CEO Interview - Rick Willmott: ‘It’s vital we respect our people as individuals’
This month, CM launches a new series of CEO interviews – talking to the people heading construction’s leading organisations about how they will meet the skills requirements of their workforces in a fast-changing industry. First up, Will Mann speaks to Willmott Dixon’s group chief executive, Rick Willmott. Photography: Tim Foster.
“It is easy for the company to concentrate solely on its proclaimed activity, with little or no reference to the environment and society of which it forms a part. At Willmott we have, for a long time, recognised our responsibility to help wherever the advice or services our employees can be of use.”
The quote comes from Willmott Dixon’s then chairman Peter Willmott in the 1978 annual report. Four decades later, his son Rick, the current group chief executive, reckons “those words pretty much sum up our philosophy today”.
He has plenty of evidence to prove that Willmott Dixon “walks the walk” – from training and developing staff and suppliers to social value programmes. But Willmott recognises these are fast-changing times for the industry. An ongoing digital transformation, ethics and professionalism in the spotlight, and then Brexit – however it plays out – which has put construction’s skills shortage into even sharper focus.
“Why would anyone join this industry given the Brexit uncertainty?” Willmott says. “At the moment, we feel an inability to influence anything because of the political situation which is very frustrating. It has become very difficult to track ministerial changes and the industry needs to lobby for a minister who can speak up for construction, at a time when we’re losing so many EU workers.”
“In the meantime, what we can do is try to set ourselves up in a way that we continue to attract people, customers and suppliers who will work with us.”
Rick Willmott on:
“The cost of errors is high. If we could rid that from every part of the business, 5% margins are achievable.”
“All members of our construction operations teams are encouraged to be CIOB members – that stamp of professionalism is a third-party assessment of an individual’s capability.”
That includes increasing diversity among its new recruits. The Willmott Dixon Group, which employs 2,500 people, has a set a target of being gender-neutral by 2030.
“Traditionally, we fish from a very male-dominated pool of individuals and we miss out on half the population,” says Willmott. “All the evidence shows, if you have a balanced scorecard on diversity, you perform better.”
He admits the target “has generated some interesting feedback”. “Male staff members were asking, ‘will we be positively discriminated against?’, and the females were saying, ‘are you dropping the bar on standards?’” Willmott says. “I said, ‘absolutely not’, to both questions.
“Our recruitment statistics show that 38% of male candidates are employed, and 35% of female candidates. So we’re not discriminating against anyone. But we need to get more women through the interview process.”
Currently, 25% of staff are female, though the firm had a 51% female management trainee intake in 2018, so the strategy is moving in the right direction.
Beyond traditional recruiting
Willmott Dixon has also started a returners programme, Welcome Back, which offers women a trial at the company, even if they lack industry experience. For its first intake, the company received over 100 applications, with four women picked for a 20-week paid placement, to finish later this month. Willmott says the company will use agile working, flexible working and “as much as tech as possible” to help the programme.
On the topic of technology, becoming more digitally enabled will also help draw recruits from beyond that traditional pool, Willmott believes. “There are two key points here,” he says. “Firstly, the millennial generation is obviously very digitally enabled, as well as caring more about issues like sustainable development. Secondly, there are huge productivity benefits to BIM – fewer clashes, better coordination, less wasted work.
“It is a big part of our training, because all our Scape work is at BIM Level 2, so 60% of our site workers will be working to that level.”
He points to the “BIM Cave” at the company’s Birmingham office, where the immersive environment allows Willmott Dixon to explain a building’s design and construction to customers or potential recruits, using 3D models and 280-degree videos.
“It is great for non-professionals who don’t understand 2D drawings, and can be really useful for clients – at the Menai Science Park project, we used our BIM model to help sell commercial space to tenants,” Willmott explains.
He expects data from finished projects to grow in importance: “We have developed our digital reporting tools so that every project we complete is reported in the same way, which makes it easier for ourselves and our customers to access and make use of all this data.”
Willmott Dixon has also encouraged its supply chain to come forward with digital ideas, which led to the current trial of an exoskeleton, provided by tech firm Ekso Bionics, on a site in Wales.
Supply chain relations
The company’s supply chain relations are strong, exemplified by its position at the head of the Build UK payment league, paying its suppliers more quickly than any other member.
Rick Willmott on:
“We want our suppliers to reflect our values, which means, I hope, they pay their suppliers on time as well. It falls apart for everybody when people don’t play the game.”
“When you scratch below the surface in the communities where we work, the level of deprivation is staggering. Big business has a duty to assist and make that more of its purpose.”
“It is about ethics,” says Willmott. “And as part of our Brexit protection plans, we need good suppliers who want to work for us. We can only deliver projects using our supply chain, so if we don’t pay them on time, it will have a knock-on effect on our own business.”
Willmott also recognises that suppliers are key to quality, which he describes as “a massive issue” for the industry.
“We keep a record of how much we’ve had to spend on rework, and year on year we’re seeing it come down dramatically, helped by good quality management systems,” he explains.
This is also about understanding what “quality” looks like, says Willmott. Last year, the company launched its “Yellow Book”, a manual which brings more standardisation to design choices, with the aim of flushing out defects through high repeatability and ultimately providing better quality outcomes.
“It is born of a belief that, if we ask 10 architects to detail, for example, a window reveal, they would each come up with a design that conformed to the required standard – but every single one would be different!” says Willmott. “So, with the Yellow Book, we are saying, ‘this is our design and that’s what you will get’.”
Quality management has, of course, been a key focus for the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) over the past year, and Willmott says: “All members of our operational teams are encouraged to be Chartered Institute of Building members – that stamp of professionalism is a third-party assessment of an individual’s capability.” The group also led with the CIOB on its modern slavery campaign, and gives strict guidelines to all its supply chain on their obligations.
Driving ethical initiatives
Willmott Dixon’s ethical values extend into the communities where it works. Although the Social Value Act was passed in 2012, Willmott says there have been “limited obligations on a contractor” to date. But in November, Cabinet Office minister David Lidington announced “new rules to drive social change” through public procurement, and Willmott says customers are now asking construction to step up.
“We’ve already done the thinking, with initiatives like Ready for the Gate, working with offenders at HM Prison Elmley – we opened a new dry-lining academy there last month – and our Building Lives Academy in Croydon,” Willmott says. The Croydon scheme, a ‘pop up’ academy that can move from site to site as projects complete, won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise and Willmott Dixon now plans to migrate it round the country.
Rick Willmott CV
- Joined Willmott Dixon in 1982 as a project management trainee.
- Seconded to Department of the Environment in 1993.
- Appointed group chief executive in 2008.
- Fifth family member to lead the business since its founding in 1852.
- Set up and chairs the Willmott Dixon Foundation, the group’s charitable arm.
- UKGBC trustee.
The company is also beta-testing a social value reporting tool. “It allows customers to choose from a shopping list of social value initiatives – such as homelessness, work experience, young offenders – which they would like us to roll out in their community, and can be up to 15% of project value,” Willmott says.
Measuring social value is difficult, he acknowledges, and the company currently uses the National TOMs (themes, outcomes, measures) framework. “It’s a bit arbitrary but you have to start somewhere,” Willmott says.
Willmott Dixon staff feedback shows it is doing something right. Now in its 10th year, the engagement score of the latest annual staff survey was 83%. “The company which runs the scheme says 60% is ‘world class’,” says Willmott. The group also ranked 14th in the 2017 Sunday Times Best Companies To Work For league table.
That can be attributed partly to its social value work, and its attitude to training – “We actually increased training during the recession, when other companies were cutting it,” says Willmott – but it’s also down to the company’s belief in looking after its people.
“Our staff spend the majority of their time with colleagues and in work premises the company provides, so if they are unhappy, then we’ve not really done our duty,” says Willmott.
“It’s vital they feel respected as an individual. All our managing directors will meet anyone we bring into business. They each look after around 250 people – with that number we think they should be able to know everyone in their part of the business, and not pass someone in the corridor and think ‘who is that?’.
“We also consider their families,” Willmott continues. “We had a recent instance of a new joiner who was diagnosed with cancer three months later. But our insurance meant he received 18 months’ income, and happily he is now in full remission. His wife wrote to us saying ‘he wouldn’t have got that support anywhere else’. These are tough things to talk about, but we believe in providing that vital safety net.
“We think long and hard about the individual’s needs, and the difference an individual can make to an organisation. If we can meet their expectations, and harness their potential, then we create an environment for sustainable development.”