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Sir Frank Lampl's exceptional life

25 March 2011

This biography and interview with Sir Frank Lampl was first published in 2009, as a chapter in a book celebrating twenty eminent members of the CIOB, from its inception in 1834 to the present day. 

As time passes, it’s easy to forget the connotations that certain terms used to carry.  But this great industry leader was once judged to be a “bourgeois undesirable” – words that are now quite anodyne, but which were disastrous for a Czechoslovakian in the mid-twentieth century.

Already a survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau, the young Frank Lampl was sentenced to imprisonment in the uranium mines at the Czech town of Jachymov.  Released in the amnesty following Stalin’s death in 1953, Frank was only permitted to work by labouring in either mining or construction. 

Feeling that he’d already seen enough of the mining industry during his incarceration, Sir’s Frank’s career in construction commenced.

“In those days, people believed that a political enemy of the government couldn’t expect a managerial job,” explains Sir Frank.  “I remember a doctor of law with a window-cleaning job.  That was normal.”

Accordingly, he spent the next eighteen months as a site labourer.  For someone who had already spent so much of his life as a prisoner, this might have been yet another great frustration, but Sir Frank does not perceive that period as wasted time. 

“That kind of experience is a great advantage, particularly in construction,” he says, “because it helps you understand what motivates people.  If you come through the ranks, as most construction directors did in those days, you have a much better feel for what’s happening on site.  Now, the world has changed.  Today, you need to be a graduate; you need knowledge and the ability to take in information.  But the danger is that people may not have time to understand what the workers do.  I think it’s important that universities do everything they can to help their students get a perspective on what happens on a construction site.”

Despite the insights that working as a labourer afforded Sir Frank, he naturally wanted a role more suited to his talents.  He was elevated to site foreman, but had ambitions to study and progress still further. The fact that he ultimately achieved this is testament to a level of determination and persistence that most of us would struggle to emulate. 

“I had a political label which in some circles might be honoured, but in others guaranteed persecution,” he says.  “This made life difficult.  I wanted to study and to learn, so I applied to university.  I applied three times in three years, and on each occasion my application was disallowed.  I had to apply for permission – everything needed permission then – which was consistently refused.   But I was determined not to give up, not to let anybody get me down.  It was not the easiest time, but giving up was never an option.”

This seems likely to be at the heart of Sir Frank’s ability to survive some of the most testing situations a person could be called upon to endure.  His unwavering determination persisted throughout. 

“There is a story my father told me,” he says, “about a man who went round small farms collecting milk for the market.  To increase his profits, he would stop by a lake on the route to the town, open his two milk churns, and water down the milk a little.  One day, two frogs from the lake got caught, one in each churn.  When the man got to the market and opened the churns, there was a dead frog in one.  In the other, there was a live frog, sitting on top of a churn of butter.  That frog had never stopped fighting.”

This fable is so much at the heart of Sir Frank’s ethos that when he was given his knighthood, he had a frog put on his coat of arms.

Like the frog that created butter, Sir Frank’s persistence paid off and he was finally given permission to study.  Over the next five years, he became a graduate engineer and then a site manager and a construction director. 

“If you work hard and do your job well, someone will notice,” he says.  “Building a career is an interesting thing.  I always tell ambitious young people to be careful how they treat their colleagues, to think about the relationships they’re creating in the team.  If you rise to become chairman, on the way up you overtake your bosses, and they become your subordinates.  There are many people who don’t succeed because their colleagues don’t have the respect necessary to make that adjustment.  If your subordinate does not like you, you won’t succeed.  Most success depends on colleagues, on the team.  You need the right relationships, and that’s too often not the case.”

This emphasis on building relationships, however, was one of the things Sir Frank enjoyed most about construction.  Once embarked upon his career, he never considered changing. 

“It’s a very exciting industry to work in,” he says, “and I can’t think of any other sector that could match it.  Any job can be exciting if you do it well, but construction has all the elements, especially the pivotal relationships with other people.  You’re very dependent on the team.  You can be imposed on a team as its leader, but it’s far better if you grow into being a leader, by being accepted and respected.  That’s about so much more than just technical knowledge.  There’s a difference between leadership and management.  A leader needs understanding, vision beyond the bottom line and a goal with ethical substance that people can be excited about and proud of, and personality.”

This insight is central to Sir Frank’s leadership style. 

“People at the top can have large egos,” he says, “but you must never say ‘I’:  it’s always ‘we’.  You lead by having a vision, but you win with the whole team.  It has to become their vision as well if you want to succeed.  So you have to like people – a misanthrope can not be a good leader.” 

By the age of 42, Sir Frank had survived persecution from two opposing totalitarian regimes and built a solid career in construction.  That in itself is a remarkable achievement, but it’s really only the beginning of the story.

The year was 1968, and the political liberalisation of the Prague Spring was about to be brought to an abrupt halt.  As the Russian tanks rolled in, Frank Lampl and his wife packed a single suitcase and left for England, where their son Tom was studying on a scholarship to Oxford University.  They prepared to start over yet again.

By the early seventies, this indomitable man was a project manager with Bovis.  His first assignment was Luton’s shopping centre, where he demonstrated his understanding of relationships through astute subcontractor selection, creating connections that still exist more than thirty years later.

He was happy to work with small firms, he says, as long as they had a good reputation.  This touches on another of the beliefs that formed the foundations of Sir Frank’s career.

“I was brought up to believe that the most important thing is your reputation,” he says.  “If you lose it, it’s hard to get back.  And I believe that this is true for companies, just as it is for individuals.  It’s the most valuable thing that the company has.  Obviously, profits are very important, but if I had a conflict between making money and damaging my reputation, I know what I would do.  I would take the simple view – I could always make money the next day, but I can’t repair the damage to my reputation.  In my everyday behaviour, and in every negotiation, this informed my beliefs.” 

The overriding principle for Sir Frank was to conduct business with integrity.  However, he is at pains to stress how much this principle can be good for business – as well as being the correct course of action.

“Maintaining a good reputation doesn’t mean you have to be naïve in business, certainly not,” he says.  “Obviously, a chief executive’s duties are focused around enhancing shareholder value, but the reality is more complicated than that.  You have to strike a balance between the interests of clients, shareholders, employees and the community.  After all, you haven’t got a business without clients, or without good employees.  Sustainability and ecological issues also have to be considered.  It’s complicated to keep a balance, but again it comes back to the fundamental issue of reputation.  Caring for clients and employees, and having a reputation for doing so, is a good way of taking care of shareholders.  It is so interlinked that it becomes dangerous to put shareholder value entirely on its own on a pedestal.  That’s the way success is measured, that is clear, but in order to achieve this success and maintain it, all these other elements need great attention.  Hopefully, during my time leading Bovis, we achieved it to some extent.”

Sir Frank’s principles stood him in good stead, because in 1975 he was asked to head up the company’s new overseas division.  He had already showed initiative during his career at Bovis, clinching the contract to refurbish Pergamon Press after seeing news of a fire at its premises and making a cold call to his compatriot Robert Maxwell. His talents as a linguist and a relationship-builder were also undoubtedly key. 

The performance of the new division outperformed all expectations and Bovis International was formed, with Sir Frank as its leader.  Peter Cooper, the firm’s historian, gives us some idea of the scale of the successes: “In 1982 alone, 22 contracts were bagged, including a 400 bed hotel in Sri Lanka, 50 villas in the Algarve, and a £25 million pipeline in Aden.  The following year, the failure of a contractor in Abu Dhabi brought in contracts worth £50 million, and contracts were also won in Yemen, Portugal, and San Francisco.”[1] 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bovis won the Queen’s Award for Exports in 1984 and again in 1986.  By this time, Sir Frank was head of Bovis Construction, and on the main board of the company’s owners, P&O. 

Although he grew more distant from the daily business of projects, he nevertheless enjoyed leading the firm during some landmark projects.  These included the Broadgate development, which was revolutionary in its adoption of value engineering, and Canary Wharf.

However, he sees his development of the international business as the most significant aspect of his career.

“I wanted to build up a business which didn’t suffer so much from the economic cycles,” he explains.  “My philosophy was based on the fact that economic cycles are not the same all over the world.  Anglo-American countries have a different cycle from the East.  If you build up a business that’s more international, then you are fighting the cycle.  By the time I retired, we had a presence in 40 countries.”

During this time, he was also involved in winning the contract to build “Euro Disney” (now Disneyland Paris), a demanding process that forced Bovis to refine its approach and focus on the service the client required. 

“The competition was huge,” says Sir Frank.  “So we developed much better arguments and focused on how to get close to – and satisfy – the client.  It was a difficult project, but I think it strengthened the position of Bovis as a professional manager of construction.”

In 1990, the year he received his knighthood, Sir Frank visited Czechoslovakia for the first time since fleeing the Russians in 1968.  Visiting his old employer, the Moravian construction company, he found things had changed very little over the intervening 22 years.  The organisation was the same, and so were the staff.  It was very different from the rapid expansion and development he had presided over at Bovis. 

Now lifelong president of Bovis Lend Lease, he is still very much involved with developments in the industry and its management. 

Since he is a man who sets much store by reputation, it seems natural to ask how he would like to be remembered.

“I’d like to be remembered for fairness and for caring,” answers Sir Frank.  “Is that more important than the business expansion?  Yes, for me it is.  The expansion will remain linked to my name, I think, but that’s not the most important thing for me.  Executives must be capable and competent, that goes without saying, but beyond that, they should be caring and fair.”

 


[1]            Building Relationships: The History of Bovis, 1885-2000

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