For half a century and counting, Wills Bros has been setting the standard as Ireland’s premier civil engineering contractor. To coincide with the industry-leading company’s 50th-anniversary celebrations as well as their recent success at the NISO awards, Building Ireland spoke to Director Trevor Wills and Head of EHS and Sustainability Peter Quigley, about Wills Bros’ robust safety systems and enduring culture of prioritising safety at all times.
It was fitting that Wills Bros should go into their 50th-anniversary year cradling yet another National Irish Safety Organisation Award. At the most-recent NISO / NISG All-Ireland Occupational Awards ceremony last October, Ireland’s leading civil engineering contracting company took home the Consistent High Achiever Award in Construction / Civil Engineering – a poignant and worthy accolade for a family-run, standard-setting business that has been prominent at the forefront of construction’s drive for higher safety standards down through the decades.
Since the company was formed in Foxford, County Mayo as a joint partnership between James and Charles Wills in 1972, safety has been an inherent part of the Wills Bros ethos. Indeed, the culture of safety that permeates every aspect of this diverse, benchmark civil engineering contracting company – which has contributed enormously to infrastructural development both in Ireland and the UK over the past 50 years – typifies the founders’ unswerving commitment to instilling the highest levels of safety awareness and has no doubt contributed enormously to Wills’ steady but ominous evolution over the decades into a proven Tier One main contractor with an unrivalled track record for excellence.
In light of Wills Bros rating as a consistent high achiever at the NISO Awards, HSQE manager Peter Quigley comments: “Awards are always difficult to get but the fact of the matter is that everybody goes for the NISO Awards and they have a certain appeal and status because of that. For this reason, it’s always very nice to get one.
“Karen Connaughton is our Health & Safety Administrator and she co-ordinates our approach to safety. We also have safety officers on all our sites and it takes a huge team effort to make sure we continuously achieve such high safety standards. The NISO Awards are a nice format and they cover things that we would be working on every day and provide an invaluable measure of how everybody is performing.”
While no construction or civil engineering company does exist to win awards, nevertheless provide some validation and reassurance that the systems in place are working as they should? “It’s important not just for our professional safety people but for the construction professionals as well,” Peter concedes. “And, look, safety is obviously critical as you are looking to complete all your projects on time, with no accidents or injuries or time lost due to Health & Safety issues. It really takes a team effort to make this happen.”
Wills Bros’ remarkable success results from their expertise and experience as a civil engineering main contractor in the execution of both large and small contracts across a varied spectrum ranging from major motorway schemes, road realignments, bridge construction, landfill sites restoration, marine works, site developments, water related services, telecommunications and the leisure / public amenity sector. That they have been serial winners at the NISO Awards – and indeed all other prestigious industry awards ceremonies – is no coincidence and speaks for itself, really…
“We’ve been going for a long, long time,” Peter continues. “Wills Bros is 50 years in business this year and safety – no matter what anybody says – it starts at the top. The message has always come down from the top, starting with James and Charles themselves, who have led by example.
“The approach to construction safety from the start has been a simple systematic approach – comply, prevent, lead. You comply with what you have to comply with; you prevent incidents from arising; and you show leadership, take the lead. That’s the system they have applied time and time again. In those 50 years, safety has moved on from Command & Control to a bottom-up approach and you know the guy at the top always has your back.
“As jobs get more complicated and involved, you have to take a systematic approach. People are No.1 and then you have plant, equipment and machinery, which of course Will Bros are famous for. Each piece of plant has to be safe and has to have an operative. Thirdly, you need a system of work that’s safe – make sure you plan it out and do it properly. Fourthly, proper supervision. Always insist on that. It’s not a guy looking over your shoulder; workers should always be happy with what they are doing and confident that it is safe. Everybody who works for Wills Bros is encouraged to take the lead on every job and operate as a team, from induction through to completion.”
Director Trevor Wills points out that safety is paramount throughout the company and that the Health & Safety team have direct access to and support from the boardroom: “The management team and owners pay very close attention to Health & Safety. There is a close link between our Health & Safety team and our management team – Peter and his team know that if there is ever a sense that something isn’t right or needs to be changed that all they have to do is bring it to our attention and we will make whatever changes need to be made.”
Do the directors prioritise Health & Safety above all else? “Definitely. Peter and his team are vastly experienced and they know what they are doing. If they feel that something isn’t right, that immediately becomes a priority for myself and the management team. Peter and James Carty [EHS Operations manager] know they can contact us any time and raise issues with us and we will deal with it.”
“Health & Safety is a dynamic thing and not all answers are known beforehand,” Peter continues. “So you use your expertise – as a team – to find the answers to what is in front of you. Clients do like to hear / insist that construction sites are run properly and that there is a safety manager there. Decisions are made collaboratively and the expertise of James is vital as well as being able to have confidence in the people around you.
“We have digitalised our site safety inductions, which has been an interesting step up, and you can be sure of 100% compliance. Going digital is a big leap for construction safety and will continue to be going forward. There’s a lot of work to be done in that area and Wills Bros are at the forefront of it. Management of projects is becoming safer and better all the time and you have that degree of certainty, with no loose ends.”
Will Bros have delivered a vast number of civil engineering projects throughout Ireland and the UK utilising their extensive fleet of owned plant and equipment, with all projects supervised by their team of long serving staff. Their client base is extensive, ranging from nearly all local authorities within Ireland, airport authorities, the National Roads Authority and major private developers as well as Gypsum Industries, Irish Water, OPW, Xerox, Microsoft, Apple, Glanbia, Anglo American Mining, Tara Mines, Scottish Enterprise, Port of Cork, IDA Ireland, Dublin Port and many blue-chip multinationals in the technology and pharmaceutical sectors. As a family-run civil engineering contractor, they take great pride in the standards achieved on all projects, culminating in a large volume of repeat business.
Wills Bros have unrivalled experience in delivering the most complex and challenging infrastructural projects, a current undertaking of note being the Kerdiffstown Landfill Remediation Project for Kildare County Council. This 30-hectare site, close to Naas, was in a disused state and posed a long-term risk to human health and the environment due to pollution by landfill gases, odour and leachate. Remediation of the site will provide a multi-use public park including playing pitches, playground, car parking, changing rooms and a network of paths including provision of services and foul drainage to the public sewer network. Due to the size, scope and sensitive nature of this project, not to mention the amount of earthworks, demolition and movement of machinery, a very demanding Health & Safety response was required – and duly delivered. Feedback from both the client and local residents has been extremely positive.
Wills are also currently engaged on two major roads projects in joint ventures with BAM – the €241m Westport to Turlough N5 project (involving the design and construction of new national primary road (approximately 23km long), new national secondary road (approximately 2.5km long) and all ancillary works) and the long-awaited €35m Moycullen Bypass (comprising 4.3km of national secondary road and roundabouts at either end of the village). There are complex environmental issues associated with all of these projects.
The construction industry in Ireland is proactive in promoting Health & Safety and Will Bros has been to the forefront of this move for decades. Managing director Charles Wills is a former president of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) and a longstanding member of the Construction Industry Federation (CIF) and the company has a lengthy record of involvement with both these bodies. Today, Peter Quigley is part of the CIF’s safety committee, while Trevor Wills is a member of the CECA.
Will Bros’ commitment to Health & Safety was perhaps never more evident than during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. “The scale of it was unprecedented and it affected every individual,” Peter reflects. “We quickly realised two things that were required – keeping distances and not going inside. We worked hand in hand with the CIF to carry out rigorous risk assessments and to put together meaningful safety protocols. The construction industry really led by example and 180,000 people were retrained inside the first six months. The fundamentals are still in place today – self declarations, sanitisation, cleaning and welfare. The response to the pandemic from safety officers and project managers alike in delivering all of this without any extra drama is a huge endorsement of all the people who work in construction.”
“I 100% agree,” says Trevor. “Our Health & Safety personnel are highly respected within the company and they were in a position to take those changes on board seamlessly. Because of the culture of Health & Safety that exists within Wills Bros, we adapted quickly and could get on with the job. Huge credit is due to Peter and his team and all the project managers.
“Training and learning are also a big part of our ethos. The need for that within the industry has changed a lot and we have moved with it. For example, we have a programme called Wills Sisters, which encourages female participation and provides additional supports to females. We have female engineers, QS, admin and senior management personnel and it’s important to support them and bring them on as best we can.
“When anybody joins the company, training is a big part of what they do initially. They will already be skilled in their own trade or discipline but we additionally provide them with specific training for the work they will be doing here. Training is such an important part of what we do and people are hungry to learn more and to get additional qualifications and skills, so we facilitate that. This reflects the systems-based approach that businesses are expected to adapt today and Wills Bros have embraced that from the offset.”
By any standards, Wills Bros represents a remarkable success story. Started 50 years ago by two humble men with a can-do attitude and strong work ethic – allied to vision, a sense of innovation and no little determination – this outstanding family-run business continues to provide the benchmark for construction / civil engineering excellence in terms of safety, management, quality, performance and responsiveness.
Wills Bros Ltd.,
Tel: 094 9256221
Fax: 094 9257221
Email: [email protected]
This article was published in Building Ireland Magazine, March 2022, Vol 8 No 3