Friday afternoon in the site office of Wates’ East Surrey College in Redhill, and the company’s deputy chairman is paying one of his regular calls. There’s a bit of rather strained banter as James Wates, regional director Kevin Scott (pictured below right), and site manager Nick Dwyer swap notes. Legendary old colleagues are invoked, the smell of wet concrete is eulogised, and the existential hell of being locked on a never-ending circuit of the M25 is shared.
But all the driving, early starts and inconvenience are deemed worthwhile. “I love the first hour on site – I get to work at 7am out of choice,” says Dwyer. “By 8am, you’re on top of things, before all the alligators start snapping at your heels.” Wates, who takes up office as CIOB president later this month, nods in recognition and approval.
Then the trio and CM take a walk around the nearly-completed project – for a reminder of what it’s really all about. The design-and-build facility features a top-lit atrium ringed by generous walkways, giving onto teaching spaces with windows wide enough for everyone to see what’s going on. It’s the kind of project that can raise the quality of life for everyone who spends time there. But it’s also the kind of project the industry will be delivering rather fewer of in the coming years, as the public spending tap is turned off with a firm twist of the coalition wrist.
Unless, that is, the construction industry can communicate that prioritising capital spend on construction will help build the stronger society and more prosperous economy the government wants. That investment in construction sends ripples of training opportunities into the local community, and has a domino effect on employment and tax revenue, from the professional services sector to product manufacturing. To a government staring down the barrel of a £156bn deficit, it’s a tough message to get across.
But there couldn’t be a more qualified messenger than Wates. As well as his role as CIOB president, he’s also chairman of the UK Contractors Group, and vice chairman of the CBI Construction Council. As the newly appointed chairman of CITB-Construction Skills, taking over from Sir Michael Latham, he has a direct influence on the skills and training agenda that is so close to the industry’s heart (and the government’s policy agenda). With all this time spent round committee tables, he estimates that he splits his time between Wates and the wider industry on a 50:50 ratio.
In other words, there’s no one in a better position to pull the levers that can influence change in the industry, or voice what it’s saying to the outside world. “Wearing my different hats, I have to try to get the industry a bit more joined up. I’ll be talking to [ConstructionSkills chief executive] Mark Farrar, Chris Blythe and [UK CG chief executive] Stephen Ratcliffe. If I’m able to get them to join up [on certain initiatives], that can only be a good thing for the industry,” he says.
But one key message he’ll be taking to government is that of “quid pro quid” – if it provides a construction-friendly economy, the industry can provide further efficiency gains. It’s a familiar cry, echoing through the Latham Report, Egan report and the Movement for Innovation. But never has it been made during such an economic impasse, when his prediction that a further 10-15% could be cut (from projects where contractors have design responsibility) will surely win a keen audience.
“It’s about good supply chains getting good solutions, it’s about sitting down with the supply chains and saying ‘how can we do this cheaper’. If you start to get a culture of innovative thinking in companies, and the industry, you start to create something. There’s a lot of cost come out of the industry in the last two or three years, but that’s a reflection of the market. I’d be surprised if we couldn’t find 10-15% cost savings quite easily, just by being more efficient.”
So it’s appropriate that the East Surrey College has a perfect example of this kind of thinking. Archial Architects’ concept called for a semi-translucent cladding that would allow the college to project images on to part of the exterior, while allowing muted light to enter the rooms behind. But the specified product was only available in fixed widths, jointed with unsightly mastic. So Scott and Dwyer went on the internet, and located a superior Swiss product called Scobatherm for less than the budgeted price.
In this battle and all the others Wates will face, he will draw authority from his position on the board of one of the industry’s most successful contractors. The family-run business has been steering a successful course through choppy economic waters, announcing solid results for 2009 with only a 7% dip in turnover. In recent months, it has reached 33rd place in the Sunday Times Profit Track table of 100 companies with fastest-growing profits, was named as Contractor of the Year in the Building Awards, and achieved a Platinum Award in the 2009 Corporate Responsibility Index.
Wates puts much of the recent success down to a culture of empowerment which, he says, emanates from chief executive Paul Drechsler’s office. “We’ve got outstanding leadership that has allowed really good people to flourish. People like Kevin [Scott] are stepping into bigger roles, taking more personal responsibility. We’ve got a framework that allows people to be the best they can be.”
Drechsler, a former senior executive from ICI, was hired in 2004, and Wates is clearly pleased with the board’s decision to bring an outsider into their midst. “We’re an industry that tends to be pretty set in our ways, so a lot of the stuff making a difference is Paul prodding people and asking ‘why?’. He’s creating opportunities for them to do things in a different way.”
Wates is the great-grandson of the founder, sitting on the board with his four cousins (each of his uncles had two sons). The fifth generation is already waiting in the wings – Wates’ 16 year-old-son is looking forward to summer work experience on site after sitting his GCSEs, and there’s also a younger son aged 12. “None of us have ever been pushed to go into the business,” he says. “We’ve all been round pegs in round holes, and keen not to push the next generation.”
He read Estate Management at the Polytechnic of Central London. But he never graduated, leaving a year early to work for the family business as a management trainee – a decision he now says he regrets. Maybe so, but its also clear – from his encouraging comments to the brickwork and joinery students he meets on the tour of the college, and disparaging comments about Labour’s target of 50% of young people entering higher education – that he particularly values the industry for providing career paths for people like him: capable and hard-working, but more attracted by the world of work than academia.
Making a difference
Wates, 50, was born with only one arm, a disability he says “has never been a hindrance or an impediment”. He tells the story of how, as a baby learning to crawl, doctors fitted a prosthetic arm. “But my mother threw it away because she realised it was immobilising me. My parents never wrapped me in cotton wool.” And it certainly didn’t stop him becoming a keen rugby player, or developing his skills in one-handed golf. In fact, his competitive spirit is legendary in the construction industry, and much-mentioned by people who know him. Asked to confirm it, he smiles laconically and says “yeah” in a tone that suggests “try me”.
To the people he will be meeting in his multiple roles, one imagines that the disability adds to his personal impact: if he can get over that, what else can he get over? And perhaps his experience of having a visible difference will bring added commitment to an issue that he says will span his portfolio – improving the industry’s diversity. He points to last summer’s report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission as a watershed moment, shining an uncompromising light on the industry and showing it to be as pale and male-dominated as the new coalition cabinet.
“The EHRC report showed that we’re getting something very wrong, and if we don’t get it right, there will be problems. There are not enough women in the industry and not enough black, Asian and ethnic minorities. Maybe it doesn’t appeal, maybe we don’t attract them, but there’s a whole skill base out there we’re not getting,” he says. “The challenge is continually raising awareness of the issue. Eighteen month ago, I don’t think I was aware myself.” But he’s caught up quickly – the UKCG has already set up a working party on equality and diversity to share best practice among employers.
As CIOB president – “a huge honour I’m very proud to be taking on” – he’s looking forward to promoting chartership as the badge of professionalism in the industry, rightfully ranked alongside the surveyors, architects and engineers. But, after two overseas presidents in succession, he’s aware that the UK regions might be feeling disconnected. “Whilst not overlooking the overseas agenda, I see a possibility of being able to connect with the regions. I can fit that around the business – if I’m going to Wates’ north-eastern division, I can visit the local branch, or attend a function up there.” Then he pauses. “If I’m invited to any!”
Meanwhile, at ConstructionSkills, he promises, along with chief executive Mark Farrar and deputy chair Judy Lowe, to take a “fresh look at things” over the summer, accompanied by a round of “stakeholder engagement”. Then they’ll tackle the levy system itself. “It’s the one area where I think we would have the most difficulty, because we have to get it right, we have to get the consensus of the industry. I want it to be a customer-focused organisation.”
Wates is now uniquely positioned as a driving cog in the machinery of the industry, able to galvanise others into action with the weight of his considerable authority and energy. And, as CIOB president, he’ll have a further platform to gain access to its best minds, analyse its shortcomings, and celebrate its successes.
In all this, he’ll be driven by the simple love of the industry he shares with Scott, Dwyer, and so many others. “It’s not an easy industry to be in, you’ve got to want to be in construction. But I have a passion for the industry – I enjoy it, I enjoy the people and love the excitement that comes from not doing the same thing every day.”
East Surrey College (above) is a perfect example of Wates’ culture of encouraging innovative thinking