Freedom Or Control: EllisDon vs … Apple?

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


We struggle with the right balance between central control versus individual freedom around here. We have, at EllisDon, a very autonomous culture. We strive to maintain a strong core culture (and we don’t mess with financial controls), but we try hard to give everyone here as much freedom as we can, in the offices, on the sites, from top to bottom. We are not perfect at this but we try very hard at it and we trumpet it as a key differentiator at EllisDon, both to our clients and potential employees. We believe it is the foundation of our success.

Our larger, international competitors use a much more centralized, systems focused approach. We know this because we joint venture with them and see how decisions are made. We greatly prefer the EllisDon model of course, but are we just drinking our own bathwater here? We are proud of our accomplishments, but it’s pretty hard to deny the success and profitability of someone five times your size.

And I can be a bit of a hypocrite on this point. I have tried, for example, to be more inclusive on strategic development, but I can’t do it. The discussion always gets too conventional for me, too bogged down in (sometimes very logical) reasons not to do new things. I’m happy to have help, but I’m not able to let it go (which some people find quite frustrating).

And then of course, there’s the legendary, recently deceased Steve Jobs, who by all accounts was a consummate control freak who could be quite difficult to work with. But he seems to have changed the world and made billions, so that seems to have worked pretty well for him, the stakeholders at Apple and most of us.

Finally of course, you can debate the definition of a ‘great company’, which we all want to build. Is it defined by size? By return on investment? By the quality of the lives and careers of the people who spend their careers there? By some algorithmic combination of the three (for the measurement lovers)?

Here’s one thing I AM convinced of: There are way too many construction companies in the world right now; five years from now there will be far fewer. Probably the same can be said for other sectors of our industry; likely for many other industries. Whoever gets this right has a huge head start, I’d say.