To mark the launch of Build UK, chief executive Suzannah Nichol sat down with Construction News to discuss how main and specialist contractors will work together to improve payment and prequalification and her belief that the organisation avoid the pitfalls that sank the defunct Construction Confederation.
Suzannah Nichol doesn’t ‘do’ lunch. It’s a waste of time, the Build UK chief executive tells me over coffee at a private members’ club in Shoreditch.
“People often want to meet and then have lunch. Why do two things? What am I going to do, have a nice conversation about… (she trails off).
“Time is one of the most precious resources and we’re responsible for managing our own,” she says.
After 20 years in the industry and with, she says, another 20 to go, efficiency and focus are crucial.
As of this week, she is leading a membership organisation of main and specialist contractors that has a final shot at speaking with one powerful voice for the industry.
Build UK is the new member body representing main and specialist contractors following the merger of the UK Contractors Group and the National Specialist Contractors’ Council.
In her former role as NSCC chief executive, Staffordshire-born Ms Nichol was well known for her no-holds-barred approach to main contractors, particularly when it came to lobbying for fair payment.
I remind her of the time I saw a main contractor board member practically shrink back against the wall as she – politely, she insists – demanded a meeting over its payment terms.
Now that she is representing 27 main contractors, including the UK’s biggest in Balfour Beatty and Carillion, as well as more than 11,500 specialists, how will she gain the trust of those she has criticised in the past?
“It’s really important I gain their trust. We have a broad membership now and everyone is going to come back to asking, ‘What is the purpose? What are we there to do?’
“We need to look and find a business model for construction which means everyone gets paid on time, fairly.”
Ms Nichol deflects the question by repeatedly admitting she has no “magic wand” to solve payment problems within the industry, but claims that from discussions so far, there is “very little between what everyone wants to achieve”.
“We have a broad membership and everyone is going to come back to asking, ‘What is the purpose? What are we there to do?’”
“Everyone says, ‘We don’t want retentions withheld’, or, ‘We want 30-day payment terms’. Actually what we all want is a good business model that allows companies in construction to thrive and flourish.”
But isn’t this a softening on the demand for 30-day payment terms she has made time and time again while leading the NSCC?
I remind her that she told me in 2012 she wanted the government to “take a close look” at those companies that weren’t paying on time, a clear indication they shouldn’t be winning public sector work.
“Thirty days is in the Fair Payment Charter, there’s no softening [of my stance]. There are contractors who say. ‘We pay quicker than that’. Thirty days is the business norm for everybody.
Meeting of minds
After 13 years representing specialists, Ms Nichol admits it will take time for ‘Build UK’ to become the new norm.
“It’s a bit like changing your name after getting married,” she says.
“One of the trade association [members] says it’s a bit like courting. Do we like enough of the same thing that we’re happy to jump into bed…
”Construction News had a fantastic cover shot [when the merger was announced], I was at the airport heading off to see my parents in Belize and somebody emailed it to me, the picture was pretty much what it was like.
“One of our major clients said if we could talk to our supply chain in one room that would revolutionise things.
“We had our first meeting of members and achieved more in two hours being in the same room than we have achieved in the industry on prequalification in two years.
“Within the first five minutes there was complete agreement about what we wanted to achieve… it was really quite exciting.”
“It’s in everyone’s interests to have a really clear policy. Let’s sit down, so that we can turn to clients and say: this is the industry standard, this is how the industry works – how we get best value, efficiency savings, best performance, health and safety and reduce costs.
“We’ve never been good at presenting that to clients.”
Contractors have tended to ask what the client wants, rather than setting out what they offer, she says.
Ms Nichol sets out a clear vision of both her role and that of Build UK, despite the need to hammer out the finer details of how it will operate.
A team of 12 staff will be in place to support the chief executive, including deputy CEO Jo Fautley, training and health and safety managers, a policy director and a communications team.
Ms Nichol will “prioritise ruthlessly”, which means contractors will be dealing with the appropriate person on the Build UK team.
For those CEOs at main contractors worried about going to meetings and being harangued over payment terms, she insists her job will be to get main and specialist contractors to the table, rather than to lead the discussion.
“I can’t wave a magic wand and say you need to pay that person better. I need to find out why they don’t in the first place”
“My job might just be making sure they have enough water. And that is fine.
“If everyone walks out thinking their life might be a little bit better than it was yesterday, then that’s what I do.
“I can’t wave a magic wand and say you need to pay that person better. I need to find out why they don’t in the first place.”
On other issues that have proved controversial in the past, such as the UKCG hitching itself to the CBI Construction Council, rather than supporting the Strategic Forum for Construction, Ms Nichol practises what she’s preaching to Build UK members: collaboration.
The organisation will be a part of the Strategic Forum, which Ms Nichol identifies as the best forum for industry to work on supporting the joint industry-government Construction Leadership Council.
Friends in high places
As for the CBI, the business lobby group the UKCG worked hard to become affiliated with, its role as a conduit to government will continue to be important, she says, but its purpose needs to be understood.
“CBI is fantastic at the macroeconomic issues, and it needs the construction view in there to form them.
“They will tell you they’re not there to represent construction. They are there to represent business – and construction is a key part of that.
“What we have to do is work out how to dovetail so the CBI does its business and we support it with a really good, strong construction angle so it understands that.”
“We need to fully understand why we pay a levy and have a skills shortage. I’m not blaming anyone for that”
A prime example of the way Build UK needs to work with the CBI is on the proposed national apprenticeship levy, currently out for consultation, which could see the future of the CITB called into question, should the construction levy be axed.
Ms Nichol says she is a passionate supporter of the principle behind the CITB, but stops short of endorsing the organisation itself. The government’s review is a “serious issue”, she adds.
“We need to fully understand why we pay a levy and have a skills shortage. I’m not blaming anyone for that, I just don’t think we’re smart about how we use that money.
“But we have to do more than let the CITB work at it. Their purpose is not simply to pay back the levy in grant; it’s to make sure we have the right skills in the right places to deliver what clients want.”
She won’t confirm whether she wants to see the CITB levy retained in a new format until she has consulted Build UK’s members, saying only that their initial feedback has been along similar lines.
“If people don’t want to work with me because I’m female, that’s their problem not mine – I don’t take it personally”
But her warning to the industry is that the alternative is to “get what’s imposed on us”, which is why it’s vital the CBI, which will contribute to the consultation on behalf of business, needs to understand the specifics as they affect construction.
That she understands the intricacies of the industry is something Ms Nichol should have no problem convincing people of.
Since graduating from Liverpool University with a BA Honours in Building Management and Technology more than 20 years ago, Ms Nichol has been a site engineer with Lovell Construction, spent time with Bovis and been director of health and safety at the old Construction Confederation.
She received an MBE for services to the construction industry 10 years ago.
Age not gender?
Already one of the highest-profile women in the construction industry, she says her age was more of a barrier to progression than her gender when she started out.
Perhaps people do discriminate against her because she’s female, but it’s not something that even occurs to her.
“My friends would say I’m a tough cookie. The issue I always had was I was young, and that was more of a disadvantage than being female.
“There were three girls on my course at university. I played rugby. I’m not your typical girl, but I’m still feminine.
“If people don’t want to work with me because I’m female, that’s their problem not mine – I don’t take it personally.”
Asked for her reaction to the results of Construction News’ survey last month, which found homophobic attitudes were still prevalent among contractors, Ms Nichol insists it’s not the industry’s job to attract different people simply for diversity’s sake.
“I’ve never gone down the diversity argument of attracting people because we want to diversify the workforce.
“We want the right workforce, with the right skills who are keen and enthusiastic and want to work hard. And the truth is most people want to do that anyway.
“In construction we say, ‘Come and be a plasterer’. Who at 16 wants to become a plasterer? You can be anything in this industry”
“But the truth is that when we’re recruiting we’re not very smart. The army says, ‘Come and join the army’, and when you go in and say ‘I like the sound of that’, they tell you, ‘This is what we need… we need frontline, we need chefs, we need sergeants.
“In construction we say, ‘Come and be a plasterer’. Who at 16 wants to become a plasterer?
“You can be anything in this industry. You like numbers and want to be an accountant? We’ve got shedloads of those. You want to be an engineer? I’m an engineer and I can’t think of a better way to start your career.”
Build UK action plan and board
Build UK’s action plan will focus on the image of construction, skills, prequalification, fair payment and health and safety.
Its board, chosen to oversee strategy, consists of joint chairmen James Wates (Wates Group) and Kevin Louch (Stanford - Association of Concrete Industrial Flooring Contractors), Paul Abson (Bouygues UK), Mark Castle (Mace Group), Greg Craig (Skanska), Matt Nicholson (Lakesmere - National Federation of Roofing Contractors), Julie White (D-Drill - Drilling and Sawing Association), and Steve Bratt (Electrical Contractors’ Association).
Will Build UK be the body that changes that? Can it break down the traditional silo mentality, where contractors and subcontractors operate separately and suspiciously of each other and too often descend into adversarial recriminations?
The Construction Confederation, the last organisation to bring main contractors and specialists together, ended in acrimony six years ago, wound up after it went bust owing millions of pounds. What will be different this time?
Ms Nichol smiles and insists there are reasons to be optimistic that this will work.
“We don’t want another Construction Confederation. Eighty per cent plus of what we talk about, or what inhibits our business, is the same stuff – we just look at it from different sides.
“It’s like a big jigsaw. Between us we all want the same picture but we hide pieces of the puzzle from each other. If we get it all out on the table we can start to put it together and very quickly make progress.
“We want to make a real difference. Our mantra is be bold, be brave. If we’re up for it, we can do it.”
It’s a big statement on a huge job for which she will need contractors’ loyalty and support. No wonder Ms Nichol doesn’t have a minute to spare.