Our focus this week is on Fraser Wells, who takes us through his extensive career in construction, his current senior role with developer Durkan and his thoughts on the industry as a career choice for young people.
Hi Fraser, please tell us a little about yourself and Durkan.
Durkan is a leading developer and construction company working in London and the Home Counties. I’ve been in the industry for 30 years, working with everyone from local councils to some of the biggest names in housebuilding.
As my title suggests, I head up the partnerships side of the business, exploring collaborative ways of working with local authorities and housing associations. Together, we find new ways to provide much-needed housing and community infrastructure in a climate of continued public sector budgetary pressures and cuts.
Can you tell us about your career path?
After early hopes of becoming a pilot with the RAF were dashed, I started my A-Levels. I only stayed for a term though – I quickly became disillusioned with my courses and wanted to move into the real world.
I was fortunate to get a job at Broxbourne Council as a trainee engineer, learning on the job four days a week while working towards professional qualifications at college. My initial goal was to go into civil engineering and I never really gave much thought to a career in housebuilding.
But once I’d qualified, I was approached by someone I’d met at the council and started working at McLean Homes in North London as an assistant engineer. I was there for 11 years, progressing through the ranks to a development director role and then regional MD for the business.
After moving on in 2001 I spent two years at Ward Homes, before taking an offer to be part of Willmott Dixon’s first foray into private residential development. This was where I started gaining experience of working on joint venture projects and liaising with organisations like local authorities and housing associations.
I got the opportunity to join Durkan in 2012 after three years as a consultant for Wates Living Space. Durkan’s DNA is public-sector focused and they have a leading reputation in London and the South East. I jumped at the chance to join and help build relationships with public sector partners as they looked for new funding mechanisms.
What is it that got you interested in the housebuilding sector?
My Dad was always a helpful source of advice. When I decided A-Levels weren’t for me, he suggested I look into apprenticeships. Even then I turned my focus to engineering, and it wasn’t until my work at McLean steered me towards housebuilding that I found out much more. It was what I learned while there which really sold housebuilding to me.
I started in about 1988, and it was an exciting time to get into housebuilding. Delivery was much quicker than it is today. It felt productive. Housing is still very much on the political agenda but ultimately the stringency of today’s planning process means timescales are longer.
Are there any past projects and/or mentors that have been particularly inspiring?
There have been so many it’s hard to pick just one! The real yardstick for me is being able to drive past a site 10 or 15 years after being involved and still be pleased with the way it looks. Seeing developments prove their quality by standing the test of time is something that always makes me feel proud.
During my time at Durkan, we’ve had great success with a school in Putney which was completed around 18 months ago. We’ve had some fantastic feedback from the head teacher there to say how much everyone has enjoyed being in the new school buildings. It’s really rewarding to know we’ve delivered high-quality results for the local community. We had CGIs made of what we wanted the site to look like and comparing them to the pictures we have post-construction it’s hard to tell the difference in some cases.
I’m also very positive about our work on The Exchange with Aylesbury Vale District Council – the latest phase of a £12m project to regenerate the town centre. I see it as a really positive example of what partnerships with local authorities can achieve. With local authorities being forced to find new funding mechanisms, it’s great to be part of an innovative approach to tackling this in a way which really benefits the community.
In terms of mentors, it would have to be the first person who trained me when I started at Broxbourne Council. He always looked out for me and taught me everything he knew. I ended up being quite close with him and his family. At Durkan, I work with a number of people who I have a lot of respect for and whose advice I listen to, but as my first mentor he really stands out.
What is it about your role that you find most satisfying?
Many of the projects we work on at Durkan have a range of affected stakeholders, all of whom come to the table with different priorities. I enjoy the intricacies of trying to manage this. Part of my job involves walking into a room of stakeholders with their own requirements, opinions and interests and trying to find a creative solution which works for everyone. It’s an important process which brings public and private sectors together to create new homes and communities. You need to have empathy and an understanding of each position. Seeing these partnerships grow successfully is a particularly satisfying part of the job.
I’m also glad that my role allows me to see projects through from planning to completion and handover. It’s important to maintain a central and consistent point of contact when working with stakeholders to develop a mutual trust – changing their point of contact before the job is done can have a detrimental effect on the relationship. As it’s my job to keep relationships positive, I’m able to play a role until the last brick is laid.
When you go onsite, are there jobs that you see that you see being done that you find particularly admirable?
I really admire site managers and project managers for how they handle the challenges of their roles. There are so many complexities involved in delivering a site – particularly in terms of health and safety – and being responsible for that takes a great deal of work and skill. They do a fantastic job and play a vital role in the construction industry, and it’s regrettable that there are fewer people coming through with the skills necessary to fill these vital positions in the future. We’re in an ageing sector and need to find a way to address this.
In terms of job satisfaction and career potential, what do you think housebuilding offers that other sectors don’t?
The breadth of opportunity available in the sector is one of its most valuable assets. It’s not just about construction – there are so many different facets involved. Just at Durkan for example we cover aspects ranging from land acquisition to design to sales and marketing. I think we can offer a longevity and range of choices that many other industries can’t.
The scope of the modern housebuilding sector also gives us the chance to increase our influence on the wider environment. We aren’t just building homes – as developers we have the chance to have a major impact on the future of the areas we work in. Housebuilders are able to provide community benefits, shape local areas and even help to create them. We can have a huge impact on the way people live, work and socialise, ultimately creating long-term communities. Providing this kind of social value with our developments is an exciting element of working in the sector, and one that our public sector partners are increasingly focused on following Chris White MP’s recent review of the Social Value Act.
What’s your advice to those considering or applying for a job in UK housebuilding right now?
There are so many different opportunities involved in the industry, and joining at an early stage will give you the chance to see how the sector works and decide how you can best fit into it. Once you take that first step there are so many avenues you can go down and companies can provide support in helping to find the career path that’s right for you. The industry is opening up – as well as widening the number of careers available it’s also promising to see us starting to change from being such a male-dominated industry. We have an all-female site team on our Barlow Estate project in Southwark which provides a prime example of this, and it’s good to see progress being made.