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Meet the new president of the CIOB

20 June 2017

The CIOB’s new president is the first to come from a heritage background and is always up for a new challenge, as she tells Denise Chevin. 

Rebecca Thompson FCIOB has this week become the 114th president of the CIOB and the only one to attain the position from a heritage background.

As the former superintendent of works at York Minster, it’s not surprising she wants to use her 12 months as president to raise the profile of the skills and opportunities in this specialist, sometimes overlooked, part of the industry. But perhaps above anything else, she wants to inspire members to aim high.

“Li Shirong, the first CIOB female president, gave a speech in York in 2009 on Chongqing and their cultural heritage. I was doing an Open University degree at the time and cultural heritage was a big part of that. She really inspired me, and that’s what I would like to do as well – to get people to come into construction and to say, I can do that, I can get to the top.

“If they look at me as an example, they’ll see I come from a pretty ordinary background. I’m not some brilliant, extra-special academic. I’m an ordinary person who did her HNC and then later on got a degree. These days, I do some part-time lecturing at York College, which is where I did my HNC, and I always tell my students, ‘You can do it!’

“As my dad always says, the harder you work, the luckier you get. My message to people will be that if you work hard, and specialise and enjoy what you do, well you too may one day be the president of the Chartered Institute of Building.”

Grandest buildings

Hard work is a recurring theme throughout Rebecca’s career. For the past 12 months she has run Thompson Heritage Consultancy, with clients such as St John’s College Oxford, advising on everything from the maintenance of the grandest buildings through to that of the former home of Ted Hughes – an 18th century mill owner’s house in West Yorkshire – and restorations of listed sundials.

“The more you work on York Minster the more you learn. And that’s true of the industry as a whole – you never stop learning.”

Rebecca Thompson, president, CIOB

She set up the business with her husband, a historian, after a 15-month spell as acting chapter steward at York Minster – effectively the chief executive, which she took on as maternity cover. The role involved heading up a team of 240 full-time equivalents and 700 volunteers as well as the 50 properties and a school. When it came to an end she decided a new challenge would be in order. “I thoroughly enjoyed it, which meant I couldn’t go back to being superintendent of works. I felt I’d outgrown it.”  

Rebecca had joined the minster in 2009 and by 2011 was put in charge of the £20m restoration of the magnificent Gothic cathedral. The five-year scheme, one of the largest restoration projects of its kind in Europe, included work to restore the cathedral’s 600-year-old East Front and Great East Window.

“It was such a privilege to work on York Minster. It really is the most amazing Gothic building. The more you work on it, the more you learn. And that’s true of the industry as a whole – you never stop learning.”

She came into construction as a trainee surveyor with Shepherd Construction in her native York, following work experience over a number of summers from the age of 14.“I applied to university to do surveying and before that, went off to do Camp America, South Carolina. While I was there, Shepherd got in touch. Sir Paul Shepherd had heard about me and offered me an apprenticeship in construction.

“So instead of going to university, I stayed in York and did an HNC in building studies. I worked there for a number of years, and then at several other organisations as a building inspector, a site manager and a construction manager.

“I first came across heritage in the late 1990s when I worked for EC Harris. But before I got into it fully, I had a number of senior management roles and directorships and then returned to Shepherd in 2000 for another five years.”

Those formative years at Shepherd have certainly stayed with her. The third CIOB president from Shepherd, she is extremely proud to be following in the footsteps of her lifelong mentor Paul Shepherd who, like his father Sir Peter, once wore the chains of office with distinction.

Rebecca Thompson oversaw restoration of the Great East Window, centre. Detail of York Minster’s 15th century Great East Window

Her involvement with the CIOB dates back to her second spell at Shepherd in the early 2000s. Not one to watch from the sidelines, she quickly got stuck in, becoming the regional chair and in 2015 junior vice chair. She spent a year as senior vice chair before taking on the presidential duties.

Having been involved with the CIOB at the top level for several years, Rebecca’s very clear about her agenda for the next 12 months. Her top priority is to get the heritage sector and its skills more recognition – and for very practical reasons.

“So much of the country’s building stock is pre-1919, so everyone in construction is likely to come across it in their career. Working with old building stock is complex – using modern materials can do enormous damage – so the CIOB is actively supporting conservation techniques, helping people to understand the problems and the solutions through the Academy.

“I’d like to make people aware of the opportunities and the skills, and the apprenticeships available, and how fantastic it is to work in that sector.”

Promoting heritage skills abroad where there is huge demand, particularly in China, is also on the list. She also wants to see a more diverse membership in 12 months’ time. “It would be good to have a gender balance,” she replies when asked about getting more women into the sector. “But there are so many areas that we need to be looking at. For example, I’m proud we’ve worked with the Armed Forces to help those with a military background find their way in construction. We’re under-represented everywhere when it comes to gender and diversity, but we must still make sure that we value all the people we currently have too. With the skills crisis the industry’s facing, we need everybody.”

Taking the baton

She’s delighted these are areas where the CIOB is already doing excellent work. “The presidency is often about taking on the baton, and many of these issues I’ll be working on are things I’ve been working on with the CIOB while I’ve been vice president. I’m not reinventing the wheel – the CIOB are already on to this, which is another reason why I’m so proud to be president.”

She adds: “I’m following on from Paul Nash’s presidency and will be supporting his work on ethics and the CIOB’s efforts to tackle the poor workmanship in some sectors that has been widely reported on recently. We need to encourage people towards getting the qualifications to do the job properly, and being totally professional - which is what being a CIOB member means.”

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