An audience with Alan Crane
Opening up the membership and engaging with younger members remains a huge challenge for the CIOB. But if anyone can do it, new president and natural showman Alan Crane can. Denise Chevin met him. Photos by James Cant
In an era when construction can often seem monochromatic, the CIOB’s new president is by contrast a blaze of colour. In the 90 minutes spent with Alan Crane CBE, on home turf in Kent, he effortlessly justifies his reputation as of one of the industry’s biggest personalities. The conversation is saturated with anecdotes and yarns. Crane recalls the day he accompanied his mentor — the Czech-born Sir Frank Lampl — around Prague assuming the great man knew the place like the back of his hand. Until the penny dropped that it was his first visit. Sir Frank was just too embarrassed to say so.
Then there’s a bit of a saga when he was advising the Greek government on the 2004 Olympics and accused it of unprofessional procurement practices.
He has a story to tell about the time he walked out on a meeting with Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair after telling them the 50% university places quota policy was madness. And let’s not forget the episode when Maggie Thatcher tried to sue him for £26m when he was a Southwark councillor in the 1980s.
So, the 109th president of the CIOB is a bit of a showman. Or in the words of a former colleague “great fun, someone with an interest in people who lifted the atmosphere when he was in the room”. And, of course, he’s “great at understanding the power of communication.” None of these attributes will go amiss driving forward his modernising agenda.
On the menu for his time in office are plans to continue to align the professional body more closely with the needs of industry — including shaping university courses to be more employment-friendly. He wants to get the ball rolling on the introduction of new forms of qualifications, which has already raised the hackles among some members who are accusing the CIOB of dumbing down.
These proposals form part of a new strategic plan involving the introduction of specialist qualifications for those in the industry that do not necessarily need a full-blown chartered status, but may want a qualification such as a diploma in design management, or other specialisms, which the CIOB is keen to develop and offer.
The plans set out by CEO Chris Blythe in Construction Manager last month received a very mixed reaction on CM’s website.
Crane says the institute is responding to the needs of industry. “I think I am more able to do that because I come from that background,” he says.
That is hard to argue with. Crane, 66, has more than 40 years of industry experience, including 20 at Bovis, where he rose to chief operations director in charge of international operations everywhere except the US.
A glittering array of projects have come under his wing, including the Petronas Towers in Malaysia and Eurodisney in Paris. At one point in his Bovis career he was seconded to develop Canary Wharf and put in charge of building the £4bn London Docklands development. He’s also run a consulting engineering firm,Travers Morgan, and a civils contractor, Christiani & Nielsen, and over the years sat on every industry committee going, from the Chair of the Movement for Innovation, the forerunner to Constructing Excellence, to the Architects Registration Board. No one was surprised when he was awarded a CBE in 2003 for services to innovation in the construction industry.
These days he runs his own consultancy including a few days a week with architect Bennetts Associates advising on contracts and design management. He and founder Rab Bennetts go back a long way.
As well as helping make construction education more relevant, Crane’s other goals include encouraging more people to join through non-university routes and the development of a new international qualification along the lines of an international certificate in construction management. “The word chartered means something different in different parts of the globe,” he says. “We want to introduce something that is instantly recognised around the world.” Chartered UK CIOB members would automatically qualify for this new qualification.
He’s already on record, too, as wanting to inject more fun. But what does he mean by that?
“I don’t necessarily mean ‘fun’ in the industry at large. I’m not so egotistical to think I can bring it back into construction generally. I suppose I mean from being a CIOB member. I want to make participation fun and with it bring more ideas in to the CIOB from the membership.”
He says the structure of the organisation works against the flow of ideas coming from the membership. The conduit for this is the members’ forum, which draws its participants from branch representatives. Like all professional institutions, branch meetings don’t draw the numbers they once might have done, as professionals increasingly rely on their social and online networks for interaction. The result is that the members’ forum has grown a bit stale. “I don’t think we’ve any decent policy ideas coming through from the members’ forum in the last three years,” is Crane’s summation.
Crane would like to see a greater representation of the views of members from the world via greater use of video conferencing and the opinions of the under 30s via the Novus groups. “That’s what I mean by fun — if you think you can make a difference.”
There is certainly a feeling among younger members that the CIOB needs to engage with the membership more.
As one summed it up: “Out of all their membership what percentage do they feel they touch each year outside of these events? Probably very few. Do they feel they are in danger of being superseded by the internet, as ‘networks’ on the internet become stronger and stronger and more valuable in terms of information, connections and events. Are they in danger of becoming out of date?”
Crane admits to being behind the curve when it comes to the likes of Twitter, but has taken his first tentative step on the online networks scene by starting a group on LinkedIn asking for member feedback. He’s doing a pretty good job trying to respond too.
Like his predecessor James Wates, Crane will wear the chains of office for 18 months rather than the customary 12 months. This is because Peter Jacobs, who was to have taken up the role in summer 2011, has had to postpone his presidency.
Some point out that even with the extra six months in the job, that is still a very short time to make one’s mark. But Crane says you can’t judge it like that as the period shaping policy is in reality far longer: there’s been three years as vice president and five years before that sitting on various major boards.
In fact, he made his mark from the word go when he got involved with the CIOB in 1982 when he won Construction Manager of the Year. Ironically, at the time he wasn’t eligible to become a CIOB member, as to qualify for membership you had to have a degree. Crane came up through the site route, starting as a trainee painter.
“I thought they were going to take the award off me when they discovered I wasn’t a member,” he says.
“At the time, though, half the people running major projects at Bovis were in a similar position. I thought, this is bloody stupid, so I joined the Professional Practice Board and helped develop an entry route for people without degrees.
“I naively thought that having worked to set this up I’d be able to join, but I was told I still had to attend classes one night a week and do the exams. I was director of Bovis at the time and didn’t have time for that. In the end they put me through a special entry route. It was subsequently updated so you could go to college part-time to study construction management, or go through a rigorous assessment, write a thesis and undertake a review by a panel of assessors. During the last 20 years perhaps as many as 500 people a year have come through that route.”
Crane would like to see this system revisited so there is less emphasis on panel review. “The problem is that there’s not an applied standard, and decisions can become a bit of nonsense. Around 93-94% pass the panel interview in the UK, but in other parts of the world it can be much lower. In one country we changed the panel and the pass rate virtually doubled.”
Crane points out other “nonsenses” that the system has thrown up, such as one major client’s construction director getting rejected because he didn’t have a detailed knowledge of aspects of health and safety “even though you wouldn’t have expected him to”.
While many of Crane’s peers also progressed through the trades to management, that path is not so well trodden today. As we speak there’s a great deal of debate in the sector as to whether placing so much emphasis on going to university is such a good idea.
What does the new president make of it? Crane rolls his eyes. “I remember being called to a meeting in Downing Street in 1998, with 12 senior people from different industries. The government wanted to explain its proposals to get 50% of 18-year-olds going to university. Most of the other industrialists were saying ‘that’s a good idea.’ I said that’s not what my industry needs. What we need are people who have gone through further education, getting HNDs or HNCs.
“To his credit Mandelson said I had a point. But Tessa Blackstone told me I was talking absolute rubbish and that this was the new policy. So I said I may as well leave and walked out.
“Fourteen years on, the damage that policy has done to our industry has been enormous. Vocational routes have virtually dried up. The old polys, which used to be fantastic places, have been ruined by turning them into universities.”
As should be apparent by now, another of Crane’s hallmarks is that he speaks his mind. Says someone who knows him well: “Alan can be a bit of a point-and-shoot individual. He’s controversial and outspoken and not really the world’s best listener — he’s so used to being at the helm.”
He adds, only half jokingly: “I think Chris [Blythe] and the team might find it a traumatic period of time.
“Alan really is a fantastic character and a great orator and has a great standing with the business community, particularly among the older crowd. But those under 40 wouldn’t necessarily know him. And if he wants to engage with that group of people that really is a major challenge.”
Crane has been involved with projects that include Petronas Towers in Malaysia, Eurodisney and Canary Wharf
The new president on…
“Hopefully those promises made by Paul Morrell earlier this year [about BIM to become compulsory on all public sector contracts] will come to pass – most don’t in government. There’s great benefit using BIM at the very start of a project – it has to be in place before any design starts at the feasibility stage. It has great potential for increasing efficiencies. I think 20-25% is an underestimation. One thing we used to bang on about at the Movement for Innovation was the number of times something was redesigned during the course of the project. Being able to co-ordinate changes automatically will have an enormous impact.”
… government policy
“I don’t know what government policy is. It doesn’t stand still for more than a couple of months — look at the fiasco over the feed-in tariffs, though they should never have been offered in the first place. One of the problems is that the government confuses construction with house building, which only accounts for less than 10% of our industry. And they don’t seem to understand — like the previous government did — that construction is such a good economic generator.”
… the highs and lows of his career
“One of the most enjoyable things was being asked by the government to run the Rethinking Construction agenda in the wake of the Egan report in 1998, which promoted collaborative working. There’s less of that now in the recession, but there has certainly been a lasting legacy. You see far more integrated teams and more collaboration than there ever was before. Though there is still too much subbie bashing. The low point careerwise has to be when Sir Frank Lampl died in 2011. He was such a special person and we did so many things together.”
… his run in with Maggie
“I was very active in labour politics in the 1970s and 80s and was part of Southwark’s loony left — I was the cabinet member for housing for seven to eight years. When we refused to set a rate in 1986 Margaret Thatcher said she would personally issue a writ against me. I was a director of Bovis at the time. I nearly became a Labour MP and was invited to stand as a candidate in a London constituency that already had a Labour MP who the local party couldn’t stand. John Prescott pleaded with me not to take up the selection. I got a bit disillusioned after that.”
The new CIOB president responds to questions from construction professionals on networking site LinkedIn
#Barry Ashmore You say you are a very positive person and won’t stay in the same room as someone who says something can’t be done. So here’s my question: Are you prepared to insist that all members of the CIOB utilise fair contractual terms in their dealings with their supply chain, and expose those members who indulge in subbie bashing? It could definitely be done, but are you prepared to do it?
#Alan Crane I have been pressing that issue for over a decade. I/we can make it clear that is what we expect from members, but I have no control over commercial companies. If Chartered Building Companies are alleged to be behaving unethically then we can investigate.
#David A Leaf A client said to me last week: “It’s a good time to tender; fantastic pricing.” I said that was the most horrifying statement I had heard in a long time. I reminded him that his final account will bear little resemblance to his tender. “Why’s that?” he said.
#Alan Crane David, you might also tell him he will be lucky if his contractor survives long enough to finish his project. It is a historical fact that more firms go under coming out of recession than going in due to low prices/suicide bidding which cannot be sustained when recovery is underway.
#Martin Crandon Hi Alan, Congratulations on your appointment. Do you think that the CIOB could play a leading role in training and accrediting Green Deal assessors under the Green Deal due to start next October? If assessors had a CIOB background they would add much more value than other “non property” training organisations. Just a thought.
#Alan Crane Martin, many thanks for your comments. I think picking up your Green Deal assessor idea has potential and I will get appropriate staff to pick it up and investigate. Also we will be responding to the consultation, so please send any comments to David Hawkes for him to include in our submission.
#Raymond K Quirke Why isn’t an international British qualification recognised by the CIOB? My RIBA Part I honours degree from a London university is not recognised in CIOB qualification structure. The CIOB is therefore unable to show me a study path to full membership. I am prepared to study, but where do I start? It seems strange and I find it difficult to understand.
#Alan Crane Raymond, In principle your honours degree should be recognised on the qualification path, depending of course on the level achieved. We have many architects in chartered membership. Have you contacted Sharon Stevens?