CEO Interview: James Wimpenny: ‘We must recognise change is necessary’

26 February 2019 | By Will Mann

This year marks BAM’s 150th anniversary and, while proud of its heritage, the company isn’t resting on its laurels. In the second of our CEO interview series, BAM Construct’s UK chief executive James Wimpenny tells Will Mann how the firm is keeping pace with the skills and resourcing requirements of a fast-changing industry. Photography: Morley von Sternberg. 

Royal BAM Group celebrates its 150th birthday this year. Its history includes acquisition of UK firms Higgs & Hill, Kyle Stewart and GA Construction, and the building of some of Britain’s most famous landmarks: the Tate Gallery (1897), BBC TV Centre (1960) and the Lord’s Mound Stand (1987).

BAM Construct’s UK chief executive James Wimpenny, himself 33 years with the company, is rightly proud of its built environment legacy: “These buildings are part of the fabric of society, and the industry doesn’t always get credit for that.”

But he adds: “We have to look to the future. The industry’s culture hasn’t changed much in a generation, but the speed that we now have to deliver has changed significantly.”

Digital technology, new approaches to people management and a global outlook are at the forefront of Wimpenny’s thinking, as he starts his second year in the CEO job.

Being part of a multi-national construction group helps in terms of ideas sharing, Wimpenny says, adding that BAM’s 2,500-strong UK business is probably “learning more from its Netherlands parent and other group businesses than ever before”.

This year, Royal BAM Group has opened a 3D concrete printing factory in Eindhoven and bought into Irish modular business MHI Homes. Wimpenny says he is examining how the modular technology could work in the UK.

James Wimpenny CV

  • Started out with his family’s construction firm Eric Wimpenny & Son, which is still trading today.Joined BAM – then Higgs & Hill – in 1985.
  • First major project was the Alhambra Theatre refurb in Bradford.
  • Appointed regional director of BAM north-east business in 2009.
  • Appointed BAM chief executive in January 2018.
  • Sits on the management board of Royal BAM Group.
  • Yorkshire-born and a season ticket holder at Huddersfield Town AFC.

“Some schools in the UK are built almost totally offsite now, and there are many factory-built elements on all our projects,” he says. “Can we exploit that further? In the Netherlands they have very efficient manufacturing processes which means they can get a house built within 100 days.”

But he notes that introducing offsite, BIM or other digital technology to a project is difficult, given the short lead-in.

“The challenge for the industry is that the added value in what we do is in preconstruction – the design, planning and organising of the project,” he says. “But we are not involved early enough to influence the front end.

“So, the future is better use of data. It will help us make choices quicker at the preconstruction stage. Then we can give a better outcome. And with that, will come trust in how data can improve our business.”

BAM now plans to bring standardised formats to all the data it uses on projects.

“Information management is at the heart of everything we do so we need to get that right,” he says. “That means all the hundreds of projects around the BAM business will report, manage and store their data in the same format.

“Then we can start comparing the data properly. Internal efficiencies will come out of it. But we can also demonstrate to clients how it can help their operational efficiencies.” Wimpenny points to a Netherlands hospital BAM has built, the Erasmus Medisch Centrum in Rotterdam, where the operator is reducing operating costs with help from asset data the contractor supplied. “We could do the same for an NHS trust here,” he says.

Single source of truth

Another benefit from BIM, Wimpenny believes, will be improved quality. The culture has already changed dramatically post Grenfell, he says.

“Quality management used to be a manual checklist,” he says. “But Grenfell changed all that. We have delivered projects where subsequently there has been a refurbishment and, if there’s a claim, it becomes difficult to establish who was responsible for what. So we’ve realised we need a ‘single source of truth’ for all our projects, and that’s where digital comes in.

Wimpenny on...

...working with tech start-ups

“We now recognise the potential of digital and data, and we’re starting to engage with tech start-ups. Construction is not used to working with other industries; that’s a mindset we have to change.”

...Insight profiling

“I’m a ‘green’– I work more on feel and like to be inclusive. It’s important we understand how different people react; a project manager has to know the relative strengths of the team.”

“We are looking at a system where we can laser scan the built asset, and use artificial intelligence to check if all the assets match the model. So if, for instance, the fire stops are not in the right places, that will quickly be flagged.”

Wimpenny acknowledges that clients do not always see the benefits of BIM, from a quality, FM or whole-life operational perspective.

“We are quite fortunate in the BAM group to have the whole project life cycle represented – property, design, construction and FM – and that does influence our digital strategy,” he says.

This “overarching view” of the sector is a key USP for the group, Wimpenny believes, and is reflected in graduate training. “They get to see all parts of the business through secondments,” he explains. “People have historically stayed in one business, now we might send them across to the Netherlands. We’re trying to bring through people who are comfortable talking about digital to customers at all stages of the life cycle.

“This is important because we want long-term, collaborative relationships with our clients, such as with Argent at King’s Cross. Digital makes it easier to collaborate – working in a virtual environment, making adjustments to models, which allow you quickly to see the cost implications.”

A conundrum for all construction companies is that, while young recruits come into the business digitally literate, many in the existing workforce are not. BAM is trying to address that through a formalised mentoring system, where the digital skills of younger generations are matched up with technical knowhow of established workers to share knowledge. “Mentoring has always been there informally, but we’ve recognised it needs more structure because of the speed of change,” says Wimpenny.

Wimpenny expects more digital skills to come into the industry from outside construction. “I can see more roles emerging for data analysts – if the attitude is right, we can train the necessary technical construction skills,” he says.

Casting the recruitment net wider is also, Wimpenny adds, an important part of BAM’s Brexit safety net strategy. As is boosting diversity. Wimpenny set up BAM’s diversity steering group three years ago, hiring a consultant to provide a “useful” external insight. “Since then, we’ve run unconscious bias training, introduced ‘blind’ CVs for all recruitment, and last year we supported Pride,” he says.

BAM has decided not to set gender quotas. “A nice ‘problem’ we have is that people tend to stay here a long time, so it is harder to get women in to senior roles – the opportunities aren’t there,” Wimpenny explains. “However, more female recruits are coming through at graduate trainee level and among apprentices.”

Diversity in apprenticeships

BAM focuses its recruitment on apprentice-ships, and since the levy changed two years ago, Wimpenny says it has “allowed us to develop bespoke training, more connected to what we do, than generic industry schemes”. He also sees it as the best way to boost diversity; the company currently has 18 women in apprenticeships, around a fifth of the total, and the CEO says the “proportion is progressively going up”.

Wimpenny on… 

… offsite construction

“We’re examining what we can learn from our parent in the Netherlands. We’ve built up our M&E modular capability with an in-house business, which handles about 50% of our engineering services work.”

“We feel the chance of increasing diversity is better among younger people, whereas graduates have usually already decided about career routes,” he says.

Beyond diversity, BAM is trying to improve “soft” skills more broadly, which Wimpenny says “may be the biggest thing we need to change about our industry, more so than the technical skills”. The company has recently run insight profiling for its staff – which assigns people colours based on their preferred working styles.

Wimpenny says his ‘lead colour’ is green. “I tend to work more on feel,” he says. “I’m not a ‘do this’ type of person, I like to be inclusive and believe you get the best out of people by creating the right environment for them to work in.”

The insight profiling assigns three other lead colours to people: red – competitive, yellow – creative, or blue – analytical. “Understanding how different people react in different situations has been a real eye-opener,” says Wimpenny. “We are a people-driven business so it’s important, for instance, for a project manager to understand the relative strengths of his team so they’re not all charging off in the same direction.

“It’s a fast-changing world, where we need to be quick and agile, so we need the right people in different situations.”

Change management is “not easy in the construction industry”, Wimpenny believes, but says, “we have to recognise it’s necessary”.

“We have 150 years of history at BAM, we’re profitable, we keep winning work – so people think we’re doing ok,” he says. “So it can be hard to get the change message through.

“We see how other industries are changing – we built the new Rolls-Royce factory in Rotherham three years ago, and saw how they completely re-engineered their old factory into a futuristic, hi-tech plant. It’s hard to see such a transformation in construction, but we need to try.”

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