An Echelon Media Company
Sunday June 20th, 2021

Access Engineering’s Christopher Joshua on building a conglomerate in construction

Christopher Joshua Managing Director and Chief Executive at Access Engineering Plc

Joshua is the Managing Director and Chief Executive of Access Engineering Plc. He co-founded the Rs32 billion revenue listed company in the 1990s, building the firm in stages on the pillars of integrity and engineering excellence.

Can you tell us about the circumstances that led you to Access Engineering and how the journey has been so far?

I was just 24 years old when I was one of the co-founders of Access Trading in the early 1990s as a small startup venture, together with Sumal Perera as the founder and Chairman and Ranjan Gomez, the other co-founder. I never dreamed the business would grow to become what it is today. Initially, we were a business that supplied construction-related materials. In 1993 we ventured into construction work, as a value-added service to the materials business and took on some small projects, which was directly under my purview.

That is how I took leadership of the construction business portfolio of the Access group. Our business sits on the pillars of engineering expertise and professional credibility, the pillars to success in the construction industry. This was something I picked up very early in my career. Before becoming a Co- Founding Director at Access, I had worked at a multinational company supplying industrial materials and picked up the business quite fast for my age, learned to work independently and interacted directly with some of the leading businesses leaders, who were my clients. Some of them, like Merrill J Fernando, became my mentors in my corporate journey.

Our journey has been absolutely amazing. From a small start-up venture, Access Engineering today is a leading construction company in the country, and the most integrated and technologically advanced! Fortunately for us, from the very start, there was a niche in the construction field for a committed professional player to come in and take advantage of the situation.

We have introduced several firsts in the country’s construction industry in terms of advanced techniques and capabilities. Access Engineering plays a significant role in building and nurturing professional engineering talent in the country. We are also partnering with some of the top universities in our country and in the world with a startup incubator called Idea Nest to drive technological innovation in the global construction industry.

Our journey has been absolutely amazing. From a small start-up venture, Access Engineering today is a leading construction company in the country, and the most integrated and technologically advanced!

What was the biggest challenge you had to confront during the formative years of Access Engineering?

Engineering is an applied science. To get contracts, you need to demonstrate a level of experience and pre-qualification, and this was what we did. We were supplying specialist equipment and materials to a niche market for wire gabions and related work. When an opportunity arose to dredge and rehabilitate a 32km canal network in Colombo with wire gabions, as a principal supplier to the project, we decided to add value to the main contractors of the project and convinced them to give us turnkey work into the supply and installation. So, that gave us the confidence, and of course, the pre-qualification, to take on gabion-related construction work building retaining walls and structures and then advanced to specialise in more sophisticated structures.

As a relatively unknown business at that time, attracting and engaging the right professionals, in line with the vision we had for our business, was critical. We were fortunate to engage some exceptional and talented professionals early in our business. Rohana Fernando, our Chief Operating Officer, joined us as a junior engineer at that time. We built Access Engineering into a design and construction business specialising in the full range of civil engineering by expanding our scope and expertise in stages.

Today, Access Engineering is the leader in the construction industry, involved in highways, roads, flyovers and bridges, office and residential apartments, airports, harbours, urban water supply and drainage networks, and industrial buildings and warehouses, among others.

Building Access Engineering from a startup in trading to a leading construction company listed on the Colombo Stock Exchange is by itself a noteworthy accomplishment. But if you could zero in on your proudest achievement along that journey, what would it be?

As a construction company that continues to grow, we have had to face various challenges along the way. One was the unfortunate questions being raised about our credibility as an engineering company. We had to deal with unfair misconceptions about who we were. From day one, integrity has been, and continues to be, sacred to all of us at Access Engineering. Without integrity, we would not be able to attract professional talent, or get any significant contracts and could not have grown the business the way we did. Access Engineering was built on integrity and engineering excellence. We published our annual report and made them publicly available long before the company was even listed on the stock exchange.

So, in 2013, when the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce recognised Access Engineering among the Top 10 Best Corporate Citizens of Sri Lanka, and the National Chamber of Commerce feted us with the overall National Business Excellence Award the same year, I was overjoyed. Winning these two accolades for the first time was the proudest moment in my career. We built Access Engineering on the pillars of integrity and engineering excellence, and two independent and most respected business chambers in the country recognised us for who we are.

Looking ahead, what is your vision for Access Engineering, and what about the future excites you the most?

What excites me most is the quality of engineering and professional talent we have harnessed and honed throughout the years. Their commitment to innovate, re-engineer and develop better products and services within the engineering portfolio has always wowed me. I look forward to seeing more of this.

The Idea Nest I spoke of earlier is another thing that excites me. The Idea Nest is the firstof-its-kind innovation centre that allows people to ideate solutions and develop them into commercial applications. Idea Nest is open to our employees, engineering students and professionals in Sri Lanka and abroad.

Innovation is at the heart of Access Engineering, which is why we are more than just a construction company. For instance, if you think of backward integration, we have our own accredited design office, we pioneered many new construction technologies such as diaphragm walls, horizontal directional drilling, micro trenching and more. We currently supply 70% of the country’s asphalt requirements because we have perfected the product and supply chain management. The asphalt business presently accounts for a third of Access Engineering’s group revenue, and by 2022 it would increase to almost 50%.

On the forward integration side, we have the Access Towers office complex that revolutionised the high-rise commercial real estate market in Sri Lanka. We deployed our engineering expertise to design a building with minimum columns for support for optimal real estate space. Right now, we are developing Sri Lanka’s single-largest condominium, the 1,068 unit Marina Square, which is another bold undertaking by the Access Engineering group that is delivering results even beyond our expectations. Another project, the 242-unit Capital Heights residential apartment complex is nearing completion. We have also ventured into developing industrial warehousing facilities, including the largest single roof warehouse in the country.

I see tremendous opportunities for growth as the local construction industry continues to expand and its contribution to GDP maintained at double-digit levels in the years ahead. Despite all the challenges, the domestic opportunities are substantial. Growth will come from the innovation and value creation that we are pursuing with a passion.

The government will continue to drive infrastructure development, and the private sector is increasingly investing in businesses supporting this segment: this bodes well for the construction sector. The Colombo Port City will be a gamechanger in many ways, not just for the construction sector but the entire economy. Construction companies with a proven track record like Access Engineering will have more opportunities coming their way.

We are also expanding overseas, where the future of Access Engineering will be. Currently, we are developing a flyover and four bridges in Kenya.

What is the hardest leadership lesson you have learnt?

The hardest lesson for me was how to engage your team in moments of crisis. As a construction company, we are subject to constant policy shifts and frequently uncertain local and external market conditions. Often you are left feeling woefully unprepared and even disheartened. But you have to engage and motivate your people, and it can take a lot out of you. I had to learn to deal with problems out of my control and ensure that employees continue to see the big picture and the value that this company is creating for its sustainability and growth.

Even during an economic crisis, construction can still generate value in a developing country such as ours. One sure way of staying on top of things is to keep focusing on your value advantage: this is what we do best at Access Engineering. Being in this industry for as long as I have, you would develop an instinct to do what is best for the company. Winning over others to your convictions can be challenging, especially when dealing with diverse ideas, but you have got to stay focused, and do what is right for your business and get everyone on the same page. We constantly remind ourselves about the company’s goals and vision: Our vision at Access Engineering is to be the foremost Sri Lankan business enterprise in value engineering. Our purpose is to meet the challenges in the development of multi-sector civil engineering projects, providing innovative solutions while developing long-term progressive relationships with all our stakeholders.

I see tremendous opportunities for growth as the local construction industry continues to expand and its contribution to GDP maintained at double-digit levels in the years ahead