Six months into the job, Bam Construct CEO James Wimpenny sits down with CN to talk margins, Carillion and the shining example of Huddersfield Town.
James Wimpenny’s personality insights profile says he is green-blue, therefore likely to use feelings and then facts in his approach to business.
It’s atypical of the traditional male CEO in construction – he admits his style as Bam Construct boss will be “inclusive”, more likely to mean an arm round the shoulder for his staff than a screaming match.
“My style is not to tell people what to do but get people to open up and be a part of the solution to problems. The people steer the business, I create the environment,” he says.
With the Royal Bam Group wanting his business to make a margin of between 3 and 4 per cent (it’s currently on around 2 per cent) by 2020, he is aware that trusting people to steer the business means they must be willing to speak up.
“We need to ensure we don’t buy bad projects,” he says. “Our order book is the best it’s been for a long number of years in terms of not having problem projects. We need to watch that though and that’s why revenue isn’t a driver for me.
“We need a culture of people speaking up and saying, ‘This is not the right project to go for’, being bold and telling customers we don’t want to play because it can do us, them and the industry a lot of harm. Our industry is very good at saying yes, we can do anything, but you have to realise your limitations and say sometimes, it’s best to walk away.”
Just a fortnight after he succeeded Graham Cash at the helm of Bam, which is the UK’s 16th largest contractor by turnover, Carillion entered liquidation. The collapse of what was then the UK’s second-largest contractor is the backdrop to our entire conversation on risk, reward and the reputation of the industry.
“If you want main contractors to be an integrator, when will people see there has to be a sensible level of margin?”
Despite clients having sounded out Bam on taking over Carillion projects in the weeks and months leading up to its liquidation, he says the final collapse still came as a shock.
“It’s not a good thing for our industry. No one wants to see people of that ilk go out of business, it creates impressions for people who probably don’t understand our industry that well. What does it take to change practices that need to be modernised? If you want main contractors to be an integrator, when will people see there has to be a sensible level of margin?”
Can this be a catalyst for genuine change, I ask? “I’m not sure,” he says. “I’d like to think so, but until we become less fragmented and more cohesive as a group, we’ll struggle a bit.”
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Profile: James Wimpenny
Family: Married to Kerry, with three sons: Matthew, Samuel and Thomas.
Interests: Huddersfield Town season ticket-holder; swims (three times a week); golf (handicap – 20).
Career: Studied at Leeds Polytechnic (now Leeds Metropolitan University). Worked for Percy Trentham on Heathrow Terminal 4 as part of a sandwich degree. Joined Bam in 1985 as a graduate trainee. Worked on sites across the North of England. Joined the Bam board in 2015 and was named CEO on 1 January 2018.
Favourite job: His last as a project manager, building what is now known as the Valley Centertainment leisure park in Sheffield, completed in the late 1990s.
Quote: “Huddersfield [Town] showed it’s not all about the money [by avoiding relegation last season]. It’s about the team spirit, the camaraderie. They created a team that want to win for each other.”
In keeping with his green-blue character, the 54-year-old is full of warmth when the conversation turns to his roots and family.
Born in Huddersfield (he is a season ticket-holder at Huddersfield Town and attends regularly with his family), Mr Wimpenny is a swimmer and a golfer – passions he picked up from his sons. His youngest, Thomas, is training as a site manager with Bam – something that has posed a dilemma for his father, who represents a fifth generation of construction industry veterans.
Was he encouraging his son to follow in his footsteps and become the sixth generation in the family to enter the industry?
“Sometimes you think it’s not necessarily good for him to follow [in his father’s footsteps], but it’s not gone bad so far. I have got a lot of pleasure and enjoyment out of the industry. But following your father, I had that dilemma. Actually, I decided to work for someone else and I don’t regret that or going into the industry.”
“Revenue isn’t a driver; it’s about profitability and cash. Some fall foul of getting too big and it all collapsing. Why do we need to keep growing?”
His great-great-grandfather Joseph’s Huddersfield business, J Wimpenny & Co, was bought out by Willmott Dixon almost 30 years ago, while his father set up Wimpenny Homes, which continues today. Construction was certainly in the blood and having joined Bam as a graduate trainee 33 years ago, he is well placed to know where the business needs to improve.
Mr Wimpenny has been a general foreman, site manager, project manager and construction manager and followed his predecessor Graham Cash in going from regional director to the CEO hotseat.
No more chasing revenue
Bam Construct, like most major contractors, has been guilty of buying revenue in the past and it’s something he’s adamant will not happen under his watch. “I don’t set aspirations [for the size of the business]. Revenue isn’t a driver; it’s about profitability and cash. Some fall foul of getting too big and it all collapsing. Why do we need to keep growing? Are we not just better being the best at what we do, running a strong, stable business where we’re getting cash in and paying our people on time?”
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He insists, however, that he wants Bam to be subject to more scrutiny by clients, as he is confident the company measures up well against the competition. “It always amazes me how people choose people to run multi-million projects in a very ad-hoc way in this industry,” he says.
“Surely if you’re investing the money you’d want to get to know the team, find out what they’re about and their financial stability. Yet the industry rarely seems to take that detail into account. Maybe in the aftermath of Carillion, I hope people will start to take that more into account because it would be better for everybody. Look at payment terms: these should be deciding factors in who you work with.”
“We’ll recycle cash which can give us a better return [in property]. That’s our business model: to top the [construction] margin up on the property and FM side”
He supports companies being forced to disclose their payment terms later this year, but admits he finds league tables galling, as they “don’t provide a real idea of what is going on in the background”, including having to chase their own clients to ensure cashflow.
“We have had to put quite a lot of effort into chasing payment. Keeping money flowing is key; construction is so low margin you have to keep getting it in. I don’t think client payment is particularly bad, government tends to pay well and we tend to focus on clients who do.
“Private developers we must be very cautious around. Our model would be best if we can split between private and public sector, but we’re not always in control of that.”
Private vs public opportunities
On the private side, the company is continuing to look for investment opportunities – particularly in Edinburgh and Glasgow, where it sees an undersupply of property having gone through several years of divesting assets.
Bam is also looking to develop PRS units on its Latitude site in Leeds, where the contractor has already built one office block. “At the moment we feel there’s a market for private rental there, so we’ll recycle cash which can give us a better return [in property]. That’s our business model: to top the [construction] margin up on the property and FM side.”
But it’s the public sector where Mr Wimpenny wants Bam to be achieving 60 per cent of its work, primarily through its focus on frameworks. He points to recent wins – including places on the £8bn ESFA, £500m NHS and £4bn P22 frameworks – as proof Bam can continue to generate plenty of solid work to complement the riskier private sector opportunities.
Leeds University Henry Bragg building Bam Construct
The recent departure of Keith Rayner to McLaren must have come as a blow then, I suggest, given his role in the company securing places on these long-term frameworks. “People come and go,” he says. “Keith was a strong part of a very good team. We’re always disappointed to lose people, but we wish him well and usually Bam people are good wherever they go. It’s not the end of the world. He felt he wanted to move on, try a new challenge and it becomes a personal choice.”
Is he concerned that the knowledge and relationships will depart with him? “We’re a business, not a group of individuals. Our reputation is based on how well we perform, the strength of our teams. Experience in one person doesn’t make it happen; it’s the teams’ experience.”
From his beloved Huddersfield Town to his insights profile, there is a constant emphasis on ‘the team’ from the down-to-earth CEO.
He has a group of younger staff examining how Bam runs its business, with a view to providing recommendations on how it modernises and “futureproofs” the firm.
“I want people in our business taking more ownership, rather than looking to the top for answers. As CEO, I won’t have all the answers.”
Gender pay gap challenge
Bam Construct was the worst performer among the CN100 contractors in terms of its median gender pay gap, which stood at 59.6 per cent at the contractor.
Mr Wimpenny leads a diversity steering group in the business, which was set up two years ago. It has commissioned an external audit of its working practices, rolled out a programme of unconscious bias training for staff, and carried out a gap analysis comparing the firm with companies across other industries.
Currently, one of the company’s four executive board members is female: HR director Andrea Singh. Two of its 16 senior management leaders are female: director of corporate communications Barbara Cahalane, and FM managing director Louise Williamson.
Pressed by CN on what he intends to do about the gap, Mr Wimpenny admits the firm has a lot of work to do, such as “modernising” its return-to-work policies. He intends to make changes, but insists the challenges in construction are unique.
“We don’t have women running our construction businesses. It’s hard to find people with the right skills. You need people who understand [construction] contracts. You need people with a skillset of understanding how the industry works as well.
“Traditionally, I don’t think there are many people who come from other industries into ours because it’s a big risk taking someone from [for example] retail and getting them to run a construction business.
“We would like to have a more [diverse] culture, I want to improve that. The industry has to find better ways of making it attractive to women on flexible / agile working, all these are things that everyone says can’t change, I think they can […] It will help attract and retain senior women.”
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