‘It’s been immense fun – I have massive respect for the members’

29 April 2019 | By Will Mann

The Chartered Institute of Building’s long-serving CEO Chris Blythe retires this month. He reflects with Will Mann on the many changes he has brought to both the institute and the wider industry over 19 eventful years.

January 2000. The dawn of a new millennium. Also, the dawn of a new era at the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB); it was the month that Chris Blythe arrived as CEO.

Back then, the CIOB was running at a loss and stuck in many outdated traditions. Nearly two decades on, it is a financially healthy, forward-looking organisation that leads on many key industry issues – from digital skills and professionalism to ethics and combating modern slavery.

Chris Blythe OBE CV

1976 Graduated from Wolverhampton Polytechnic (now University)

1976 Started as a management accountant with Dunlop. Later worked for Mitel, W Canning, Corgi Toys and GKN

1994 Joined the North & Mid Cheshire Training and Enterprise Council in 1991, becoming chief executive in 1994

2000 Appointed chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Building in January

2017 Received an OBE for services to the “construction industry and government” in the Queen’s New Year Honours

Blythe retires this month, the second longest-serving CEO in the institute’s 185-year history, and is characteristically modest about his achievements.

“My part in this has been helping the members take the institute where it is today,” he says. “I would like to thank all my presidents for their help and leadership and who – at the right time and in the right place – showed why they are so special.

“Special gratitude to all the trustees who I have had the pleasure of working with. Trusteeship is the ultimate CPD. I must thank all the members out there doing a great job in the industry and in doing so enhance the standing of the institute every day. It is quite humbling to be stopped in the street or on a packed train by members I have never met and who treat me like an old friend.

 “The other stars have been the staff at the institute past and present. People who have always done their best for the institute and I am sure will continue. And of course, none of this would have been possible without the support of my family who have, like many families in the industry must, put up with disruption and inconvenience to a normal family life.”

Rewind to January 2000, and the CIOB’s new CEO became aware of the scale of his challenge as soon as he stepped through the door.

“I was planning to go around and meet all the staff,” Blythe recalls, “but a management meeting was arranged. Although it was my first day, nobody had thought to rearrange it, and it ended up running till late afternoon. So I couldn’t start meeting the staff till the next day.

“That summed up how aloof the senior management were from the rest of the institute. It was a cosy old boys’ club. Wine was served with every meeting. They ate lunch in the boardroom. So on my second day, I made sure I ate with the rest of the staff in the canteen.

“I wanted to unpick this unhealthy, entitled, exclusive mentality, and open up the institute so that more people had the chance to contribute.”

Top of Blythe’s in tray was changing the governance structure. “We had to make it clear the status quo was unacceptable, but the execution of the changes had to be right,” he says. “If you are going to slaughter a sacred cow, you need a really sharp knife – otherwise it could bounce back and injure you.”

The CIOB council was reduced from nearly 60 to an elected board of trustees of just 16. Blythe says Allan McMullen, president at the time, played a “big part in this reform”.

Chris Blythe at the Construction Manager of the Year Awards, with: Kate Silverton and silver medal winner Chris Odei from Wallis Interiors in 2007 (top); Claudia Winkleman in 2011 (centre); Steph McGovern and CIOB president Rebecca Thompson in 2017

The branch structure was overhauled, with committee terms limited and bureaucracy cut. “One region’s committee had a member who had been on it for 49 years,” Blythe remembers. “Some committees had 30 members or more. We wanted to free them up and make them more streamlined, which is what the current hub structure allows.”

Perhaps the most significant change for members was the recognition of construction management as a chartered profession, signalling a rise in their influence within, and beyond, the built environment.

“We had to make the process more objective to make it valuable,” Blythe says. “The qualification and standard are now easy to articulate. Chartered is the equivalent to a British bachelor degree, and fellowship is master’s. So we can now benchmark the standard of our members.

“Members appreciate that. They become suspicious if we say want to grow to 60,000 members, because they think we’re diluting the standards. But they recognise the chartered qualification has real value.”

In 2017 he received an OBE...

With recognition, the CIOB increased its chartered members so they now outnumber non-chartered by two to one. “When I started, it was the other way around,” Blythe says.

Ticking over in the background was the improving financial position, which “wasn’t great” back in 2000, Blythe says: “We had operated on an overdraft, and the magazine was losing a vast amount.

“The pension scheme was underfunded by £2.5m and was taking £300,000 a year out of our resources. We then did a deal with an insurance company to take over our pensions and paid our liabilities, which was just before the 2008 financial crash, so very fortunate timing.”

Another big change in the CIOB’s financial position was the disposal of its former Ascot base, and the move to Bracknell in 2013, which also heralded the launch of the CIOB Academy.

“By then we were operating at a surplus, which is how we should operate day to day,” says Blythe. “Our cash flow is very predictable from year to year, which means we can plan better. And whoever takes over as CEO will not have any financial issues to worry about.”

With the institute on a firmer footing, the CIOB became involved with wider industry initiatives, including setting up TrustMark in 2004, which is still going strong today.

“Construction is not a naturally consumer-facing industry, and we wanted the consumer to have more protection and improve the quality of people’s lives,” he says. “We brought in the CIOB’s resources and organisation expertise, and I acted as nominal chief executive of TrustMark for a day a week. Normally, a government endorsement is the kiss of death for any new initiative, so to still see vans with the TrustMark logo 15 years later gives a great sense of pride.”

... and in 2018 he was awarded an honorary doctorate

However, Blythe worries about construction’s culture and business model (see box). He condemned the cover-pricing scandal of a decade ago, noting that “the problem hasn’t gone away” after five fit-out firms were fined for collusion in March, and has been outspoken about the Grenfell tragedy and Carillion’s collapse.

“The image of the industry has been tarnished and – when we have an ongoing recruitment problem – people will wonder why they should join it,” he says.  “The structure needs to change. It leads to poor quality, low productivity, conditions that foster modern slavery – and people dying. We can empower people at site level to do the right thing and speak out when they see something wrong – and the CIOB has tried to do this.”

Aside from these concerns, Blythe feels “the industry is seen in a better light because of the institute’s work”.

He was awarded an OBE in 2017, for services to the “construction industry and the government’’.

“I’m still slightly embarrassed about the OBE, to be honest, because it was down to a lot of other people’s work as well,” Blythe says. “The day at the Palace was brilliant – my son loved it – and Ken Dodd was receiving his knighthood at the same time, so you could say it was a day for comedians.”

He likens the role of the CEO and the CIOB management team to “passing a baton from generation to generation”.

“The trustees and members have a responsibility to ensure the baton is in a better condition each time they pass it on. And that’s what is happening. We now have a very empowered team who make me look really good. And I’m very proud of them.

“From a personal perspective, the job has been immense fun. I have massive respect for members and what they do. If I have any advice to my successor, it is to gain the trust of the members. Because they care.”

Chris Blythe on…

... Professionalism

Dame Judith Hackitt has damned the industry’s professionalism in her report, rightly identifying this “drive to the bottom”. I wouldn’t disagree with anything she’s said. We’ve educated a generation to think that beating up the subcontractor is being professional. Which is shameful.

I hope Grenfell is a turning point – but it shouldn’t need 72 people to die for the industry to start doing the right thing. Being professional is not about having letters after your name; it’s the consequences of what you’re doing.

Industry self-regulation and the culture it created will end. It’s getting to be indefensible, because of events like Grenfell and Carillion’s collapse. We can’t blame this on the working man – the subcontractor – who, after all, is being managed by someone at the top.

… How construction needs to change