Now the managing director of the largest independent housebuilder in the South West, Cavanna Homes, Keith Miller exclusively tells us here about how he has worked through the construction industry to his senior role.
Your career path is inspiring – what got you into construction and what route has brought you to your current role?
I started out straight from school as an apprentice bricklayer with Tyson Building Contractors in the North West of England, following in my brother’s, father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, as this was very much a family tradition.
After my apprenticeship I trained as an estimator, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, you estimate how much material, labour and equipment will be needed for various construction projects. This helped give me an even better insight into the wider construction industry and certainly how much things cost.
After working as an estimator, I then worked as a surveyor before moving into commercial management with Redrow, first at their North Wales headquarters and later in the West Midlands and in the Bristol division. This was a great experience which gave me the opportunity to then set up their West Country division in 2014, becoming regional director – and that’s how I ended up in the South West to then become the managing director of Cavanna Homes.
Given your ‘hands-on’ roots – does the role of MD keep you close to the action on site, or is there a lot of delegation? What do you enjoy most about it?
We are lucky enough to keep all our developments within two hours from our base in Torquay. This allows me in my role as MD to visit our sites on a regular basis to stay up-to-date on how well the development is progressing and the next steps – this is a very enjoyable part of my job. Even after all this time, I still find it very rewarding seeing the brilliant progress our skilled teams have made, starting with empty land full of potential, to a stunning development of new homes.
Our site managers are very hands-on, which is great as they keep regular contact with our teams enabling me to take a step back and focus on other aspects of the business. There is a lot of delegation but our team’s structure enables everyone to play an important role in the housebuilding process.
What are the most notable changes to working in the industry, from when you started to now?
Since Cavanna Homes was founded, getting on for a century ago, we’ve seen many changes in the homebuilding sector, but our biggest challenge now is the same as when it was in the post-war years; our nationwide shortage of housing is almost as severe as it was back then.
The challenge now is not only to build new homes, but to build the kind of homes that our buyers enjoy living in and which we are proud to put our name to, while contributing to the government’s ambitious housebuilding initiative for one million homes to be built between 2015 and 2020.
We have a number of strategies in place which are enabling us to respond to the challenge, including keeping our developments within reach of our head office. Our senior team’s proximity to all our sites means our managers can maintain a very hands-on approach and keep in regular contact with our teams on the ground.
Are there projects and people that have been especially helpful in your career progress?
People who know me and how much I love this industry won’t be surprised to learn I actually built my own home in Somerset, which has been incredibly useful to revisit all the stages and skills it takes to build a home.
Over the years I’ve worked with a lot of people across the whole range of construction disciplines, and I’ve learnt that – as in every other job – it’s the people around you that really make the difference. None of us should ever forget that whether we’re on the board or a new apprentice, we are all as important as each other but in the role that we do, our aims should all be the same, and that is to build a quality product and ensure we put our customers first in all that we do.
One of the biggest projects I have overseen as MD at Cavanna Homes is our flagship development in Plymouth, 504k. This has been our biggest development to date and has taken six years to complete with only a final few homes left to sell.
This was a huge project for us with the vast amount of new homes to build and with the different styles to suit all potential buyers tastes and requirements. Although we faced a number of challenges along the way, we are incredibly proud of the hard work and the fantastic end result of our 504k development.
Are there roles that you see in the industry that you really admire?
I have great respect for everybody that works on site, particularly the site managers who oversee huge teams of workers and ensure work is completed to the highest standard, and on time, while maintaining a happy workforce.
Does Cavanna Homes offer a variety of career starts and progress for younger recruits?
We are passionate about raising the profile of homebuilding as a great career among young people.
For many years, our company director Martin Cavanna has been working closely with schools across Torbay and the wider area through a number of initiatives to help raise awareness about the opportunities in the industry, and this is something that we are keen to continue.
The construction industry has a diverse number of employment opportunities, including quantity surveying, accounting, marketing and customer services, as well as architecture, engineering and trades, which are all appealing to graduates and school leavers alike looking for both office and non-office work.
We’re major supporters of apprentices and have been for years. We help subcontractors by funding apprentices so they can pass on their knowledge, which in turn helps us to be confident that the skills we’ll need in the future for housebuilding will be available locally.
We’re increasing the number of apprentices that we support to join our current trainees in trade and office apprenticeships. Apprentices are the future of the industry and I believe we should be doing everything we can to encourage young people to consider job-based training as a sound start to their careers.
Has the company experienced the industry’s skills shortage in any particular disciplines?
Homebuilding is not an industry where you can ‘turn on a tap’ and rapidly increase production. The process from identifying suitable locations to gaining planning consent to handing over keys to new homeowners can take many years!
With the increasing demand for new homes, we need to ensure that our high standards and skillsets are maintained. To help keep our employees’ skills at a strong level, we have signed up to the 5% Club, committing ourselves to ensuring that at any given point in time we will have at least 5% of our team undergoing professional training.
We are keen to encourage all our employees to learn and develop new skills to help them to progress their careers, enabling us to have a strong and talented workforce.
How does the industry attract a greater number of talented people, regardless of gender and ethnicity?
Recruiting talented people in any industry is challenging, particularly with the increasing sophistication of technology which demands a new and broader skillset across all levels.
There are still too few women working in the construction industry but as more and more gender stereotypes are being broken down, we are hoping that the perception of the construction industry being a male-dominated sector will soon be eliminated.
At Cavanna Homes we’re keen to nurture the talent that grows within our company through regular training for our employees as well as encouraging our staff to explore different roles and responsibilities to grow themselves within the company.
We strongly believe that providing open career paths and opportunities within the construction industry will encourage and help to retain strong talent across all levels.
What’s your advice to anyone considering a career in housebuilding?
My advice to anyone starting their career in housebuilding is to work hard, explore different roles and don’t be afraid to put yourself forward to try new opportunities.
If an opportunity arises that you are interested in, don’t be shy! Always offer to help out where you can to develop new skills and find out more about the fantastic variety of career opportunities in housebuilding.