The exclusive career Q&A with a senior figure in UK housebuilding is this week focused on Mike Woolliscroft, managing director for West London, Countryside Partnerships South, who takes us through the path that led to his current position and his thoughts on careers in our industry.
Mike, please tell us a little about yourself and Countryside.
In 2014, I had the opportunity to join Countryside to set up a West London region of its Partnerships Division and I jumped at the chance. I knew that the combination of the partnership projects, aspiration for growth and company culture provided me with an exciting opportunity.
Initially the West London team was about ten people delivering two projects in Acton and Slough but four years later, the team has grown to 100 and we have five large multi-phase projects and ten live sites. While we continue to deliver rewarding schemes, which are appealing to potential new staff, the culture of the business has been essential for this growth. We believe passionately that all staff should find their role interesting and understand the value of their individual contribution.
What’s been your career path?
My route into the housebuilding sector is an unorthodox one. I studied engineering at university and then began working on major public projects like the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and King’s Cross Underground Station. Being part of such large-scale projects was deeply satisfying and it really struck me just how crucial they were in influencing people’s lives. There was skill shortage in civil engineering then (in early 2000s) just like there is now in housebuilding, and my career accelerated as a result.
The big turning point for me though was joining the Berkeley Group in 2008 as project director to lead the delivery of a Crossrail station together with 585 homes at Royal Arsenal Riverside, Woolwich, and over the next six years I worked with teams delivering other complex projects. I thoroughly enjoyed this environment, working with similarly driven people and the continuous drive for high standards, and was promoted to MD in 2012.
I joined Countryside, my fourth employer, in 2014. I certainly think I’ve gained more experience and faster as a result of making the most of the roles I’ve had rather than hopping around jobs. It takes a long time, years, to fully understand how a business really operates and, more importantly, to learn from the leaders around you.
Are there any mentors that have been particularly inspiring?
I’m fortunate to have worked for many inspiring people across a range of incredible projects and have spent much of my career looking up to and emulating great leaders in the industry. As managing director for the West London region of Countryside Partnerships, I report to Graham Cherry, CEO. Graham is a natural leader; a great motivator, mentor and fantastic communicator – strengths that will have been passed down by the late Alan Cherry, founder of the business. Although I never had the chance to meet him, his vision and legacy continues to shape the work we do today. He was a pioneer in developing partnerships between local authorities and developers.
I’ve also worked with some incredible people in the teams that I’ve led, in partnership organisations and the consultants and contractors that we employ. In my role I get to work with a diverse range of experts – and the opportunity to learn is endless.
What is it about your current role that you most enjoy?
Being involved in the continuous improvement, and working with communities and partners.
In and around London, we are one of the leading developers in estate regeneration. We partner with local authorities and housing associations to bring forward residential-led projects that bring about significant positive change for the communities that we work with.
At one of my schemes, the 21-phase regeneration of the South Acton Estate in Ealing, we are working with the University of Reading and Social Life to measure the effectiveness of our community engagement and the social impact of our regeneration. We’re repeating large-scale surveys of between 500 and 600 households every couple of years. We are just about to publish the findings of the survey carried out at the end of last year and it is very pleasing to see how our methods are being appreciated.
The team effort that goes into working with communities to deliver very successful estate regeneration is incredible. I am fortunate to work with brilliant and dedicated people. Witnessing their individual and collective development is also hugely rewarding.
Have training, recruitment and HR changed a lot since your first experiences of them?
Churn of staff is a KPI for Countryside and we are proud of a very committed team.
I also think that traditional HR models are being redesigned and this is certainly the case in construction. At Countryside, the HR team has been transitioning recently, and my team now benefits from the support of a dedicated HR business partner, recruitment business partner and a training manager. The introduction of these roles is as a result of our continued growth as a business and our requirement to work more effectively and proactively in order to deliver our People Strategy.
There is also a greater focus on upskilling our teams and ensuring that our people have the skills they need to succeed, not only for business delivery but for their own personal development.
Are there roles in housebuilding that we’re in particularly need of at the moment?
There are shortages in every discipline and the skills gap is becoming particularly severe. It is our responsibility, as an industry, to work to improve the image of the construction industry and challenge outdated perceptions on the type of roles available in the sector. This diversity must be better communicated, from grass-root level, in schools and colleges if we are to attract a new generation of talented people to the workforce.
Countryside’s school engagement programme is helping and we regularly use our projects to provide opportunities for visits and work experience but I feel the industry needs to do more.
We also have an apprentice scheme which helps people from many different backgrounds and at different stages in life learn new skills to become a part of this exciting industry.
What’s your advice to those considering or applying for a job in UK housebuilding right now?
Good candidates can afford to be selective and they should be. For anybody looking for a job, I would recommend finding a role that interests you in a business with a progressive culture and interesting projects. Enthusiasm and willingness to throw yourself in to a busy and demanding industry goes a long way and you will undoubtedly get noticed and be rewarded for your work.