Interview with Guy Templeton

President and Chief Operating Officer, Asia, Australia-Pacific and Southern Africa Parsons Brinckerhoff

On Guy Templeton's desk in the Chief Executive's office on the 27th floor of one of the most prestigious buildings in Sydney's CBD there's a telling photo which explains where he's come from. "I was about eight years old," Templeton volunteers. "It was taken at Murray 1 Power Station down in the Snowy Mountains. "We were on holidays and my father took me there. The photo shows me looking down the turbine hall. I was absolutely gob smacked by the technology. On the way back I said to him, 'Who builds this stuff? And how do they work out what they need to do?' "He said that's what engineers do, and I thought, 'Right, that's what I want to be'."

Flash forward another decade and the teenage Templeton was well on his way to completing his dream. Born in Victoria but growing up in NSW, the young Templeton had always had a fascination with "making things". As he recalls, "At infants' school we had to draw a picture of our favourite toy. I drew a chain because I loved doing things with chains. Chains were cool. But the teacher thought my drawing was hilarious."

By his own admission, Templeton breezed through his HSC at Knox Grammar School and his first year at the University of NSW studying for a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering. But then came one of life's most important lessons. "I had a fantastic first year at UNSW. I did very little work, had a great social life, got a distinction average and thought. 'This is easy'. "Everyone told me the course got harder in Year Two, but I thought 'I'll never have to study more than three days a week'."

What distracted him? "Girls," he laughs. Plus a still-retained passion for rock climbing, bush walking and other outdoor pursuits. But his second year at UNSW proved humbling. He failed a few subjects. "That was a big wake-up call," he says. "You get formative experiences as you're growing up, and the last of those was bombing out in Year Two at university and realising you have to work hard to achieve anything. I've carried that lesson through my career. If I start to slack off, if I start to cruise, I always have that at the back of my mind."

After graduating in 1985, Templeton's engineering career seemed well on track when he began working for the Electricity Commission of NSW, designing and building transmission lines. For a while he even worked at a power station, just as the eight year old boy in him had hoped. But in his early twenties, he took a number of positions which took him further and further away from pure engineering towards management and client relations.

The first of those jobs was with Telecom Australia (now Telstra) because he recognised telecommunications was about to become a boom industry. Then he moved to NEC because he wanted to work in the private sector. Finally in 1988 he was "tapped on the shoulder" by TNT, then headed by its legendary founder Sir Peter Abeles. "I was 25 and I was managing TNT's telephone business," he remembers.

Though it is hard to believe now when virtually every Australian adult has a mobile phone and several other portable Wi-Fi gadgets, the nation back then was still chained to the landline. "We were working on pagers and early mobile phones," Templeton recalls. "I occasionally got to borrow a mobile phone. They were the size of a suitcase."

While working at NEC and TNT, Templeton was also studying for an MBA two nights a week at the University of Technology, Sydney. "As an engineer, you don't know much about marketing, about organisation, about finance. And I realised that was a gap if I wanted to go higher in management," he says.

Why UTS? "I thought about going to study in the United States, but it was terribly expensive and hard to get into the top schools. Besides, I was madly in love with my now wife, so I decided to stay in Australia and study part time. Of the options, UTS was the most practical." The 6pm-9pm course took him four years, and was completed in 1991. "I've never drunk so much Coke or eaten so many Mars bars in my life," he laughs. "My social life wasn't much good."

But he loved it. "Because the course was so practical, I could go away and apply it. At TNT we were installing some new microwave transmitters and I put together a business case based on what I had learned one evening at UTS. It had to be signed off (by TNT's formidable Chief Financial Officer) and I got back this very complimentary note from him, saying, 'If all our capital expenditure submissions were done this way, we'd be a much better company'. How fantastic is that?"

And how does he rate UTS almost a quarter of a century later? "It's a university that is really coming of age. It's still relatively young. But its strength is being tightly focussed on a limited number of faculties, but doing them very well. "UTS's hallmark is in practical, hands-on, skills-related development. The university's strategic direction is good and it is investing very well in academic staff and facilities. It's one of the Australian universities to watch."

Though he only stayed with TNT a couple of years, the turning point in his career came during his time there. "Our biggest project was relocating all the telecommunications services down at TNT Towers. There was a lady called Dorothy who wasn't technically qualified, but she got on really well with all our customers and suppliers. I put her in charge of the project.

"A couple of our technical guys came to me and said, 'She can't do the job'. But at the end of the year I looked back at what I had achieved and realised the real kick I got was seeing Dorothy walk so much taller. She'd grown into her new role. It made me think, 'Wow, this is what I really like. The people aspect. The leadership aspect.' I realised there was a career to be made out of managing people."

In 1990 he left TNT to join the PA Consulting Group, initially to build the company's telecom division before switching over to management consulting. "I took to it like a duck to water," he says. He stayed with the 3,500-strong group for 14 years. Eight were spent in Hong Kong, moving there in 1995 with his wife Debbie and their young daughter, Robyn (now herself a student at the University of Sydney. Son Matthew was born in Hong Kong). The family stayed in Hong Kong through the city-state's handover back to China and the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997.

As the youngest-ever partner in the group's history, Templeton ran PA's global Telecommunications and Media practice, then assumed joint worldwide responsibility for the firm's other private sector and strategy practices. The obvious course would have taken him to the company's headquarters in London, or to the US. Instead the family decided to return to Sydney. "We wanted our kids to grow up in Australia," he explains.

At that point, there were two directions his career could have gone in, he assumed: either telecommunications or professional services. But the call he received from a headhunting firm in 2005 came from total left field. How would he like to be the Chief Executive of Australia's largest firm of lawyers? "You've got to be bloody joking!" he told them. "I'm not a lawyer, I'm an engineer!" That doesn't matter, came the reply. And "after a long courtship", he saw the synergy between his skill set and the qualities the law firm, Minter Ellison Legal Group, was looking for in a new CEO.

"The similarity between engineers and lawyers is that they both have a logical framework," Templeton explains. "Lawyers have the law. Engineers have design principles and the laws of physics. "The difference between them is that engineers like to find solutions to problems, whereas lawyers like to find problems to solutions."

But before winning the task of leading the largest law firm in Asia Pacific, with almost 300 partners and 2350 staff spread over 13 offices, Templeton had to go through a "scary" full day psychological profile. It was like walking into a room without any clothes on. There was nowhere to hide," he says. Even over lunch at a nearby cafe, the psychologist continued to pepper him with personal questions and write the answers down in his notebook.

The verdict? Templeton was someone who "relished Mission Impossible-type challenges". And this particular challenge? Minter Ellison might be the biggest legal firm in Asia Pacific, he says, "but it was by no means the most profitable, and it had by no means the best rating for services to clients."

He'd been selected, as a non-lawyer, to bring standards of efficiency to the company, to improve performance, to manage the transition. That's a hard enough task at any time, but lawyers are notoriously conservative when it comes to their working practices. "When you are trying to create change in a law firm there's no shortage of people telling you why it shouldn't happen," Templeton concedes. "There are far fewer people who come up with positive suggestions. Minter Ellison was a change adverse environment, but I enjoyed the challenge."

By the time he left in 2009, Templeton had notched up some big victories. Profitability had improved. In independent ratings for client approval, Minter Ellison had passed four competitors. He could have extended his contract. But that would have involved continuing for at least another three years and Templeton thought that would limit his chances of returning to the industrial/engineering sectors that had originally motivated him.

Bad timing

Unfortunately, Templeton's timing proved dreadful: The Global Financial Crisis had severely limited opportunities for chief executives. "I was 46. I confidently stepped off into the unknown and found it much harder than I thought." On the advice of peers, he treated himself to an intensive one-month Advanced Management Program at one of the world's most respected business schools, INSEAD just outside Paris.

"That was me being able to take a step back, have some time for reflection, reset my skills," Templeton explains. Previously, he'd studied leadership courses at both Harvard and Stanford in the United States. "I think it is essential to keep learning because the world is always changing. There's only a certain amount you can learn on the job." The INSEAD course was an eclectic mix: philosophy, meditation, self-awareness, and high-end problem-solving. One of the greatest insights the course gave him was feedback about his personality from his wife, children and a close friend. They all suggested the same flaw: "that I should suffer fools a little more gladly..that they all identified that certainly made me take notice".

The delay in finding a new full-time corporate role meant he was able to concentrate his energies on his extra-curricular interests: mostly educational. As chairman of Ravenswood School for Girls (which his daughter attended), he helped put in place a strategic plan. A member of the Advisory Council of the Australian School of Business at UNSW, he still found time to become an Adjunct Professor at the UTS Business School.

After missing out on a couple of CEO positions he'd gone for, Templeton decided to set up his own consultancy firm. In particular, he became an advisor to WorleyParsons Ltd, which provides services to the energy, resources and complex process industries. He would have been happy continuing in that role. But then he was offered his dream position: President and Chief Operating Officer of Parsons Brinckerhoff's Asia, Australia-Pacific and Southern Africa divisions.

He took up the role in January 2012. Parsons Brinckerhoff, one of America's most historic and reputable infrastructure companies, was founded in New York in 1885. In 2013, Templeton oversees around 5000 employees in Asia, southern Africa, Australia and the Pacific working on hundreds of transportation, mining, power station and water projects. Like what, exactly? Templeton rattles them off. In Western Australia, his teams are helping Andrew ("Twiggy") Forrest's Fortescue Metals group maximise its iron ore production as well as assisting the development of one of the country's most controversial mining areas, the Gina Rinehart part-owned Roy Hill site.

In Shanghai and other Chinese mega-cities, the firm is building massive 110-storey towers: "We're market leaders in super tall buildings," he boasts. Across Asia, the company is expert in building and managing Metro-like transportation systems as well as high-speed railways in China and Thailand.

"I love building stuff. I always have," Templeton continues. Yet of all the massive infrastructure projects he's now involved with, it's the power stations that still seem to engage his interest the most. There's a geo-thermal power station under construction in New Zealand. But the big one is in South Africa, the Medupi Power Station, close to the border with Botswana. "It's the fourth largest coal-fired power station in the world," Templeton says proudly. "An US$17 million project, with 17,000 people working on it."

So how would the eight year old child in the photo on Templeton's desk judge his current job? The grown man doesn't even need to reflect. "I think he'd say, that sounds really cool!"

Words: Steve Meacham - February 2013