When Ross Taylor was shoulder-tapped in October 2017 to lead Fletcher Building some observers suggested it was the toughest job in corporate New Zealand.

The wiry Australian was called in to repair the construction giant’s shattered frame after it lost nearly a billion dollars on big projects including the International Convention Centre and Commercial Bay in Auckland.

Then, just when the business was looking like it was back on an even keel, along came Covid.

Most people know Taylor from his no-nonsense media conferences when he’s had to deal with questions from staff lay-offs to wage subsidies to contract insurance.

But he also has a personal side and it’s interesting to discover what makes him tick.

The father of four and Manly/Parnell resident says he recently watched the Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet blockbuster “The Holiday”, but “Notting Hill” remains his favourite movie.

He concedes his family mocks him for being a fan of the films like the recently watched romantic comedy set in Los Angeles and England, two women escaping ho-hum lives by exchanging homes, finding delightful and unexpected new romance along the way.

Ross Harold Taylor, a civil engineer with first-class honours from Queensland University, doesn’t care. He laughs and shrugs. “Letters To Juliet”, with Amanda Seyfried, is another favourite: “These are happily ever after. I get derided by my children.”

From the top floor of Fletcher Building HQ, 810 Great South Rd, he heads a staff of around 16,000 here, in Australia and the Pacific and securely admits: “I love romcoms!”

Nancy and Harold Taylor raised Ross and Gary at Arana Hills 12km outside Brisbane “and my father worked on irrigation dam sites as a driller so he was out in the country”. His parents split up early in his life.

“My mother worked in jobs when we were growing up because Dad left early on and had little to do with our childhood. Mum was amazing. She looked after the two of us and worked as a teacher aide during the day and for two nights a week worked the late shift in a bakery.”

He went to Grovely State primary and in 1972, then Mitchelton State High where in mathshe met wife-to-be Kathy, two years older than him.

“She admired my equations. I was very good at maths. She was one of the 10-pound Poms who came out to Australia from England. We dated at the end of school, split up for a year or two then bumped into each other again at a party. Love blossomed and in 1985, I was married at the age of 23.”

The couple have four children: Jessica, 31, lives in London; Lachlan, 29, is a social worker in the Northern Territories; Rachel is in her 20s and lives in Sydney; and Callum, also in his 20s, is about to leave Australia to live in London to join a Spanish girlfriend.

The Taylors are adventurer holidaymakers, touring Africa, South America and even the Antarctic. He tells of he and Kathy “bribing” or “conning” the kids into holidaying with them by picking irresistibly adventurous options including African safaris, skiing and walking in Patagonia and Chile.

A boat trip to the Antarctic saw them encountering seas swelling up to 15m, being physically lifted by the force while lying flat in beds, “cabin staff crawling down passageways to leave trays of food outside the door.”

After uni, Taylor’s first job was in Brisbane with design engineers John Wilson & Partners, then he joined Lend Lease as a site engineer from 1985 to 1987.

“If you asked me just out of uni, my ambition was to get a good job in Queensland and live happily ever after. When you move around the world a lot, you get a bit disconnected and you step back and ask where do you really want to live? I’m more connected with Sydney but in the State or Origin, I still go for Queensland.

“Sydney is great in terms of scale, amenity, a lot to offer climate. Auckland is a bit similar and also in terms of culture and opportunity and what’s available. Where New Zealand pips Sydney or Australia is you don’t have to go far to get out of the city, to really, really beautiful country and walks. You’ve got to go a lot further in Australia. The natural beauty in New Zealand, you just can’t beat.”

When he and nurse/midwife Kathy decided to move to London in 1987, they flew to Zimbabwe then drove across the continent on safari, “rough living for six months. I wouldn’t do it now. You’d be kidnapped.”

He worked for Nico Construction then they returned to Sydney where he spent nearly 21 years with Lend Lease, rising to group chief operating officer, working in Melbourne, in Brisbane including developing Sunshine Plaza at Maroochydore and working in Singapore and London.

After joining unlisted engineering business Tenix in Sydney in 2009 he became its CEO, then became CEO of ASX-listed international engineering and services company UGL (formerly United Group Ltd), taken over by the Spanish CIMIC in 2016.

Taylor certainly wasn’t intending to join Fletcher and definitely not move to Auckland but the connection came via Kate Spargo, on UGL and Fletcher boards “and she mentioned it to me”. He then talked to chairman Sir Ralph Norris “and I thought I really want this job. You’ve got to be all-in”.

When he joined in 2017, he found a business left by ex-CEO Mark Adamson in need of change so from Sydney in winter 2018, he launched a five-year turnaround strategy, cutting staff and costs, enduring Covid lockdowns, selling less profitable arms, streamlining existing operations, cutting dividends and exiting vertical high-rise where losses of nearly $1b were recorded over a two-year period.

Taylor’s strategy has succeeded to the point where in the latest half-year to December 31, 2020 the company exceed its own forecast by earning 47 per cent more operating profit than in the 2019 first-half, up from $219m to $323m.

His worst time with Fletcher was:

• In 2018, a man aged in his 30s was killed at Fletcher Easysteel, Onehunga and 58-year-old Andrew d’Auriol died at Fletcher Reinforcing in Levin.

• Shortly after, in 2019 when Higgins Contracting workers Dudley Sole Raroa, David Reginald Te Wira Eparaima and Haki Graham Hiha. They were working in a culvert on State Highway 2 near Matata when their truck overturned after it was swiped by another vehicle, fatally injuring them. Higgins was fined $270,000.

“These were unusual occurrences, a low point. You have a lot of people working and you want to get them home safely every time.”

Taylor, 59, celebrates a milestone birthday in January but expects Covid will restrict the family to being at home in Sydney “although I had wanted to do a trip to north-west Papua New Guinea but I don’t think that’s possible”.

Kathy Taylor is now social worker who does charity work in Timor-Leste: “If you think my diary is complicated, hers is even more so, in Timor-Leste, London, Auckland and Sydney so she’s very nomadic with a setup similar to me – wardrobes on both sides of the Tasman and our diary management has been very critical”.

She has recently taken up golf, joining him at Remuera and the couple are active, to the point where he recalls how they could not stay awake long enough to enjoy any more than the first course of a pre-booked restaurant meal one evening after a long Blue Mountains walk.

His father Harold has died but brother Gary is at Lend Lease in Sydney so Taylor says it made sense for his mother to leave Brisbane and live in Sydney where she is closer to the extended family, particularly grandchildren.

He has no plans to leave Fletcher and said when the five-year strategy is completed in 2023, “that’s not the end”.

He tells his kids “you’re a long time dead, so whatever you are doing, make sure it’s enjoyable and that’s what I find myself doing now. If what you’re studying or working at aligns with what you like doing, it’s a lot easier.”

Ross Harold Taylor:

Position: Chief executive Fletcher Building.
Offices: Penrose and Sydney.
Lives: Family home at Balgowlah Heights, Sydney, rented apartment in Parnell.
Age: 59.
Born: Near Brisbane.
Family: Married to Kathy, grown children Jessica, Lachlan, Rachel, Callum.
Car: In Auckland, a Landrover Discovery; in Sydney a Subaru “family share car, anyone in town uses it”. Warning: Sydney vehicle comes with dog fur.
Sport: Remuera Golf Club member, long-time surfer.
Last book read: Re-read sci-fi novel “Proxima”, by Stephen Baxter, which is “sort of semi-feasible”.
Best restaurant: Parnell’s Cibo, “really nice, my go-to in Auckland”.
Greatest Auckland walk: Te Henga cliff-top walk Bethells Beach/Te Henga-south of Muriwai Beach.
Favourite film: “‘Notting Hill’ is probably one of my favourite.”

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