My knockout career
The recipient of the first Duke of Gloucester Young Achiever Scheme award is proof that construction still has plenty to offer young entrants – if they’re prepared to fight for it. Jan-Carlos Kucharek reports. Portrait by Douglas Jones
Handing out his Young Achiever’s Scheme awards In November, it could not have escaped the Duke of Gloucester’s notice that recipient of the top award, Brendan Cusick, had his left hand in plaster. The young Sir Robert McAlpine QS had broken it two months before in a boxing ring, delivering an overzealous punch to his opponent at a Scotland versus England select in Stirling. But that hadn’t stopped the feisty regional commercial manager from Fife going the distance to be crowned champion there too.
Cusick admits that it is these pugilistic efforts that have helped him attain the initial successes in his construction career — the latest being crowned Young Achiever of the Year in the new awards set up by the Construction Youth Trust and its patron the Duke to acknowledge excellence among young professionals in the industry.
“Boxing has taught me a lot about discipline, having respect for others and self-control,” he says. “Sometimes, when confronted with a difficult presentation or career challenge, I deal with it by telling myself it can’t be worse than going in the ring with an unknown opponent with 300 people watching, and it usually works.”
At the November awards Cusick won the QS category and then went on to be crowned with the overall award against a strong shortlist of the winners from the architecture, project management and engineering fields. Simon Rawlinson, head of strategic research at EC Harris and one of the judges, says they were “impressed with the way in which he had persuaded his employer and university to take him on — in spite of an unconventional route into the industry — and his success in paying back this trust with great persistence and excellent results”. Winning has earned Cusick a year’s worth of career mentoring from a yet-to-be-announced “senior industry figure”.
The 24-year-old comes from a small mining village outside Dunfermline, the youngest of a family with strong working class roots — his father is a local mechanic and his mother looked after him and his four siblings. Two of Cusick’s eldest brothers are servicemen; one saw active service in the Paras in Iraq, another is in the Royal Marines and a forces championship boxer, while the last one is an instruments technician in the oil and gas industry.
While sharing his brothers’ love of physical exertion, Cusick believes it was essentially the age difference that dictated his choice of study over the military. “Me and my sister were younger, and the era seemed different,” he remembers. “We always felt we would study and try to go to university. She went on to be chemical engineer. I knew I was interested in building, but didn’t know what aspect, and didn’t get much of a steer from my school. In the end I took inspiration from my cousin, who was a QS in America,” he says. But while he could count on the “full support” of his parents, he knew that if he was to study, it was going to have to be financed under his own steam and done in his own time.
The strong allegiance Cusick has to Sir Robert McAlpine is due in no small part to the company’s help at this key point at the start of his career. He initially approached the firm for a paid placement after applying for a part-time degree in surveying at Edinburgh’s Napier University, which offered him a place on the condition that he achieved the required grades in his Highers (A levels). When he just missed the mark, Cusick kept his cool when others might have given up.
“At that point I just had to convince McAlpine that I deserved a chance,” he recalls. “I went back to Napier and kept persisting with them and in the end they relented and said I could have the place, and that was enough for McAlpine.”
But this was just the start. For the next six years Cusick juggled a nine-hour-a-day, four-day-a-week job with a day in university, along with boxing training and semi-professional football for East Fife FC. He says it also involved making some tough decisions. “I love football, but you have to be clear going into it that there are thousands of kids out there with the same dream to play professionally. It took me a while to realise that I wasn’t at the level of some other players, but when I did, I let it go.”
Instead, for the next six years he concentrated his efforts on the day job and evening studies. His final dissertation was on the factors affecting company mergers and acquisitions: “It’s a hot topic in the industry,” he says, citing the recent takeover of Davis Langdon by Aecom. “In the end, determining merger success is based on how the acquiring company treats the staff and maintains the morale of the acquired company — it’s all about how you handle people.” In the same breath Cusick mentions how well he has been supported by Sir Robert McAlpine throughout his studies. He graduated with First Class Honours.
He’s also been supported by McAlpine at his work, from being armed with nothing more than a tape measure and the dimensions of a concrete block at the refurbished Georgian HBOS HQ in Edinburgh through to his involvement on the high-profile £100m+ Foster+Partners Quartermile development, where he dealt with the enabling works package.
For the last two years, including his final year at Napier, he was involved with the £100m National Indoor Sports Arena and Velodrome in Glasgow, due to complete for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Cusick is now moving on to work in a team of three QSs on the £30m extension to Mackintosh’s famous Glasgow School of Art, by US starchitect Steven Holl — a high-profile job he’s hoping will earn him RICS Chartered status.
He’s got ambitions too. Asked where he’d like to be in 10 years, he thinks he’d “like to be a senior industry figure”.
Outside of his own career, Cusick is also considering his role in the wider industry. Having already given time to schools to mentor kids about construction, he’s aiming to become an ambassador for the Construction Youth Trust. Judge Simon Rawlinson says “he wants to make construction cool. It’s a great objective, and we think he’ll succeed.”
The Duke of Gloucester’s Young Achievers Scheme for the Construction Youth Trust aims to promote the professions to young people of all social backgrounds and, as a result, increase the number and diversity of entrants into the construction sector. The CIOB supports the awards, which are sponsored by Aecom, Arup, Byrne Group, John Rowan & Partners, KPMG, the ACA and Trowers & Hamlins.
Winners in the other 2011 award categories were Neil Quinn of BSK CiC for Architecture, Chloe Agg of WSP CEL for Engineering, and Thomas Hillman of Taylor Wimpey South Wales for Construction and Project Management.