This week, we speak exclusively to Nigel Tenwick, recently recruited by Clarion Housing Group as its commercial and technical director, who tells us about how he’s achieved a successful career in housebuilding.
Hi Nigel, please tell us a little about yourself and your role at Clarion.
I have been in the industry over 30 years covering various contracting and development roles. I am now at Clarion Housing Group as director of commercial and technical. A member of the Group’s development leadership team, my role involves running the development department with my fellow development directors.
My team is an internal service provider to the development department and also provides support across the Group. We cover the following areas: commercial monitoring (including risk management); contracts, procurement and frameworks/supply chains; cost planning; technical due diligence/compliance; business improvement – employers requirements/specifications, development briefs, procedures and change, plus training.
So far my role has focused on building a new team to match Clarion Housing Group’s ambitions, and I am pleased to have been able to recruit some very talented people.
Can you tell us about your career path, from education to training, work experience and previous roles?
My work experience has varied with my first 15 years in the surveying and commercial field, and then in the technical field. My new role at Clarion brings these two areas together.
Prior to joining Clarion I worked on a wide range of projects including commercial, education, recreation and health projects, although the majority of my career has been within the residential sector. This has included complicated inner city developments with good sustainability credentials such as PassivHaus schemes.
I started as a trainee quantity surveyor (QS) for a local authority, in the days when they had large architectural departments. I then went into trade contracting as a site-based QS, specifically for one of London’s largest (at the time) masonry and carpentry trade contractors. I progressed to be a main contractor QS, moving from assistant level up to managing surveyor. Then something strange happened and for the life of me I still do not know why I agreed to it. I was asked to re-join the company where I had been a QS as a design co-ordinator and decided to accept the job. The decision paid off as there I progressed to become one of the company directors. I then became a regional board member for a predominately development-focused company and was responsible for managing the technical department.
My professional construction education has all been achieved via the ‘day release’ route. I started on the RICS quantity surveying path as a private quantity surveyor (PQS). My next role as a trade contractor quantity surveyor meant a change to the CIOB path. Over the years I have benefitted from lots of training and believe that you are always training and learning new things.
Are there any past projects and/or mentors that have been particularly inspiring?
Having been involved with numerous projects during my career it is difficult to pin down an individual project. All of them have been an education, and I have learned from all of them. I was fortunate in my early career to work on projects such as The Docklands, Hayes Wharf, Broadgate and The New British Library – known nowadays as The British Library. These were different times within the industry and I hold fond memories of them. More recently I was heavily involved in and am proud of my work on the regeneration of a number of estates in Greenwich, South London (these are still under development) – it was a project I put a lot into along with all the other members of the team.
In regard to mentors and learning experiences, I have great respect for numerous people I have worked with over the years and have probably taken/adapted ‘ways’ from many of them. In particular I had a fantastic mentor as a QS. Although he was possibly a little ‘old school’ he had a very strong commercial side and gave me the confidence to do the role and also taught me to keep things simple.
What is it about your current role that you most enjoy?
As I have only been in my role at Clarion for a short time I am probably only just getting to grips with the answer. However I can say what attracted me to the role. I was attracted by Clarion’s development aspirations of delivering 50,000 homes over ten years, across a mix of tenure and importantly affordable homes. An even greater attraction was Clarion’s clear intent to do this in a controlled and sustainable manner, to evolve in order to meet its aspirations as well as adapt to present and future market challenges. I believe my role in providing in-house commercial expertise is pivotal to this. For example, over many years I have watched design and build type contracts not always give the best results. So the opportunity to mould the procurement process by ‘de-risking’ projects particularly appealed to me. Providing good design and quality information through collaborative working, while considering different constructions methods, will enable Clarion to deliver excellent results.
I’m also more of a pragmatist than an idealist and appreciate that this approach has been considered before. However, there is a growing realisation within the sector that things are not working with the current skills shortages, build quality making headlines, increasing costs and tightening margins. This had led to a strong desire to put them right from Clarion and others in the sector.
With national new homes targets increasing but concern over the skills shortage, where do you see the industry and its career prospects going over the next few years?
We all need targets to provide a point to travel towards and inspire us – if you are going to go somewhere you need to know the end point so you can correctly prepare, gear up and go in the right direction. Clarion is clear that our target is 50,000 new homes over ten years and that two-thirds should be affordable.
It’s important though that targets should be practically set though and take into account the correct relevant industry drivers and constraints. Building just for numbers can provide uneconomical scenarios, poor-quality products and locations unsuitable for the requirements of the very people or purpose they are meant for – we need to ensure what we build is future-proofed. Previous mass building frenzies have shown we must learn from past mistakes.
I think career prospects within the industry are good for people who are interested and have the correct attitude and traits. After all, we are normally at work for more hours than we are at home so you want to do something you enjoy and that keeps you interested. Unfortunately though, as an industry, we have not done enough in the past to attract people into construction. Education is only part of the required competency, with experience being the major component, and this does not happen overnight.
What for the future? There is a much publicised drive for Modern Methods of Construction – being interpreted generally as off-site type modular products, although it is actually much more wide ranging than that. This is a current policy focus and is seen by some as something of a panacea. Clearly it is the answer to some issues that slow the development process down – but not all of them. That said, the modular market seems to be more stable now and in better shape than in previous incarnations, although it is still not mature enough to meet demand.
The industry keeps asking for better town planning from local authorities. This is understandable as a land deal that requires planning may take at least 18-24 months from consent to start on site. This is something that continues to be revisited by policy makers. I would suggest that one improvement would be for local authorities to have consistent, well-resourced planning departments that can keep up with workload and that possess a better understanding of the various commercial drivers for development.
Are there particular qualifications and/or personal qualities that you look for when building a team around you?
Technical knowledge and ability is a given, although that will depend upon the level. I do not see anything wrong in not knowing everything – we have specialists for a reason. Asking for advice is a good thing and all part of the continual learning process. I am also a great believer in ‘growing your own’ and know this is important to Clarion too. I am always delighted when we can bring people up through the ranks. I am also a firm advocate of the ‘day release’ or on job training routes over pure university courses.
I suppose what I really look for is attitude – I look for problem solvers who understand an issue thoroughly – how, why and what; consider things in a holistic way, for example, if we do this it may affect this but we can resolve both like this; and those who have the drive to deliver with professionalism. Teamwork, cutting to the chase and decisiveness are also all important positive skills
Are there fundamental differences between your role in a housing association and that in a private housebuilder?
Our end goal is to be a competitor on the same basis as the private sector, the difference being that any surplus we make will be reinvested in our social purpose. At the moment we are a growing development business with ambitious aspirations and as with any growing business there will inevitably be the challenge of change combined with the need to be fighting fit to deliver, achieve and importantly sustain our aspirations. I am confident that we can deliver – the current housing crisis is simply too important for us not too.
What’s your advice to those considering or applying for a job in UK housebuilding right now?
I think in some of the questions above I have answered certain aspects of this question: I think onsite training day release is a preferred route; skill shortages mean there are good prospects and if you have an interest in the industry, you should enjoy what you do. One other important point is that the industry is full of great people and there is lots of variety.
I would also say that I believe that everyone is different and that we all have different strengths, some academic, some practical hands-on and some evenly matched. Pick a part of the industry where you consider your strengths lie and that really appeals. For example, going into a trade can be really rewarding. Yes, you may be on site early and sometimes you will be cold and wet but just think of the pride of doing something to a fantastic quality and being able to step back and say “I did that”. A sound grounding in a trade can also open up opportunities for moving in different directions later on.