Alumni profile: David McDonald
For David McDonald, it wasn’t the skyscrapers, the big machines or the chance to get on the tools that lured him into a career in construction. Instead, the Scotland-born McDonald was inspired by a friend who had built a career in the quantity surveying game.
“To be frank, it was more the materialistic items he had – nice house, nice car, smart dresser – and that’s what I wanted. The inspiration started from that and then I realised how I could better myself in life,” he says.
McDonald started off as an apprentice bricklayer, staring down the barrel of what he calls “counting bricks as a career”. After seeing the spoils of a quantity surveying career, he applied for a cadetship with the Sydney office of WT Partnership quantity surveyors, enrolled in a quantity surveying diploma at Nirimba TAFE, and found himself on a plane.
That was back in 2003. In 2008, McDonald completed a Bachelor of Construction (Honours) as a mature-age student at UTS – an experience that shaped him in more ways than one.
“Being both international and a mature aged student was tough both mentally and financially but a lot of people inside UTS helped me. I met many people from very different cultures and some of them had a lasting impact on me, both personally and professionally,” he says.
After graduation, McDonald landed a full-time role with WT Partnership, giving him the chance to build his quantity surveying and cost management skills across every stage of the construction process, from concept to final design, value engineering, post contract and final account services.
Today, McDonald is a director of WT Partnership (Asia), a position he’s held since 2012. He’s currently based in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam where he lives with his young family – and where he’s taking advantage of the opportunities on offer in a region that’s ripe for urban renewal.
“There are 11 countries in Southeast Asia with around 650 million people. The opportunity of working on mega projects is potentially far greater than what Australia could offer,” he says.
“Coming to Vietnam, I was one of three expatriates in an office of 15. The exposure I got on projects made me learn a lot more quickly than I would have if I’d stayed in Sydney.”
And when he says mega projects, he means it: McDonald has successfully completed full cost management services for the Landmark 81 project, which will produce the 11th tallest building in the world, and for the US$4.2 billion Hoi An South casino resort project in central Vietnam. During a previous secondment to WT Partnership’s Hong Kong Office in 2011, he also prepared cost plans and contract documentation for the high-profile Studio City integrated casino and resort project in Macau.
Over the last eight years, McDonald has seen – and helped drive – massive changes in the Vietnam’s construction sector. Despite the long days and extended periods away from family that his work often requires, he’s enjoying seeing the his industry’s impact on the city he calls home.
Today, he says, the Ho Chi Minh City skyline is almost unrecognisable from its former self, there’s a metro rail project in progress, and developers are becoming increasingly interested in housing their projects in Vietnam.
“It’s exciting. When you’re running a company, you look for opportunities to develop your business, and in an emerging market those opportunities with new developers come along quite often,” he says.
“The only hurdle is time, as a lot of projects take an incredibly long time to get approval. For example, we finished an office development in early 2013, but the approval process started in 1993!”
While he might be busy shaping Vietnam’s construction industry, McDonald has still got a hand on the tiller back here at UTS. After studying the Construction in Developing Communities elective as part of his UTS degree, McDonald has regularly signed up as an assistant for the subject, travelling to Alice Springs, the Maldives and Cambodia to support UTS DAB students as they deliver humanitarian building projects for people in need.
“The contribution this subject makes to people’s lives is phenomenal – a lot of them have absolutely nothing and it’s rewarding to see communities and families benefit from what I see as being a very small personal contribution to their lives,” he says.
He also hosts UTS students in Vietnam as part of the International Construction subject, delivering presentations and professional advice on the challenges and benefits of living and working overseas.
This long-held connection to UTS has endured over the years, not least because of the support he received during his degree. In particular, he says, his former teacher Michael Er, a senior lecturer in construction technology and management, has been instrumental in shaping his career from his student days to the present.
“I still keep in contact with Michael, and although he’s not a quantity surveyor, he’s someone I can talk to on a daily basis if need be about problems and how to resolve them. Most problems are based around people and he always has a sympathetic ear with a possible solution,” he says.
“It was Michael who coaxed me into assisting one year, and I really look forward to the students coming.”