Photographs by Wilde Fry
If Channel Four is looking for new candidates for The Secret Millionaire, the reality show in which wealthy achievers revisit the straitened circumstances they left behind and make under-cover visits to the charities making a difference, they might like to meet Gary Sullivan. From his disadvantaged childhood to his bespoke Range Rover, from the early army career that gave him drive and direction to the multiple uses he put them to later, Sullivan is the epitome of a successful entrepreneur from humble beginnings.
Fifteen years ago, he and a business partner founded construction logistics and services provider Wilson James, now a £77m-turnover business employing around 1,900 people. It was a long, hard slog, involving seven-day weeks and the risk of losing the family home. “I’ve had more success than I ever imagined,” says Sullivan, whose holding in Wilson James makes him a “paper” millionaire although he says he only draws a typical director’s salary. “But I’m very grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given. You need support from your peers and your betters and there’s a lot of people I have to thank.”
But Sullivan’s journey hasn’t taken him too far away from his roots. While many Secret Millionaires are relative strangers to the world of philanthropy, Sullivan is using the advantages achieved though hard work to help the less advantaged. His firm supports the work of the Prince’s Trust in Essex, as well as fund-raising by the Stanhope Alliance and Bovis Lend Lease, and has a long history of involvement in community training.
He’s always interested in finding other ways to help good causes. But Sullivan is as savvy as he is generous, knowing that duplication and inefficiency exist as much in charities as construction. So do charities spend their funds on projects, or on overheads and marketing? Would they be better served by his chequebook, or his contacts book?
So when CM invited Sullivan to take part in a construction-themed version of the TV show, visiting three charities and selecting one to support, he jumped at the chance to see up close how they run their “business”. During an insightful day, Sullivan visited three organisations that rely on the resources and generosity of the construction industry to support people in difficult circumstances.
We didn’t take Sullivan back to his Essex roots, but the visits were still full of emotional resonance. In Hackney, he met a young apprentice helped by the Prince’s Trust who was once told by school teachers that he’d never make anything of himself. “35 years ago, I went through exactly the same thing,” nods Sullivan, who missed out on 18 months of schooling in his teens.
At Article 25, which works alongside other charities in the developing world to design and deliver sustainable buildings, Sullivan felt surprisingly at home. Before setting up Wilson James, he’d taken the logistics skills gained after eight years in the army and a spell in construction to a role working for the UN High Commission for Refugees.
The day ended with a visit to CRASH, the construction industry charity that helps organisations working with homeless people. Sullivan saw how the day-to-day currency of his business – the constructional materials that Wilson James transports – becomes so much more valuable in the hands of people who have nothing.
Sullivan reached some interesting conclusions about the charities he’d like to support, and how. He saw how relatively small interventions – in cash, in kind or in contacts – can have a big impact on charities working on the front line. But he also saw the scale of the needs, likely to increase in the age of austerity. Sullivan made an ideal Secret Millionaire. But the industry’s charities need many more.
Construction and Business Services Leadership Group
Apprentice electrician Billy Webb meets Sullivan and CM at the gate of a Rydon social housing site in Hackney with a friendly smile and a confident handshake. In the meeting that follows – with Prince’s Trust CBSLG head of fundraising Sarah Hertzog and PR manager Annabel Kirk – 20-year-old Webb proves himself a great communicator, brimful of enthusiasm for his job, his employer, the support he’s had from the Prince’s Trust and the opportunities that lie ahead.
Webb tells Sullivan how he left school without qualifications, picked up a job as a van driver’s assistant but found the work dull and the hours anti-social. Living on a run-down Hackney estate, his next job was “ducking and diving” in the grey economy. Then, 18 months ago, the estate caretaker gave him a leaflet for a Prince’s Trust “Get Into Construction” course.
“I thought it would be just another thing that didn’t lead anywhere,” says Webb, who’s clearly had prior experience of well-meaning “initiatives”. “But I went down anyway, and it turned out to be the most amazing two weeks of my life.”
Ten young people took part in the course, run by contractor Rydon and social landlord Hyde Housing, and Webb was an obvious candidate for one of three apprenticeships on offer. “From the minute I stepped through the door, I knew I wanted to work there. I made an effort, made myself look smart, and said ‘I have to get that job’.”
This transformative story is what Hertzog wants to replicate. Since the CBSLG launched the programme four years ago, members such as Balfour Beatty and Bovis Lend Lease have run 106 construction taster courses for around 1,200 young people. And while the Prince’s Trust also runs “Get Into…” courses in other industries, Hertzog stresses that the Trust particularly values the combination of entry-level jobs and good career pathways that the construction industry provides.
“It’s proper life-changing stuff,” she says. “We’ve had 75% positive outcomes – either employment or education and training.” When Sullivan asks her to drill down into the figures, she adds that an impressive 52% found jobs.
Then Hertzog puts her cards on the table. “We have 36 corporate supporters in the Leadership Group. If your company is interested in joining us, the commitment we want is £15,000 a year for three years. In these difficult times, one in five young people aren’t in work or training. If we don’t start working together, we have a difficult future ahead of us and a lost generation.”
Sullivan’s response is likely to be echoed by many firms. “In today’s market, £15,000 is a lot of money. There’s a huge amount of pressure on businesses, and lots of organisations asking for money.”
But it appears this isn’t a negotiating point. Although Herzog says that companies can support the programme in other ways – such as running taster days, or work placements – the £45,000 financial commitment is the starting point. “If we don’t have any funds, we can’t run any programmes,” she says.
However, when Sullivan suggests that project teams could join forces to join the CBSLG as a group, with each member company putting in two or three thousand pounds each, Hertzog agrees that this is worth looking into.
Already working through his NVQs, Webb is looking far ahead. “By the time I’m 35 I want my own company,” he says. “There’s no hurry,” Sullivan responds. “You need the time to build up a range of contacts. Look out for the guys who you think might be the next directors of Rydon – because they might be the ones to give your company work.” Behind Webb’s broad smile, you can tell he’s filing away notes to his future self.
Charity: Prince’s Trust Construction and Business Services Leadership Group
Activities: Two-to-six-week pre-apprenticeship programmes for the estimated one million young people Not in Employment, Education or Training (NEETs). After the course, trainees have 6 months follow-up support from the Trust’s staff.
In their own words
Sarah Hertzog: This year, we’re planning 45 Get Into Construction courses across the UK. We look for long-term projects that will last a few years, where the training on offer isn’t just “get in, get out”.
Gary Sullivan: You mention that Balfour Beatty, Bovis Lend Lease, and Carillion all support your programme, but they sub-contract all their work. Are they taking credit for something their sub-contractors are doing?
SH: There’s definitely a role for main contractors to open up pathways to jobs with their subcontractors. We’re running a Get Into course in Bristol a subsidiary of Balfour Beatty, is taking on the apprentices, so they’ll get the credit.
GS: Do you ever work with the Construction Youth Trust? There shouldn’t be any competition between organisations doing similar things.
SH: Yes, we’ve had discussions, but in practice we find we have slightly different agendas.
GS: What happens to the trainees who don’t get apprenticeships?
SH: They get their CSCS H&S cards, and we works with Hays Construction to put them on their books.
At the Shoreditch headquarters of Article 25, Sullivan is again on home ground. In the early 1990s, he worked for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, advising on the delivery of aid to Bosnia. It’s given him an insider’s grasp of the development world. “I liken it to construction. There’s a lead agency that acts like a main contractor, then other smaller NGOs get sub-contracts to deliver the humanitarian aid,” he says.
The description of Article 25 from education and communications manager Stephanie Johnston essentially bears this out. “We’re positioning ourselves as a technical services provider to other charities, such as Save the Children,” she explains. “If they want to build something, they come to us because we know about building in a development context. We’re not the capital funders – we provide the specialist consultancy and design skills.”
Article 25 was set up after the 2004 tsunami by a group of UK architects who saw that the post-disaster reconstruction should be strengthened by sustainable design. The charity is involved in post-disaster relief in Haiti and Pakistan, and long-term development projects in countries such as Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Projects are characterised by the use of local materials, local techniques and “participatory design”. “We don’t parachute in buildings, we involve the community. By the end of it, you’ve transferred not just one building, but the whole process,” says Johnston.
Reflecting its origins, most of Article 25’s patrons are design practices, such as Wilkinson Eyre and Aedas. But Johnston and projects director Robin Cross stress that they need additional skills - from construction managers who can deliver good buildings in difficult circumstances.
Cross explains the type of CVs Article 25 is hoping to receive. “We have some very exciting opportunities for construction managers and site managers. Ideally we want a combination of the management skills to mobilise the site, but also practical skills [such as carpentry] so they can train and mentor local staff in improving their techniques.”
But Sullivan is still struck by the contrast between the Rydon site up the road, and the trendy feel of Article 25’s offices. “You look around and it feels like an architect’s office. Is volunteering here just a way of filling your year out?”
Johnstone acknowledges the subtext. “The architectural bias is not intentional, and we do want to make it much more inter-disciplinary. We’re gearing up our PR coming up to our fifth birthday, so that people like you know who we are.” As part of its profile-raising campaign, Article 25 has devised a one-day CPD course on the sector’s role in humanitarian aid.
And one advantage of improved links becomes evident immediately. Sullivan mentions the Stanhope Alliance, companies with links to developer Stanhope that raise funds for UNICEF’s hospital building programme. Clearly, a tie-up between the two could be positive for both. Sullivan offers to mediate, Cross and Johnston look delighted.
Finally, Sullivan asks to meet one of the volunteers. Architect Catriona Forbes, 28, worked at Article 25 full-time and unpaid for a year, making ends meet through private work at weekends and evenings.
Forbes, now a paid member of staff, stresses the charity operates to high standards of professionalism. “We build with the same rigour [as in the UK], and the same contracts. We have to think about the logistics, the transport costs, the times of year you can work, the price of fuel – there’s so much to think about!” Listening to her, Sullivan no doubt agrees.
In their own words
Gary Sullivan: Your brochure implies that as well as design projects, you construction manage the delivery. So is this more than a place for architecture, are there opportunities for the rest of the industry?
Robin Cross: Very much so. We’re moving away from individual small buildings that a good architect or engineer could project manage, to programmes of buildings that need the skills of construction managers.
GS: Do you manufacture off-site?
RC: Yes, for a project in Sierra Leone we’re setting up an offsite workshop to turn trees into components for the building. But we may have to get some galvanised bolts made here and carry them out in our luggage! In general, it’s important to use local labour and local materials.
GS: I was speaking to a friend in Haiti, a water engineer, who said the opportunity there is to re-use and reclaim the material that’s been destroyed.
Stephanie Johnston: Yes, we won an award for doing that on homes in Pakistan, with MuslimAid. The building was in a very mountainous, inaccessible region hit by earthquakes. The design used cross-bracing with a rubble infill, so if an earthquake occurs, the individual pieces of rubble won’t kill you. It was actually based on a local technique.
GS: How else can people get involved?
SJ: Through a new online Knowledge Community for Development and Disaster Reconstruction, set up by the RIBA. If you’re in Thailand and need to know how to raise a building because floods are coming in three days, you can get in touch with someone who has the answer.
If people join the Community, they can get involved in live projects that way.
Arriving at the Kairos Community Trust treatment centre in Peckham, there’s an immediate sense of warmth and well-being. The multi-purpose hall is a generous, light-filled space, where residents are reading the papers after lunch, or chatting with support workers.
It was built in 2007 with materials and project management from CRASH, the charity that mediates between the resources of the construction industry
and registered charities on the frontline of the homelessness problem.
Waiting to meet Sullivan are CRASH chief executive Francesca Roberts and PR manager Georgina Mead. They are half of a tiny team that’s co-ordinating around 35 projects. “You’ve got 50% of the office here today!” laughs Roberts (pictured to the right of Sullivan). “But we get seconded help from our patron companies, and we’ve got good, robust procedures.”
As Sullivan hears what CRASH manages to achieve, he’s quietly impressed. It typically receives 60-70 approaches a year from charities across the UK, which generally have the capital budget to undertake projects, but need the design, project management and cost control advice to make their resources go further.
“Every project that applies and meets our criteria is visited by one of our [volunteer] project managers, and we do an assessment. We can provide materials or professional expertise, or both,” Roberts explains. “Cash is cash, but it’s the add-on value that makes the big difference.”
CRASH has 29 patrons, which each donate £7,800 a year, for at least three years. On top of this, patrons donate staff time: at the moment, EC Harris is seconding a member of staff one day a week to carry out assessments. Patrons and others also support CRASH by buying or donating materials. “But we’ve lost seven patrons in the last 12 months – they’ve all said it’s because of the recession,” says Roberts.
Sullivan wonders if Wilson James can help CRASH more directly. “Sometimes, when a project’s finished, we’ve got 100 sheets of plasterboard in our warehouse. We can recycle them, but could you reuse them?”
Roberts shakes her head regretfully. “You need materials that meet the spec and have warranties, and there’s the problem of storing them until they’re needed,” she says. To increase its supply of materials, CRASH is encouraging product companies to pledge a certain value at the beginning of the year, which CRASH can use as and when project needs arise.
South London-based Kairos is typical of the low-profile projects CRASH supports. It offers a three-month drink and drugs detox at Linden Grove, followed by a rehab programme in Camberwell, then supported living in move-on houses. Kairos is now planning a new conservatory at the Camberwell centre, which CRASH will also support. “It’ll be a quiet place to sit and read,” says manager Elizabeth McCormack.
Again, there’s a chance to personalise the issues when Sullivan meets a former Kairos resident who has returned as a volunteer support worker. Ian, in his 30s, describes the empathy and support he received during a two-year programme that gives individuals the time and space to deal with their addiction problems.
Sullivan asks if the bright, modern environment at Linden Grove helped in Ian’s recovery. “Absolutely,” comes the reply. “I can remember detoxing on those sofas, it felt cool and peaceful. And having your own room, with a shower of your own, gives you a sense of worth.”
Ian’s comments draw a very clear line between the construction sector’s skills and the benefit to vulnerable people.
And that, Roberts says, is why CRASH
punches above its weight. “It’s focusing the industry on something very clear. I think some charities spread themselves too wide. We don’t do running costs, we don’t do services, we just do buildings.”
2009 Income: £472,434 in donations and donated materials
Activities: 46 projects were completed in 2009
Patrons include: Balfour Beatty, Skanska, Taylor Wimpey, Bovis Lend Lease, Travis Perkins, Bam
In their own words
Gary Sullivan: Companies get a lot of requests for money, but giving donations in kind is a lot easier and can go a lot further.
Francesca Roberts: Yes, it’s a win-win situation. The individuals seconded to us really enjoy it, they go back to their employers with greater skills
and greater tolerance. But we’re not so keen on community “challenges” , like repainting a hostel in two days. It’s better when people are sharing their skills.
GS: If you had a magic wand, what would you like to do?
FR: We’d like to grow the charity – more patrons means we can help more projects. We seem to be a bit of a well-kept secret in the industry. But we do get funds via award evenings – the Brick Awards have been terribly good to us. And the Construction Products Association supports us every year.
GS: What about Bovis? They have a “Governor’s Club” fund-raising dinner, for all the governors. But why do you think the message isn’t getting out?
FR: CRASH has changed over the years, and maybe that’s part of the problem. When we started, we would find a building, and do it up as a hostel. At the time, companies would donate a crew for a few days. But over time, people realised it wasn’t achieving much, so we switched focus,
“On a personal level, Article 25 probably appeals to me most as an individual, as I have an interest in international development. But when it comes to a straight cash donation of £500, CRASH has just edged it. I thought, maybe because of their patrons, that they were bigger and had lots of support anyway. But seeing what they’ve done and looking at their figures, they’re very sparsely resourced.
As just a small team of four, I like the way they go about their business, and I really warmed to what they were trying to do, and are doing with Kairos.
I can also give CRASH some of my guys’ time to support them in other areas. We’re not builders and we don’t have construction expertise, so it would be logistics-orientated. But I’m sure there’s things we could do to help.
I was pleasantly surprised by Article 25. A lot of these [overseas aid] organisations carry a large overhead, but my initial prejudices were dispelled. With Article 25, I can give them some of my time and my staff’s time, to help in planning projects. And I can make introductions to the Stanhope Alliance. Article 25 could be the missing link in the chain – people [in the Alliance] could support Unicef through Article 25.
While the Prince’s Trust is a great organisation, my instinct is to put my money, time and effort into smaller organisations. But I think they’ll contact me again, and if we’re able to help, we will. If every contractor did what Rydon did, the world would be a better place.
I think there’s something I can do for each of the three charities. And I’d also like to do something for Kairos. I warmed to Elizabeth, and was inspired by the way they helped Ian turn his life around.”
Managing Construction Logistics, co-authored by Gary Sullivan, Stephen Barthorpe and Stephen Robbins, is published by Wiley-Blackwell in July, priced £49.99.
“It was great to meet Gary and talk about the work of CRASH and the homelessness sector. Gary has a good grasp of the needs of homeless people and the challenges they face as well as understanding the unique way CRASH can help thanks to the support of the construction industry.
We are thrilled that Gary has chosen CRASH to receive his donation and we will be putting this towards the Kairos project that is being supported by our Red Brick Appeal.
CRASH is such a unique charity offering people in the construction companies many different ways to help people who are genuinely in need of help and it’s a real pleasure that Gary has chosen to support us.”
Francesca Roberts, chief executive
“We’re delighted that CIOB members now know about us. We are at a point in our development where we are keen to increase our visibility to the built environment industry as a whole, in the run up to our fifth birthday next January, so Gary’s visit was very timely and appreciated. If companies would like to find out more, we hope that they’ll also have a look at our CPD programme.
“We also have vacancies to recruit for - we have a lot of skilled architects, but we also need construction and site managers. We’re looking for technical and management skills and the right personality to be able to operate despite the challenges of the environment. If they have worked through challenges and not been put off , that’s more important than specific charity or overseas experience.”
Stephanie Johnston, communications manager
Robin Cross, director of projects
Atom Publishing is donating free listings on the official CIOB jobs website to Article 25. Full job specs and details will be available at www.ciobjobs.com.
More than a million young people are not in employment, education or training, and youth unemployment costs the UK economy £10m a day
in lost productivity, while youth crime costs £1bn every year. Three in four young people who go on The Prince’s Trust Get Into Construction course go onto work, education or training.
The courses give 16- to- 25-year-olds an introduction to construction trades like carpentry and joinery, painting and decorating, plumbing and tiling alongside workplaces skills such as CV writing and interview techniques. Participants also get the chance to gain their Health and Safety CSCS card, a basic entry certification for working on a site.
From Balfour Beatty to Wates, Flamco to Rydon, construction companies across the UK are committed to helping disadvantaged young people into jobs.
For more information on how your company can get involved, contact The Prince’s Trust on 020 7543 1261 or email email@example.com
The CIOB will be making a £500 donation to the Trust