The man with the $20M vision

By Andrew Potter

John Grill’s landmark donation to set up a centre for project leadership will provide business leaders with a new set of management skills, and redefine the horizons of philanthropy across our nation.
Image of John Grill

Credit: Ted Sealey

"I’ve never given away anything like this before in my life, but I want try and make a difference.” And with that, the modest and softly spoken businessman turned philanthropist ensured his place in the record books with one of the largest single gifts by an Australian in their own lifetime to an Australian university. His personal gift of $20 million will establish the new John Grill Centre for Project Leadership at the University of Sydney.

It certainly wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. Around two years of talks and negotiations with the University preceded his international headline grabbing announcement. Those close to the discussions confirm that the Sydney alumnus was always keen to be much more generous than originally asked. “I wanted to be sure how the money is to be used and that ultimately it will benefit Australia.”

Understandably, Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence is delighted, not simply because of the size of John Grill’s generosity. “This is a new kind of philanthropy for Australia where a donor with an intellectual vision has identified the need for a new academic initiative which will benefit the community. It is a genuine partnership where the University is combining its intellectual forces to bring that intellectual vision into fruition”, he said.

John Grill’s vision is to create a world class Centre for Project Leadership which will attract senior executives across a broad range of industries from both the private and public sectors. The first executive courses are expected to be offered in 2014. “I want the centre to target high potential project leaders with 10 years work experience, enabling them to accelerate their careers by gaining the appropriate skills to effectively deliver large projects which will benefit all levels of our society.”

“I want the centre to target high potential project leaders, which will benefit all levels of our society.”

For the notoriously media-shy businessman, his sudden elevation from an occasional mention in the business section to the front pages around the nation must have been rather uncomfortable. But his commitment to this project is obvious and one that he is keen to explain even if it means the intrusion of cameras and microphones. “Not only is there a lack of leadership skills in this country, it’s worldwide.”

As the CEO of WorleyParsons, one of the world’s top three resources and energy firms, with offices in 43 different countries employing 41,000 staff, John Grill identified a lack of suitable leadership training programs to properly equip managers to handle the complexities of today’s global projects. His views were backed up by a recent major study by industry firm Independent Project Analysis of more than 300 megaprojects which indicated as many as 65 percent of these ventures failed to meet their objectives.

Growing the global profile

As a young engineer Grill worked on a number of large projects, including the first generation oil and gas projects in Bass Strait, the North Rankin project servicing the North West shelf off Western Australia and studies into the ocean outfalls off the Sydney coast. “In those days there was very little in the way of formal training and it was very much a matter of learning on the job with all of the challenges that presented.”

Even today there is no real forum for educating project managers moving into senior leadership roles, a void the Centre for Project Leadership is designed to fill. As John Grill says, complex project leadership skills are needed in every sector of society including mining, hydrocarbons, government projects, education, defence and IT. “These days it requires managers to understand schedules, costs and quality but also to have a sophisticated understanding of industrial relations, Indigenous land rights, environmental issues, risk management and how to undertake proper community consultation”.

The John Grill Centre for Project Leadership will draw on the combined strengths of the School of Business and the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies, as well as other areas of the University.

“Our multi-million dollar partnerships are already informing our teaching and research in complex systems.”

As Dean of Engineering Professor Archie Johnston points out, senior executives can expect to benefit from the University’s existing relationships with industry. “Our multi-million dollar partnerships with Qantas and RioTinto are already informing our teaching and research in complex systems.”

Johnston sees enormous potential for in this new venture, both for the University and the City of Sydney. “There can be few initiatives better placed to leverage Australia’s unique assets into long term global leadership,” he wrote recently in the Australian Financial Review. “Sydney is a global city and the world is investing here because of its pivotal role in the dynamic Asian Pacific region. With its thought leadership and cutting edge research, this new centre will give the University and the city a unique opportunity to grow quickly this global profile”.

They cite data from Deloite Access Economics and the Defence Department that there are currently well over 100 projects valued at $1 billion or more under consideration, committed to, or in construction in Australia. The majority of these are in mining, followed by transport, with the remainder spread across defence, power, communications and manufacturing.

John Grill says Australia is in a position to lead its own development in this new phase of the global economy and he sees the University of Sydney at the centre of it. “With its outstanding reputation for academic excellence and professionalism, I could not think of a better institution on which to bestow this gift.”

Leader with a low profile

Despite his position as one of Australia’s outstanding business leaders John Grill, 67, has deliberately maintained a low public profile. His sparse entry in Who’s Who gives nothing away, but his story is really worth telling.

He has three degrees from Sydney (BSc 1966, taking computer science in the first year it was offered, BEng(civil) with 1st class honours 1968, and an Honorary Doctorate of Engineering 2010). He joined Esso in the late 1960s before branching out in a small specialised consultancy which eventually acquired the business of Worley Engineering Pty Limited in Australia. Following group restructuring the Worley Group Limited listed in the ASX in 2002 and several years later acquired the US-based global project services company Parson E&C.

John Grill has been inextricably linked to the growth and success of WorleyParsons, leading them from a small private domestic engineering firm to be Australia’s biggest contractor and a global leader proving professional services across the resources and energy sectors.

His announcement of his extraordinarily generous gift coincided with his retirement as CEO of WorleyParsons to take up a position as non-executive chairman of the company.