The Director General of the Construction Industry Federation for 13 years, Tom Parlon is one of the most recognisable personalities in the Irish construction industry and is the ideal person to start our Lunch with CNI series.
Before taking up his role with the CIF, Parlon was a TD for Laois-Offaly for five years and was also a junior government minister in the Department of Finance.
He came to public recognition during his term as President of the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) between 1997 and 2001.
Parlon describes himself as “a proud Coolderry man” and despite busy working weeks, he travels home to his Offaly home each weekend to spend two days farming, supporting the local hurling team when the opportunity arises.
We peppered Parlon with questions over lunch with CNI Editor Hayley Rock in Matt the Threshers on Pembroke Street in Dublin, which was meant to be the host restaurant for the coming series – but due to Covid-19 restrictions, most of the remaining interviews will take place over lunch on Zoom.
We covered everything from the need to reform public procurement process to the “carnival atmosphere” when free school transport was brought in.
Are you from a large family or a small family?
I was born into a family of 5 children and I was the eldest. My second youngest sister died with a brain haemorrhage when she was just 4 years of age, so that was quite a trauma to the family.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I was born on a farm and from the very outset I wanted to be a farmer, I had no other ambitions. I still want to be a farmer!
Where were you educated?
I went to the local national school in Coolderry, which was a two teacher school at the time. My father would drive myself and a few other local children about halfway to school and we would walk the rest of the way and we would usually walk all the way home.
After that, I went to the CBS in Roscrea. Initially, I cycled the 6 miles there and home to school, but in my second or third year, the free transport came in.
It sounds comical now but such was the excitement that one of the lads my own age brought his accordion and played it on the bus on the way to school – it was a real carnival atmosphere!
Did you enjoy school?
I think I probably had greater aptitude than achievement when it came to school – one Christian Brother who had taught Charlie Haughey previously told me that I had Haughey’s brains, but that when it came to school work I was the “laziest boy in Western Europe!”
Have you ever had a mentor?
My parents were my greatest influence. They were farming folk and while they didn’t have much, but they did a great job with what they had and they had a terrific work ethic which had a great influence on me.
How active are you?
I try to walk as much as I can and I’m averaging about 10,000 steps a day according to the new app on my phone. At the weekend I go back to the farm and I have a very active weekend – last weekend I was up before daylight both days feeding cattle, testing cattle and spreading slurry.
What is more important, Ambition or Talent?
You need both, but there are a lot of talented people who will never make it. A bit of hunger and a bit of ambition will be the difference if you have a little bit of talent.
What would you like to own that you don’t?
I had a large motorbike until recently but I retired it as I was getting older and I was concerned about the safety aspect.
I’d love a classic car – nothing too expensive, but something with a bit of oomph in it so that I could take it for a spin on a summers evening.
I’m still fascinated by farm machinery and some of my neighbours have gotten into vintage tractors so I could see myself with something classic.
Where are you happiest?
Coolderry, where I’m from is where I’m happiest in the world. I still love Dublin but being able to get away from work at the weekend and spend time on the farm means so much to me.
There is such a fabulous sense of place in Coolderry – we have a great hurling team and everyone supports one another and it is a lovely community.
Would you consider yourself an ambitious person?
I’ve never considered myself as an ambitious person, but at the same time when I wanted something personally or professionally, I really went for it.
That started off with farming – I started off with no land so any land that I had, I bought. I began with an agricultural contracting business and I worked harder than anyone I knew to make that a success. There were tough, long days and I spent about 20 years as an agricultural contractor and farmer.
What was the busiest time of your life?
When I got involved in the IFA and eventually became the President. I had to give up the agricultural contracting business but kept on a very substantial farm. I had about 600-700 ewes, 100 suckler cows and a pig unit.
I remember having a meeting with the French Farming Union (FNSCA) in Paris which happened to take place right in the middle of lambing season – I had been up until 5am, had a shower and then drove to the airport to fly to Paris for the meeting.
As it was France they started with lunch and insisted on a few glasses of wine with it, so by the time the meeting came around I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I had to explain that I’d been lambing ewes for 3 weeks and that I needed a 30-minute recess.
Once I got the break I was fine and the meeting went well, then it was straight back to the airport and home to continue with lambing season. At the time that was normal and it’s probably a good reflection of the pace I’ve lived and worked all my life.
What drives you?
When I was approached by a consultant who was recruiting for the role of Director General of the CIF I was immediately interested in it – there are a lot of connections between both the farming and building community and in this role, I’m so passionate and inspired to represent the building industry.
Many of these people I represent put their lives on the line each day to produce work to a very high standard each day, for very small margins and the honest to goodness builders are the people I am honoured to work with and very proud to go out and represent.
What would you like to be remembered for?
I have no real ambitions in that regards – perhaps that I was someone who made an effort. I was IFA President, a TD and government minister, Director General of the CIF and I’ve had a very lucky life in that regard, but I’ve had to work for anything that I’ve achieved.
What trait most annoys you?
I don’t like being kept waiting – thankfully it doesn’t happen that often. For the most part I like people and see the best in them, but if I see someone acting rudely to someone else that annoys me.
What would your 20-year-old self think of you?
I think he would be surprised with how life has gone for me, but he wouldn’t be disappointed. I won’t say it’s a regret, but I didn’t pursue my education sufficiently. I left with a very middling leaving certificate, spent a year in agricultural college and then went straight to work.
I meet with and work with people in the CIF who are fantastically well qualified – multiple degrees, MBA’s – and while its never held me back and the university of life has taught me lot, if I had some more free time I would be interested in going back to education, perhaps doing a degree.
Why should someone join the industry?
There’s a massive satisfaction to being able to walk away from a site having left a legacy of some fabulous building or piece of infrastructure there.
It’s outdoor work, it’s working with your hands, it pays fairly well, there’s good rapport with other people – there’s an awful lot of positive things going for it.
What would you like to achieve in the next 5 years?
A substantial reform of public procurement is necessary to make it fair, collaborative and good value for the public. There are some people bidding far too low and gaming the system, because the system is so flawed.
The new government is going to have to address this – we know where the problems are but there is just too much push back in from certain parts of the civil service in fixing procurement. I respect civil servants, but I find sometimes that their motivation is lacking!