. We can do this in a much smarter way, she says.
Houghton wants to see her approach copied by other major projects. “If it isn’t, I will feel like I have failed because I won’t have proven that the model works. Part of me being successful is that this becomes the exemplar for how you do infrastructure delivery,” she says.