What links a keytar-playing BIM pioneer, a go-it-alone consultant and the driven director of a family firm? Construction Manager talks to three members of the CIOB. Photographs by George Archer.
Neil Thompson MCIOB, head of digital research, Balfour Beatty
Meet Neil Thompson MCIOB, UK head of digital research and innovation at Balfour Beatty and chair of the CIC BIM 2050 Group, who has packed a diverse career covering digital project management, BIM consultancy, environmental services and an education in mechanical engineering and rocket science into his 29 years.
Thompson aptly characterises himself as someone who doesn’t fit the mould, a trait he has played to his advantage to differentiate himself in his career. “My tendency to move between roles is partly the result of my ambition, and partly the result of being exposed to some very forward-thinking people and technology at such a young age.”
Thompson’s career in construction began at just 17, when he left college a year before his A-levels to take on a role as a Revit technician at a local architect, tapping into his basic knowledge of computer programming and website design. “I always had a natural interest in seeing how things work, and the built environment, so I decided to take the job,” says Thompson. “I had no idea at the time I was working with a completely cutting-edge piece of technology.”
The move proved critical to his career, as it brought the experiences of his next job, as a temporary works designer at Harsco, chronically reliant on 2D techniques, into sharp relief. “I thought: this is crazy – we should be using computers to speed up these processes to allow humans to spend more time on all the creative stuff. Every role I have taken on since has been about identifying ways construction can do things better whilst rubbing up against a culture that is frequently resistant to change,” he says.
Thompson went back into education in 2007 to complete his A-levels and study for a degree in mechanical engineering, with a focus on aviation and rocket science. But shortly afterwards he switched back to construction, studying building services engineering at London South Bank University, while working part time for Laing O’Rourke.
"Every role I have taken on since has been about identifying ways construction can do things better whilst rubbing up against a culture that is frequently resistant to change."
Neil Thompson, Balfour Beatty
That year, Thompson met his future wife, with whom he is now expecting his first child. They live in Southend-on-Sea, where he spends his spare time making music, both digitally and acoustically. He has played lead guitar, synth and “keytar” – a lightweight keyboard strapped around the neck and shoulders – in both indie rock and electro bands, including Aristocrats and The Vanity Clause, and has recorded two EPs and an album.
Thompson’s next career step was to set up his own BIM consultancy, precociously early in 2009. He believes True Building Information Modelling was one of the first businesses of its kind in the UK. “I was lucky to be ahead of the curve and picked up quite a bit of work as a result,” he says.
One client, BDP, invited him to join full-time as an environmental engineer. Later, when delivering a speech as part of the CIBSE Young Engineers Network in 2012, Thompson caught the attention of Balfour Beatty, which approached him to devise a strategy to integrate BIM through the business. “It was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse – something I didn’t think I’d ever get the opportunity to do,” he says.
In his current role, as head of digital research and innovation at Balfour, a key focus is project managing a £250,000 Innovate UK-funded scheme to deliver a new form of tendering app, in collaboration with technology startup 3D Repo and the Finishes and Interiors Sector (FIS). The software being developed will address the problems of digital information overload, caused when supply chain contractors are asked to price jobs based on vast amounts of project information rather than the specific package they are interested in.
“Information density has gone beyond the point of human management,” says Thompson. “We are looking at how we can use an e-commerce platform, in conjunction with a 3D model, to upload and categorise data and only send out relevant information to the relevant people. It should make things a lot easier for the Tier 1 contractor and for tendering firms.”
Thompson became a chartered member of the CIOB earlier this year and is working towards chartership at the Institution of Engineering and Technology. He says the CIOB’s interdisciplinary approach provides access to a far greater pool of expertise than any other institution, while MCIOB status itself demonstrates his ability to tie people and processes together.
“Engineers don’t always make very good managers, so the qualification helps me articulate that ability. As construction becomes more globalised, being MCIOB opens up new employment prospects abroad,” he adds.
In addition to a demanding workload, Thompson somehow finds time to study for a master’s in construction economics and management at UCL and chair the CIC BIM 2050 Group, an interdisciplinary group of young professionals working to support BIM adoption in the UK.
So, given his far-reaching experience with BIM, what is the biggest challenge facing the industry today? “It is frustrating that construction has created a separate role for BIM staff, the mystical BIM Superman,” he says. “Detaching BIM from the ordinary day jobs of people in construction is disruptive and creates a barrier to people wanting to join the sector. For example, an individual might question whether they want to become a construction manager when they could become a BIM guy. This should be about digitising what we do, not quitting our jobs to go and do some BIM,” he concludes.
Dayle Bayliss MCIOB, owner, Dayle Bayliss Associates
Dayle Bayliss, 34, runs a construction consultancy for our times. The construction management firm is run with minimal overheads from the spare room of Bayliss’s house in a Suffolk village, communicating with clients and colleagues via online apps such as Dropbox. But despite being a cloud-based micro business, it offers clients a full range of services, from design to project management to building surveying.
That’s because Bayliss has had the kind of fluid construction career that is becoming more typical for younger professionals. Her design skills come from two years of an abandoned architecture degree – she went to a girls’ school where “construction meant architecture” – a stint working for local authority building control, a degree in building surveying and RICS chartership. After moving to a construction practice, she added construction management to her skills, becoming a member of the CIOB.
But redundancy in 2011 brought a rethink. “I thought, I’ve got all the qualifications and now’s the time to go it alone,” she says. “The ambition to set up on my own wasn’t something I was conscious of earlier, but when you look back at my CV there’s quite a number of jobs, and the type of person I am meant I was probably always going to do it at some stage.”
The firm’s current projects include contract administration on a Grade II listed house and project management and design for a listed hotel in Norfolk. But the one she’s most proud of is a pro bono project called @TheRec in Stowmarket, where her firm has advised on converting two shipping containers into a community café and toilets (pictured). She is now embarking on the second phase, converting a redundant toilet block into a “cycle café”, run by local young people learning skills in entrepreneurship.
"One of the things about having my own business is it allows me to do the things I have a passion about, and if I want to get involved in other work I’m able to do that – or if we want to do a charitable project we can."
It’s an appropriate project for Bayliss, as she reports feeling under-prepared for setting up in business, finding limited support for startups in general and construction startups in particular. How do you use social media as a marketing tool? Or estimate a fee bid in a competitive tender against larger firms? “There was no guidance out there at all! In the past you had fee scales, but you just have to do an estimate of what you think your time will be and gut instinct, and between the two come up with a price.”
While Bayliss has certainly cracked that particular challenge – she credits a detailed time-management software package – it prompted her to become involved in Menta, the enterprise agency for Suffolk, sitting on the skills board and construction sector group and helping it run a portfolio of “incubator” business units.
“The whole skills and enterprise arena I find fascinating,” she says. “And one of the things about having my own business is it allows me to do the things I have a passion about, and if I want to get involved in other work I’m able to do that – or if we want to do a charitable project we can.”
Flexibility also suits Bayliss’s second-in-command, her sister Johanna, 28 (below), who joined while still completing a degree in construction management, and finds a less-structured working day lets her indulge her passion for riding.
What have her experiences been as a woman running a construction business? “You do get comments, but usually it’s more of a benefit – I have a USP that people remember,” she says. “On site, you tend to get judged on your ability to do the job. But comments can come from other professionals – on a project where I was reporting to stakeholders, a barrister made a comment about there being a female surveyor on the project, without realising I was in the room! He should have known it didn’t have anything to do with my capabilities.”
Bayliss is currently concentrating on an MBA, and then plans to review how the business can be taken forward. But she won’t be pursuing growth for the sake of it. “We want to keep doing the stuff we find interesting, working with good clients – and enjoying it. The moment we stop enjoying it, there’s a problem.”
Marcus and Tony Leverton became FCIOBs on the same day
Marcus Leverton FCIOB, director, Leverton UK
Leaving school with GCSEs in sports, pottery and maths, it’s fair to say that Marcus Leverton wouldn’t have predicted that he would one day become the youngest ever fellow of the CIOB at the age of 35 in 2012*. The achievement tasted doubly sweet when his father Tony – the two are both directors of Chesterfield-based contractor Leverton UK – also applied and became a fellow on the same day.
Having two FCIOBs in one family business is something Leverton is rightly proud of. “It shows we’ve hit the highest level of competence [in managerial, technical and leadership ability] and we have proved it. We push ourselves and always want to over-impress our clients.”
In fact, Leverton can take credit for encouraging his father on the path to chartership, by first converting his long track record in construction through running the family firm that has an annual turnover of £2m. “My father had 35 years of experience but hadn’t become chartered, as he wasn’t aware of it. He had to prove that he had the right depth of knowledge in his field, then he became an M,” he says.
But because Leverton is as focused on encouraging others to reach their potential as he is himself, it wasn’t long before being a member was not enough for either of them. “A lot of people get the M and just stop, as at that point you are technically qualified. I think that if you have an opportunity to get more qualified, then you should just do it,” he says.
"A lot of people get the M and just stop, as at that point you are technically qualified. I think that if you have an opportunity to get more qualified, then you should just do it."
Marcus Leverton, Leverton UK
That maxim is certainly one he takes seriously: he also squeezed in a master’s in project management in 2005, and in his continual drive for improvement, completing a PhD is next on the agenda.
Now, as committee member of the East Midlands region, he takes a serious interest in Novus, as he believes in spreading the word that chartered membership can differentiate you and your business. “I try to express to students the value of membership,” he says. ”I tell them there are a lot of people that can do what they do, so you need to get a professional qualification to give you a competitive advantage.”
Leverton UK specialises in high-end commercial refurbishment for banks and building societies. Leverton joined straight from school and has since worked closely with his father, a relationship he sums up quickly, saying: “The positives massively outweigh the negatives.”
Although he always appreciated the hands-on aspect of onsite work for the firm, Leverton quickly realised that he saw his future in the processes and planning aspects of construction. “I was enjoying the practical side, but it wasn’t fulfilling me,” he says. “I liked the look of the office as I was more interested in the design side and how to make a project happen.”
So he returned to education at 20 to take a construction management degree at Sheffield Hallam University: “I was shocked at first at how tough it was. I really had to knuckle down to get the work done. But if you are interested in something and have a purpose, that means you are engaged.”
Drawing on his experience in school, where construction wasn’t put forward as a serious career option, Leverton takes a hands-on approach to promoting the industry to the younger generation. Each year, the firm takes on school students for work experience and he’s proud to report that one was recently accepted on to the architecture course at Sheffield Hallam.
Leverton’s project management skills have also been put into action in his fundraising efforts for the Sick Children’s Trust. Each year, with his wife, he organises a black tie ball to raise money for the charity, which provides a “home away from home” for parents of children hospitalised with serious conditions.
“When my son was 18 months old he was very ill, with a succession of viral infections followed by a bowel perforation. He was in intensive care for two weeks and we used their facilities,” he says. “I said then that if he pulled through I’d do something to help, so now I put all my spare time into raising funds.”
“I probably put in 400 hours a year, but I find it intensely rewarding,” he says.
It’s clearly something that he has been extremely successful at. This year’s event sold out in two days and raised £25,000, enough money to fund the 26-bed facility at his local hospital for a month.
*Since publication it has come to light that Leverton was not the youngest ever FCIOB as Paul Vega was elected to be a fellow at the age of 34 in 2008. Let Construction Manager know if you know of an even younger member becoming an FCIOB.