The executive partner at consultants RLF changed career direction after spending a six-month sabbatical in Brazil. He wishes he could have helped to build the Large Hadron Collider
What has been your biggest career challenge to date?
Dealing with the impact of the first coronavirus lockdown on the business. It was an incredibly challenging time, figuring out how to get the entire business operating remotely, responding to the closure of sites, then how to deal with them reopening, dealing with the short-term drop in turnover.
The situation required immediate action rather than the traditional consideration of options. What I learnt is that you can enable significant change to the benefit of your business in a short period if you are decisive and stop worrying about “perfect”, which can always follow.
If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
The continual drive to the lowest price, which seems to be growing a pace again. The adage that “you get what you pay for” always applies. There are no innovative processes that can enable a consultancy or contractor to achieve prices 25% below the market and maintain quality. For consultancy services, it equates to more inexperienced resource spending less time on a project; for contracting, it means reduced quality, less oversight and performance issues.
A client taking this approach will end up complaining over poor delivery, defective work, and lower quality… as I say, you get what you pay for.
Why did you choose construction as a career?
I came to it a little later than most, as I started off with a career in sales – which I have to say I didn’t enjoy. Following a windfall through work I was able to quit and take a six-month sabbatical in Brazil.
This gave me a chance to figure out what direction I wanted to take in life. I realised I wanted a job where there would be something meaningful and lasting to show for my efforts.
I always had a love for geography – the subject of my first degree – and in particular the built environment. Putting the two together I realised construction was where I should focus.
So, at the age of 25 I pressed the reset button and started a new career as a trainee QS. I haven’t looked back since, it was the best move I ever made.
What have you worked on that you’re most proud of?
Around 10 years ago I started working with Northbrook College in Worthing, whose campuses were in dire straits following the fallout from the LSC funding debacle. They were in a sorry state, with a sizable proportion of their teaching being carried out in what had been a temporary World War Two hospital. They had not been maintaining their buildings and had little in the way of capital for major investment, but they did have land.
Together with the architect, I helped them to create a five-year masterplan to redevelop their campuses. We then pulled together a team and turned it into reality. Through site disposals and grants we delivered a development programme worth £28m with the college committing only £4m of its own money.
The approach won us a RICS award, but what makes me most proud is that we were able to provide the environment to propel students forward. It went from being one of the worst-performing colleges in the region to the best, and fourth in the country for student success rates.
Most helpful advice you were given?
As a QS: treat your clients’ money as if it were your own. As a PM: the worst decision is no decision.
What is your favourite building in the world?
It must be The Louvre. A magnificent building that has existed for 800 years and has continually evolved architecturally to meet the ambitions of Parisian society. It is a true example of how heritage and modernity can combine to create something genuinely wonderful and unique.
What single piece of advice would you give to someone just starting out in your profession?
This is an industry where you will never stop learning, so never shy away from asking the questions that further your knowledge.
Who do you most admire in the construction industry?
I cannot single anyone out. The magic of this industry is that it is teams that achieve amazing buildings, not individuals.
What famous building do you wish you had worked on?
While civil engineering is not something I am normally drawn to, I think it would have been fascinating to be involved with CERN and the building of the Large Hadron Collider. Having a role to play in pushing forward the limits of human knowledge must be extremely rewarding.
What do you think your best quality is?
What trait do you most dislike in yourself?
I tend to talk too much!
And in other people?
Do you have a life philosophy?
Don’t sweat the small things.
Name three things that you like
The South Downs, the sea and Northern Soul
What is a secret skill we don’t know you have?
I make a mean Pad Thai.
What is your most prized possession?
My Kindle… I ran out of shelf space years ago.
Early bird or night owl?
What would your superpower be?
This is a regular discussion I have with my 10-year-old son! Right now, it would have to be flight.
Sean Clemons is an executive partner based in Brighton at consultants RLF, which works across cost, project and construction management, as well as health & safety and building surveying