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Interview with Fred Barry, CEO of the NRA

02 Apr 2013
Interview with Fred Barry, CEO of the NRA

In this extract from a longer interview, Fred Barry the CEO of the National Roads Authority (NRA) provides some very interesting perspectives on project management and the potential for project managers to participate at the executive level of organisations.

At what stage of your career did project management start to become a serious part of your overall management skillset?

FB: I’m not sure when it became a skillset, but subsequent to my time in Canada and other parts of the world, I came back to Ireland and was working mainly on foreign direct investment projects. My role was in commercial management, and I was involved with contracts, plans and so on, and on business development. After a period we secured a very large project, an important one for us, and I became the Project Director for that. I hadn’t particularly targeted getting into project management, it just evolved naturally.

What are your views on the potential of project managers to become senior executives? What gaps do they need to address to better design their career path options?

FB: Well, project management is a core capability for any manager. Its importance is self-evident businesses such as IT or Construction, but really it is central to almost all business functions. For example, a product launch is a project management activity, as is a merger or an acquisition So almost no matter what strand of management you’re in, project management skills have an important part to play in your success. I would think that virtually all Chief Executives have, to a greater or lesser extent, project management skills.

You qualified as a barrister a decade ago. What benefits have you accrued from having this legal background?

FB: Engineering training is very solution-oriented, and typically involves identifying, analysing and finding solutions to challenges or problems. It is a strong and driven background, and results and solutions are is expected of you. It is also a world of teams, where people share knowledge and ideas. The legal perspective is different. The training in law was more about winning than solving, and knowledge certainly wasn’t for sharing! Studying law also brought home to me that there’s a whole world out there that doesn’t see the world in the same terms as the scientific or engineering communities.

As well as that of course, certain areas of the law have been directly relevant to my work, such as environmental law, construction law, contract law. Specific knowledge of these legal topics has been very useful, but more than that the legal training opened my eyes to a different view of the world.

How do you propose to manage the challenges of massive funding reductions and the imminent merger of your organisation with the RPA (Railway Procurement Agency)


  • Funding Reductions

We have been going through funding reductions steadily over the last few years. We get money funded in different ways, by next year our main budget for improvements will have been cut by about 83%. That has required us to suspend a lot of project development.

However, the economic backdrop has improved to the point where PPP funding is available again, so we do expect to be carrying out major improvements worth about €1.4 billion in the next few years, despite the budget cuts.

  • NRA merger with RPA

The RPA and NRA are engaged in similar enough businesses: we’re both delivering and managing transport systems – the RPA with light rail and the NRA with road infrastructure. I do expect that there will be synergies between the organisations, that the combination will be better than each of us was individually.

However, the enabling legislation has yet to go through the Oireachtas, and the merger will probably culminate middle to end of 2013.

If you had to recruit a project manager for a strategically important project that was paramount for the future health of your organization what attributes would you look for?

FB: Well, there would be certain minimum requirements for all candidates, relating to the appropriate professional or industry background and experience…

But really, the more senior the position, the more important the personal skills of the individual. On bigger and more complex projects no one individual will have mastery of all the technical aspects. The ability to motivate others, and to work across boundaries both internally and with stakeholders, becomes increasingly relevant.

So, you would consider whether the individual can lead, can motivate and manage experts without themselves being an expert in every area, and can manage stakeholders. Most importantly, however, is their drive and commitment to succeed. Would you trust them with your career?